Women, for as long as history can remember, have been almost completely banished from the public sphere. As long as this sphere was more exclusive and limited to people with specific social status, or working in specific fields, the total exclusion of any participation of women in it depended simply on the fact that they were already excluded from having such social status or working in such fields. As the Internet opened the public sphere for everyone who can access it, including men whose social status or work fields didn’t allow them access to it, it also allowed women maybe for the first time to access the public sphere.
Cyberspace has opened a new arena for the struggle over the right to full equality between women and men. This arena, on the one side, is more expansive as it is available for anyone who can access the Internet. It is also more penetrative into societal classes and groups, as it is not limited to people with specific statuses or professions. It is open to everybody of any class or group (with acknowledging the fact that affordability still excludes the poorest). On the other side, this arena, for the same reasons (expansion and penetration), has heightened the intensity and ferocity of this struggle.
In this paper, we will discuss the question: Why has Cyberspace failed to be different from the wider societal space? Namely, why isn’t it less sexist and misogynist? The paper tries to explain, based on many sources, that Cybersexism is not a mere direct reflection of societal sexism. Nor is it a remnant of a conservative era on its way to disappearing. Before anything, sexism is a social structure that has a crucial role in preserving the societal hierarchy. Its tools like the misogynist discourse are necessary weapons for defending the status quo. First, Cyberspace allows the amplification of this sexism. It makes available more effective tools for expressing hatred toward women collectively. Secondly, and more importantly, societal sexism is embedded in Cyberspace infrastructures, as they reflect the sexist culture of its pioneers who set the Internet protocols, and its applications code; the structure of Capitalist business that dictates the policies of the companies controlling the larges swath of Cyberspace; and in social media sites algorithms and other applications that shape the daily experience of Cyberspace netizens.
The direct reflection of societal sexism in Cyberspace
As it is the case in any public sphere (the street, work places, public institutions, organizations of all sorts), men are still have the numbers, the most participating, and in sum they have the louder voices in Cyberspace. Inherited traditions, the modesty forced upon women, and fear of continuous threats of scandal and sham and their consequences, prevent women from being present in more numbers, participating more, and having louder voices. This is one of many forms of direct reflections in Cyberspace of sexist culture prevalent in society.
People don’s simply acquire new personalities when they enter the Cyberspace. They come to it bearing the same ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that they embrace and practice daily in the real world. In a sexist society, which is the case with all current societies around the world with different degrees, sexism is prevalent in people’s beliefs and behaviors, with all that comes with it of practices that imply demeaning women and working on silencing them with different degrees of violence.
A study conducted by the Guardian newspaper provides a window into the extent of women hate speech expansion online and the ways it is used. The study was conducted in 2016 and depended on the data available to the newspaper website of readers’ comments on the material published by it. The study used the data of comments in the period of ten years from 2006 to 2016. The number of these comments amounted to 70 million comments. Of the huge number the website moderators blocked 2% of the comments, that is 1.4 million comments for violating the website’s rules.
The editors of the Guardian’s report about the study say that much of the incoming readers’ comments ranges from the crude, the racist, and the simple “vile”. They assert that this is the case with all news sites.The escalation of this phenomenon has caused some sites to close their comments sections entirely. The abusive comments which the writers, journalists and other readers receive, as per the report editors “can’t be said face to face.” This is one of the characteristics of online communications, that is the absence of physical confrontation which allow the feeling of getting away with behaviors the same people won’t dare enact in the real world.
As for the study results, among the regular Guardian writers, the ten who receive the most amount of abusive comments compared to their colleagues were eight women and two black men. Although the majority of op-eds writers of the Guardian are white men. However, it didn’t stop there. Two of the eight women and one of the two men were gay. One of the women was Muslim and another was Jewish. On the other side, all the ten writers who received the least number of abusive comments were white men.
