A new study released by the Pew Research Center supports what some of us have argued all along about online harassment: that it affects men as much as women and that the problem should not be framed as a gender issue—or defined so broadly as to chill legitimate criticism.
If anything, the study says, men tend to get more online abuse than women, including serious abuse such as physical threats (though women are, predictably, more likely to be sexually harassed). However, when people are asked about free speech vs. safety on the internet, women are more likely to come down on the side of the latter. Thus, it is very likely future efforts at speech regulation will continue to be cast as "feminist" initiatives.
Online harassment has become something of a cause célèbre in the last three years. It has been explored (and deplored) in numerous media reports; it has attracted the attention of politicians and even of the United Nations.
A basic premise of these discussions has been that women, especially outspoken women, are specifically and maliciously targeted for hate, abuse, and threats; many feminists have claimed internet misogyny is the civil rights issue of our time.
The Pew survey of over 4,000 American internet users over 18 conducted in January challenges those contentions. Forty four percent of the men and 37 percent of the women said that at some point, they had experienced at least one of the behaviors the study classified as harassment.
Most of this abuse involved offensive name-calling and being embarrassed on purpose. However, 12 percent of men and 8 percent of women said they'd been the target of a physical threat; 6 percent of men and 8 percent of women said they had been stalked; 8 percent of men and 7 percent of women they had experienced "sustained harassment"; and 4 percent of men and 8 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed.
Men and women under 30, who are the most likely to spend a lot of time online, are, unsurprisingly, the most likely to experience all kinds of online abuse, including its more severe forms.
It's true that women who been targets of online abuse were more than twice as likely as men to describe their last such experience as extremely or very upsetting (35 percent vs. 16 percent). But, interestingly, there was no gender gap in actual negative effects of online harassment, be it mental stress, problems with friends and family, romantic problems, reputational damage, or trouble at work. Twelve percent of both male and female victims—or about 5 percent of all respondents—said that online harassment had made them fear for their or their loved ones' safety. One percent, with no gender difference, had been victims of doxing—the unwanted disclosure of their personal data online, ranging from real names for those who post under pseudonyms to place of work or home address.
Few will be surprised to learn that women under 30 were substantially more likely than their male peers—53 percent vs. 37 percent—to report receiving unsolicited sexually explicit images. But in a more counterintuitive finding, men in that age group were more likely than women—14 percent vs. 10 percent—to say that explicit images of them had been shared online without their consent. (For those 30 and older, the figure was 5 percent for both sexes.)
This differs sharply from feminist scholars' claims that 90 percent of so-called "revenge porn" targets women, a figure based on a self-selected and mostly female sample. But it supports a 2013 study by McAfee Security in which men were more likely to report both being threatened with having intimate photos of them posted online and actually having such photos posted.
More women than men in the Pew Study, 11 percent vs. 5 percent, said they had experienced gender-based abuse online. But this gap may be partly due to differences in what men and women perceive as gender-based. A woman who is called fat and ugly on Twitter is likely to see the insult as sexist; a man who has a similar comment slung at him will likely see it simply as a personal insult.
And all the dramatic claims about the terrible hardship of being a woman on the internet with an opinion? Entirely wrong: men in the Pew survey were almost twice as likely as women (19 percent vs. 10 percent) to say they had been harassed online due to their political opinions. Part of the disparity is no doubt due to the fact that men are more likely to talk politics on the internet; in one recent study, 60 to 65 percent of Twitter users tweeting on political topics were men. But it certainly doesn't sound like men who talk politics have it any easier.
There is really no way to massage the Pew data to fit the women-as-victim narrative—but some tried. Gizmodo's Bryan Menegus simply misstated the findings, asserting that although men are targeted more overall, "women—especially young women—make up an outsized proportion of users who experience the most severe forms of harassment, like stalking and threats." Vox's Aja Romano wrote that "more severe harassment disproportionately affects younger internet users, women, and people of color."
