Online Harassment with Real-World Consequences: What Humanists Can Do to Combat Sexism on the Internet

On Wednesday, April 16, 2015, I attended a congressional briefing on cyberstalking and online threats hosted by the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. Aiming to educate legislators and their staff about the very real consequences of cyberstalking and online harassment, the briefing featured Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center; Zoe Quinn, a videogame developer and co-founder of Crash Override, a web resource for victims of cyberstalking; John Wilkinson, an attorney with Æquitas, which provides information for prosecutors of violence against women; and Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland.

The briefing stressed that while online harassment and cyberstalking are often dismissed as “not real problems” since they take place on websites and social media instead of in person, the consequences of these problems are in fact very real, and they disproportionately affect women’s economic opportunities and mental health, as women are twenty-seven times more likely than men to experience online harassment, sexual threats, and stalking. One in four female Internet users will experience sexual harassment online and nearly as many will also receive online threats to their physical safety, often accompanied by “doxing”—the practice of posting someone’s personal address with the suggestion that this information be used to harm the person. Eighty percent of all careers now require job applicants to have an online presence, such as an active Twitter account or blog, so simply retreating from online spaces is not an option for most women.

Given Zoe Quinn’s background, the briefing touched on the infamous GamerGate scandal, which revealed the unfortunate misogyny directed at women in the videogame industry. That there are people online who wish to silence women with threats and intimidation was proved by the briefing itself when its Twitter hashtag, #StopWebH8, was co-opted by people defending GamerGate, and what could have been an intelligent discussion about online harassment quickly devolved into name-calling and straw man fallacies on both sides. But the gaming community is not the only online space where women are harassed. Unfortunately, certain sections of the online atheist community are not immune to our general culture’s continued devaluation of women. For instance, there are some atheists on Twitter who are using #GamerGate as a way to resurrect the Elevatorgate kerfuffle, dismissing the women involved in both as getting upset over nothing so that they can play the victim.

Overall, however, the secular movement has taken strides to create more inclusive, welcoming spaces for women. The Center for Inquiry now hosts Women in Secularism conferences, and the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Caucus provides a platform for humanists to discuss issues of gender and sexuality. But there’s still so much more we can do as a movement to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, is treated with respect and dignity. For example, I am deeply disturbed when online Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) appropriate the term “humanism” and misuse it as an argument against feminism, even though humanism and feminism actually complement, not contradict, each other. I would like to see more of my fellow humanists speak out against this co-opting of our lifestance and refuse to let misogyny hide behind a mask of humanism.

Unfortunately, there are some people who are willing to question extremist religions’ patriarchal oppression of women but who either can’t or won’t apply the same careful consideration to their own personal biases and views concerning women. However, being a freethinker involves applying skepticism and reason to many of society’s norms and underlying systems, not only to organized religion. This is why humanism, as an ethical philosophy, is so sorely needed in our society. Humanism encourages not only critical thinking but also empathy, and when a person brings empathy into their interactions with others—both in the virtual world and the physical world—then s/he is able to see all people as fully human and fully deserving of being treated with dignity, regardless of gender.

Ultimately, as the briefing’s speakers stated, the stalking and harassment of women online is really just a symptom of our wider culture’s persistent refusal to view women as equal to men and equally deserving of the right to express themselves, both online and off. Combating online harassment must involve confronting our sexist society as a whole and altering our views so that when a woman discusses her lived experiences of being bullied and silenced, she is believed and supported instead of merely dismissed. We can’t challenge sexism, however, without thinking critically about the social norms, both religious and secular, that continue to unjustly define women as objects and stereotypes instead of human beings.

Humanism, with its dedication to critical thinking combined with empathy, should be at the forefront of the feminist fight for women’s equality, and it often is. There are many humanists, both men and women, who are staunch defenders of the right of women to reproductive justice, the right of lesbian and bisexual women to marry their same-sex partners, and the right of transgender women to live as their identified gender without discrimination. In fighting for the rights of women, these activists are making the world, both online and off, a better place for people of all genders.