That study, with no prior arrangement, has offered a shocking measure as for how it neatly it agrees with our worst imaginations about the size and distribution of biases and discrimination based on consideration of sex/gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion. Its results prove with no doubts that sexism and misogyny are in the forefront the forms of discrimination prevalent in Cyberspace. At the same time, the misogynistic practices focus especially on those with intersectional identities with more than one socially marginalized minority identity. Being gay or Muslim woman, or a Jewish woman, etc. makes one exposed to more abuse.
This distribution of abusive comments is significant. It statistically confirms what any observer interested in gender or racial equity can notice through readers’ comments on news sites, or on a wider and larger scale through social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, and recently Tik Tok and Clubhouse. Women in an obvious way, and with no doubt, are the main target, with a clear and large gap, of abusive comments on their posts or interventions, as well as the replies to their comments on others’ posts, which in many cases extend to their private inboxes.
As for common articulations the Guardian’s report offers interesting and representative examples. Among these examples of abusive comments that were reported by the Guardian, one on a report written by a female journalist covering a demonstration outside an abortion clinic. The comment of a reader was “You so ugly that if you were pregnant I would drive you myself to the abortion clinic.” In another example a British Muslim female writer wrote of her experiences of Islamophobia, so one reader decided to advice her to “marry an ISIS warrior, then see if you will like it.” A third example was of a black correspondent who was accused of being a “racist, white people hater,” only because reporting the news of a black American who was shot by the police.
This kind of comments which any observer of social media sites can recognize instantly, as they are always repeated continuously in different forms, has several significations. The misogynistic discourse tends to target their looks, their femininity, and how desirable they are for men. Statements like “you’re too fat,” “you’re too ugly,” “you’re as hairy as a monkey,” etc. are the most used in this context. They contain, first an implied insult exhibited by ignoring in all means the content of what the woman wrote whether it was an article, a post, or a comment. The idea here is that whatever a woman writes is by default worthy of no attention, not even by insult directly based on it. What draws the attention however is the woman’s body. What matters about this body is how acceptable it is for men, and how much attractive it may be for them. And this one of the forms of the misogynistic speech generally prevalent in society.
Among the types of abusive comments that were blocked by the Guardian moderators are those intending to demeaning their targets through a form of dismissive condescension. Of the examples of this type “calm down, dear!” Such a short and apparently simple comment conjures up a well-known set of characteristics the society kept assigning to women, which are first being infant-like, calling for the use of a simple, and direct language with some endearment. Secondly, being emotional and irrational, which calls for soothing them, while completely ignoring what they say as necessarily being irrational, illogical, and downright hysteric.
How Cybersexism Differs?
In her foreword for Gender Hate Online: Understanding the New Anti-Feminism, Sorya Shmaly, first recognizes the fact that women by being able to enter Cyberspace, have gained unprecedented opportunities for expressing themselves and engaging in the public sphere. (p. viii) But these very privileges made available by Cyberspace are themselves the direct cause of the amplification and growth of sexism and misogyny phenomena in this space. On a simplistic level, the entry of women into any public apace is, for men, in itself provocative of a feeling of being shouldered out of a space that’s traditionally their own. Excluding women from the public sphere has never been by accident, It therefore joins several other sexist phenomena in the psychological structure of manhood related to the borders of men identities. Males are up-brought on embedding the necessity of defending their group identity as men in the face of any intrusion, trespassing or invasion of these borders. This is in fact a crucial part of the manhood integrity, so important that threatening it in any way provokes a direct and immediate hostile reaction. Failing to enact such a direct reaction for any reason creates a feeling of oppression that develops into deep malice and hatred of specific models of women who seem to be far from being touched by men hostile reactions when they cross the borders they should observe.