But the dishonest reporting prize goes to Slate's Christina Cauterucci, who cherry-picked the few numbers showing worse harassment of women, ignored the ones showing equal or worse abuse of men, and finished by upbraiding males for not taking online harassment seriously. Headline: "Four in 10 People Get Harassed Online But Young Men Don't Think It's a Big Deal, Says New Survey."
As bad as it is, Cauterucci's article highlights the survey's real gender split on the issue of safety vs. freedom online. Asked whether offensive online content is taken too seriously or too often excused, women are evenly split; men come down, nearly 2:1, for "taken too seriously." Among women under 30, a small majority (54 percent) agree that offensives online content is taken too seriously; but three-quarters of young men agree.
The divide was even sharper on the question of whether it's more important for people to be able to "speak their minds freely" or "feel welcome and safe" online: 56 percent of men opted for more freedom, two-thirds of women for more safety. (Interestingly, despite millennials' reputation for wanting safe spaces, young adults of both sexes were more pro-free speech than their elders—but the gender gap was still large: speaking freely was a higher priority for nearly two-thirds of men under 30 and only four out of ten women.)
Before anyone rushes to declare women enemies of freedom, it should be noted that the sexes actually don't differ all that much in their view of what should be done about online harassment. Only slightly more women than men (35 percent vs. 29 percent) say that elected officials have a major role to play in combating it; while women are more likely than men to see a major role for law enforcement (54 vs. 43 percent), the age gap on this issue is far larger (58 percent of seniors vs. 37 percent of young adults).
Meanwhile, there is a broad consensus that social media platforms and other online services have a responsibility to stop harassing behavior by users: 82 percent of women and 75 percent of men agree. Clearly, both men and women believe that some curbs are necessary, but they tend to want the lines drawn in different places. It is also likely that women's views of the issue are influenced by the false perception that women are singled out for constant and vicious abuse on the internet.
The Pew report points out that online harassment is, to a large extent, a subjective concept. Even something as ostensibly straightforward as a physical threat can be a matter of interpretation: Is "I hope you get cancer" a threat? How about "Kill yourself"? The definition of sexual harassment is even blurrier: "Wow, you look hot" in response to a photo posted to Twitter or Facebook could be sexual harassment to an overzealous feminist but a perfectly acceptable compliment to someone else.
The Pew survey shows that a small number of people experience internet abuse severe enough to cause serious negative consequences, including problems at work (3 percent of all users and 7 percent of young adults), financial loss (2 percent), and trouble getting a job or housing (1 percent each). It's also troubling that more than one in ten internet users have feared for their safety due to online harassment, even if it's hard to tell how often those fears were based on a serious threat.
Is there a need for better law enforcement responses when online harassment escalates to the point of causing real harm or credible fear of harm? Probably. And, of course, service providers have every right to curb behavior that is not illegal but causes persistent aggravation to other users and even drives them away from online platforms.
Unfortunately, the social media's attempts to police harassment have been plagued by accusations of left-wing bias and political favoritism. And some feminists and other progressives have a disturbing tendency to equate criticism with abuse.
Just recently, culture and videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian, one of the most high-profile targets of online harassment, called YouTuber Carl Benjamin—a.k.a. "Sargon of Akkad"—"one of [her] biggest harassers." Yet Benjamin's videos critiquing her are well within the bounds of polemics; indeed, he has voiced support for the suspension of Twitter accounts that engage in harassment, though also suggesting that Sarkeesian is not particularly bothered by it. (Despite numerous accusations of harassment, the "Sargon of Akkad" account remains in good standing with YouTube; Patreon, the popular crowdfunding platform, also recently said that he was not in violation of its rules of conduct.)
There is no doubt that severe harassment can chill speech and debate on the internet. But accusations of harassment can also easily turn into a weapon for silencing and punishing legitimate speech that someone finds undesirable.
Efforts to find the right balance are not helped by peddling a false women-in-jeopardy narrative. It would be a good idea to remind everyone, including women, that annoying words on the internet can nearly always be safely ignored.
Ladies, woman up.