It’s Dawning on Men That Stopping Sexism on the Internet Is Their Job

Two statements by two conservative men dropped within forty-eight hours of each other this weekend, and in the space between them you might be able to detect a dawning awareness.

The first was the stinker by Fox News correspondent Brit Hume on Sunday, in which he claimed that part of Chris Christie’s newfound troubles owed to the fact that he was just an “old-fashioned tough guy” in an increasingly “feminized atmosphere.” The second came at the end of Friday’s column by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, castigating the abuse women suffer online for the simple crime of being female on the internet. “Forging this vision is a project for both sexes,” he concluded. “Living up to it, and cleansing the Internet of the worst misogyny, is ultimately a task for men.”

“Ultimately” is kicking the horse behind the cart; stopping what one writer called the “intensely personal missives of hyper-sexualized hate” should be men’s task in the first instance, not the last. Still: in the space between Hume’s statement and Douthat’s is at least an acknowledgement of the assaultive nature of the online world with which women are forced to engage, and a recognition, albeit only an incremental one, of men’s responsibility for creating and furthering it. From there, it’s surely only one step to realizing that it is, both ultimately and immediately, men’s task to fix this.

Douthat’s column was spurred by Amanda Hess’ much linked-to piece in Pacific Standard, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” detailing on personal, anecdotal and societal levels the violent and sexually aggressive abuse greeting women at every turn on the internet—aggression always in danger of leaping off the laptop and stomping down the door. Whereas some female bloggers she knew had foregone their writing rather than continue to be subjected to the abuse, Hess argued that as the internet becomes the portal for more and more primary activities, the option of opting out disintegrates. When everything from career to dating to family requires online interaction, the violence that festers in chat rooms and comment sections and online dating sites becomes an intractable punishment.

As if to demonstrate this precise trap, Reddit user OKCThrowaway22221 posted a story in which he, believing that women “had it easy” on online dating sites, posed as one on OK Cupid. As Jezebel put it, he didn’t last two hours. Within minutes of establishing the bare bones of a profile, OKCThrowaway22221 was fending off multiple advances that started as weird, rapidly turned creepy, and ended as threatening. What’s more, it wasn’t something he could simply turn off:

I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I thought it would be some fun thing, something where I would do it and worse case scenario say “lol I was a guy I trolle you lulz”etc. but within a 2 hour span it got me really down and I was feeling really uncomfortable with everything. I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth.

Needless to say, this is the real “feminized atmosphere,” which Brit Hume can only be so lucky as to caricature. Far from our world being one forcing “tough guys” to tiptoe, it is one in which many men readily turn women into the objective correlative of whatever anger or desire or resentment they feel, a process amplified when the interaction is intersected by anonymity-granting technology. You don’t have to be a big, brusque guy like Christie to effect this; you simply need to be a man with a WiFi connection.

Attempts to draw awareness to this abuse have always fallen to the women who suffer it. Salon editor Joan Walsh, for instance, made for a while a habit of retweeting every execrable comment she received, a form of shining light on the roaches. But as Hess’ piece points out, even the task of exposing misogyny is a cost of it; it’s exhausting, demoralizing, and time-consuming—taking up what Hess called “emotional bandwidth”—and if nothing else, it risks caging the writer within the narrow confines of a gender politics call-and-response, an obstacle with which her male counterpart never has to deal. (Note, also, that Hume only paused over his statement because Lauren Ashburn, sitting right next to him, called him out on it; but she was there to discuss politics, not “femininity.”)

Unfortunately, it seems the only thing that jumpstarts most men’s policing of either their or each others’ behavior is being accidentally dislocated into the role of the abused, a la the OKCupider. Likewise, Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf got a taste of the inexhaustible harassment when he subbed for Megan McArdle’s blog and received access to the blog’s responses, intended for her. The experience opened his eyes not only to his own ignorance but the cloud in which men float collectively on the internet.

But: “Seeing the ugliness in its fullness shouldn’t be a necessary prerequisite for folks who control public forums to stop passively accepting behavior towards women (or any person) that wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere in offline life,” he wrote. He’s right: it shouldn’t. The evidence is everywhere and growing, whether you take it from Hess’ piece and other firsthand accounts like it, or whether you choose to use men like OKCThrowaway22221 and Friederdorf as your experiential proxy. Ignorance of the vicious and violent misogyny rampant online was never excusable, but now it’s not even possible—and once it’s impossible, taking responsibility to end this abuse follows as an urgent mandate. It is not “ultimately” men’s job to stop this. It is men’s job stop this. Right now.

[Image via screengrab]

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