An opportunity provided by Cyberspace is the disappearance of some of the constraints that obstructs the ability of men to enact a direct hostile reaction to what they consider as women venturing out of the boundaries of their social status, and thus a breach of the men identity’s borders. For instance the class and cultural gaps almost disappears in Cyberspace, which allows men to direct explicit hostile act toward women who they wouldn’t be able to touch int the real world because of the class and cultural gaps,
Another opportunity offered by Cyberspace is the feeling of safety, strength, and confidence offered by belonging to a group capable of offering help and support in struggle situations. This phenomenon may be called the packs support. Cyberspace allows the opportunity of belonging to tightly connected groups without the considerations of previous acquaintance, geographical closeness or even political borders. As an example Sorya Shmaly tells us in her above mentioned foreword that a female Pakistani writer may find herself the target of not only the attacks of conservative men groups in her country but also those of groups whose members live mainly in North America. It should however be mentioned that pack’s support is also available for women and especially feminists. This, of course, allows the escalation of the intensity of the struggle over women right in Cyberspace compared to real world.
A third advantage offered by Cyberspace is relative anonymity. Even if one uses their real name over social media sites, they keep being anonymous for those who have no prior acquaintance with them. Additionally however, there is always the possibility of using fake names and hiding behind them. In conclusion Cyberspace offers a feeling of immunity of the consequences of individuals’ actions, which is not available in the real world except in limited situations. This recalls to our minds the notice by the Guardian editors about the readers venturing in their comments into directing insults to others which they wouldn’t face to face in real world.
These factors helping a feeling of freedom of directing as much as feasible of abuse and threats with violence without consequences, along with increasing provocation due to the presence and visibility of women in Cyberspace, a public sphere, is among the causes that sexism and hate discourse against women in Cyberspace are amplified compared to how they are (or rather how they used to be) in other public spheres like the fields of journalism, media, and cultural production. As a matter of fact, it is noticed that the growth and development of the Internet to become the comprehensive medium for diverse expression forms, so that it became the main window of journalistic, media and artistic works as well, have led gradually to these field acquiring a larger free space for expressing sexism and extending a space for hate speech against women, which is obvious in many works mainly publicized through the Internet.
Techno-Capitalism and Cybersexism
Keeping women in their places in the social division of labor, i.e. to perform their roles in the social reproduction of Capitalism, is the real motive behind the perpetuation of societal prevalent sexism, as well as its development and integration into any social changes. In many case it is a necessary tool for enabling such changes.
In a chapter entitles “Online Misogyny as Witch Hunt: Primitive Accumulation in the Age of Techno-capitalism”, written by Eugenia Siapera, in Gender Hate Online: Understanding the New Anti-Feminism, mentioned before, the author tries to prove that “the political function of hate discourse against women is the continuous exclusion of women from access to and control of production means, and from full socio-economic participation in the new emerging formation,” which Siapera call the techno-Capitalism.
To understand this argument that Siapera tries to prove we need to go back to a more general historical understanding of Capitalism, which is that its existence depends by its nature of the necessity of excluding different social groups from owning production means so that the ownership of these means is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie and accumulating enough capital
Many researchers have argued that the process of primitive accumulation is not limited to the dawn of Capitalism but continues with it. In some opinions it’s necessary for Capitalism’s perpetuation. Women, in particular, represent the most important group, being the largest in size, which is continually excluded from the ownership of means of production. But the absence of women from many of the old Marxist analysis was due to the fact that most women are not turned into industrial laborers. They are kept in their husbands houses where they perform unwaged work necessary for the existence of the Capitalist mode of production, as housewives provide their husbands and other family males unpaid services necessary for reproducing the labor power. This role is what we call “social reproduction.
Keeping most women within their assigned role, even if they went out for work, that the task of social reproduction continues to be forced upon them, under any circumstances, is a major pillar of Capitalism as it is necessary for keeping wages at minimum. This objective interacts with prevailing social sexism, which in its turn is based on an old and everlasting principle of economy which considering women to be means of production in their own right, through their biological role in procreation, which in economic logic means producing more labor power.
