Rob Bliss Creative / Hollaback!/ YouTube

Rape threats target woman in viral anti-harassment video

Violence-filled comments on Hollaback PSA part of pattern to intimidate or silence women, experts say

A viral video intended to raise awareness about the rampant catcalls and sexual harassment faced by women and sexual minorities in the public sphere resulted in harassment and threats across a different medium: the Internet.

Earlier this week, the anti-street harassment advocacy group Hollaback posted a public service video online in which a young woman, wearing a plain T-shirt and jeans, received more than 100 shouts, comments about her body, invitations for dates or admonishments to “smile” while she walked around New York City for a day.

In just 24 hours on YouTube, the video had received more than 8.5 million hits and prompted newspapers and websites to publish think pieces about the cultural implications of unwelcome attention paid to women walking down the street.

By Wednesday, the woman at the center of the experiment — actress Shoshanna Roberts — had received the first of many rape threats in the video's comments section, according to Hollaback’s Twitter account, which urged users to report them so they could be removed from the site.

"The rape threats indicate that we are hitting a nerve," Hollaback director Emily May told Long Island newspaper Newsday

The escalation of online responses from thoughtful to violent is part of a pattern that experts contend is an attempt to intimidate women into silence or inaction.

From the years of online death and sexual violence threats directed at media critic Anita Sarkeesian to threats of posting nude pictures of Emma Watson following a speech she made about feminism, to the women driven from their homes following online threats in connection with so-called Gamergate, the Hollaback threats are not isolated incidents, they say.

“Any time a woman has done something that we don’t like, it seems the default is to find some way to use her gender against her,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

“It’s really just contempt for women and this sense of rage against women for engaging in behavior that they don’t like," said Franks, an expert on cyberlaw, gender and revenge porn. "It’s literally about saying, ‘I’m going to terrorize you back into submission.’ ”

While men experience Internet bullying, too, a few studies suggest that the harassment directed at women is more severe.

For example, in its first-ever poll about Internet harassment released earlier this month, Pew Research Center found that, among 2,800 people surveyed, young women were most likely to experience abuse such as sexual harassment and stalking, while men were more likely to encounter name-calling, embarrassment and physical threats. In the poll, some 26 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 said they’d been stalked online, and 25 percent said they’d been sexually harassed.

Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), a volunteer advocacy organization, told Al Jazeera that when the group formed in 2000, “99 percent of people who came to us for help were women.”

But in recent years, more and more men have come forward, too. Among the 4,043 people who reported cases to WHOA from 2000 to 2013 (PDF), 70 percent were female, 25 percent were male and the other 5 percent were unknown.

“As the Internet has grown, we’ve seen [the number of] male victims has increased, though women are still the majority of those who are harassed,” Hitchcock said.

Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” says the threats against Roberts are “depressingly expected.”

She said that while society has become aware that sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable, those norms haven’t been internalized on the Internet where there isn’t accountability.

“We behave ourselves when we think we can get fired and caught,” Citron said. “The woman in the video, she was part of an experiment. It really does demonstrate that while we’ve made a ton of progress, we’ve only gone so far.”

Citron said her interest in online harassment was piqued when software developer Kathy Sierra, who hosted a popular blog on the topic, received such frightening threats of sexual violence and death that she finally shut down her blog in 2007.

“I think it’s this sense of, ‘I’m not going to let you step over me. I’m not going to let you take my spot,” Citron said, although she, like Hitchcock, points out that men are also victims of online harassment.

Harassment, or the threat of it, often pushes women to self-censor. They change the way they dress or the activities they engage in “because of the threat of rape or murder,” Franks said. “Especially for a society claiming they want people to be free, this is having exactly the opposite effect on women.”

Anti-violence advocates and bullying victims have drawn more attention to so-called revenge porn, online rape threats and cyberbullying, resulting in laws criminalizing cyberbullying and drafting of legislation against revenge porn.

If Internet bullying — particularly against women — seems to have reached fever pitch, "perhaps now it is becoming more obvious to us, and more in the public eye with more individuals bringing attention to it and coming forward,” Sameer Hinduja, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said in an email.

But whether it's due to the anonymity of the Internet or misogyny, "either way, it is unacceptable and intolerable, and we can’t ignore the severity of the behavior as that may be interpreted as passively condoning it," he said.

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