The general society objective of keeping women within the limits of their social status which allows their exploitation as means of biological production and socio-economic reproduction, produces many of the Cyberspace phenomena. One of these is that if it’s impossible to completely exclude women from that space they should be kept in enclosed areas of it that agrees with the prevailing social imaginaries of women identify. Nobody brothers if women crowded fashion pages for clothes, perfumes, accessories and cosmetics, nor does anyone pays attention if a woman becomes influencer as long as all the content she creates is only related to what is considered traditional feminine interests like preserving youth, health and husbands, and the righteous up-bringing of kids, etc.
What’s always bothering and men can’t tolerate it, almost instinctually as it’s embedded in their identities, is women transgression of their borders by interfering in public issues. What’s even worse is when these issues are related to gender equality. Of course things are more complicated, thus on a different level closer to women threatening to own new means of production made available by techno-Capitalism. The value producing presence on social media that can be liquidated into an income is one of the most worrying and provoking phenomena making men feel their status and identify threatened. On another level women entry into the fields of technology and software is met with great hostility, and they face most of the bullying in these fields forums. Once again this is related to ownership of valuable means of production in the Capitalist economy in its new technological edition.
Misogyny and Hate Speech
Most researchers and human rights defenders tend to focus on cyberviolence against women while limiting it in being related to direct targeting of one woman at the time. Accordingly, looking into misogynistic sexist discourse as a whole as hate speech is absent from most research analyses and rights literature. This is reflected also in laws and judicial practices supposed to be oriented towards combating hate speech. While many cases in the West related to hate speech based on color, race, faith, etc find their ways to courts there isn’t examples of cases related to hate speech against women.
Besides there exists emotional and psychological damage cause by the prevalence of hate speech in Cyberspace, this speech like any other hate speeches necessarily contributes to excluding group targeted by it and to limiting its participation for, which represents an obstacle for social progress towards more opened and more democratic societies.
One of the causes of the inability of many to notice the fact that misogynistic speech is a hate speech is that most of this speech reproduce conservative cliches so familiar that many can’t notice they’re misogynistic in the first place. The prevalent discourse about motherhood and its sanctity seems extremely innocent. It is in truth a hate speech as it limits women to their biological and social roles prescribed for them against their will. For most women this speech calls upon a complex feeling if guilt, the insufficiency of what they offer their children and being always far away from the idea imaginary model of motherhood.
Other speeches obviously hostile against specific groups women still stay away from accusations of being hate speeches because they reproduce moral structures prevalent in society and represent taboos almost nobody dares to touch them. Discourses of chastity, modesty, and behavior endorsed and encouraged by society are breaching personal freedom wether as related to free practice and expression of sexuality, one’s appearance or behavior. These are all forms of hate speech whose harm is not only emotional, though quite important, but they also create implied threats for any women who steers away from the socially acceptable model that all women are expected to constrain themselves to it.
This paper has sought to discuss briefly the nature of cybersexim and misogynistic discourse online. Specifically, the paper aimed to first reprove the fact that Cyberspace is both sexist and misogynistic, not only as far as it reflects the expansion of these phenomena in society but, for several reasons, in amplified and more visible ways.
The paper has also sought to demonstrate that Cyberspace sexism and the prevalence of hostile and hateful discourse against women online are based on material socio-economic foundation which is the need of Capitalism in its new edition, techno-Capitalism, to perpetuate the already prevalent exclusion of women from ownership of means of production as on of the necessary pillars of its continuity.
Lastly, the paper has pointed out the failure of many efforts to combat hate speech to recognize that misogynistic discourse including what is subtly hidden in socially inherited cliches is actually hate speech that should be fought just like all other forms of hate speech on the bases of race, religion, color, etc.
At last, trying to diminish the misogynistic discourse in its most visible forms like direct verbal violence towards specific women will continue to be incapable of achieving their goals as long as the concerned parties (companies owning social media platforms, search engines, etc.) did not take steps informed with wider understanding of the phenomenon and its social roots. We should however be aware that this is a far shot, as the interests of these companies are tied to the Capitalist structure of Cyberspace as it currently is, thus the real hope might only lie in the emancipation of Cyberspace from capital domination and restoring its governance ti the hands of its citizens, i.e. all internet users.