To Be Female and Online

content warning: sexual harassment, violent language

As Donna Haraway has articulated, we are cyborgs. Embedded in a culture and society of cybernetic and human relations, we engage with each other via human and non-human mediums. The Internet helps us to build and maintain connections transnationally and in our own geographical communities. Our position in the cybernetic world creates moments of conflict that transcend the boundaries of the Internet, creating real-life implications for the seemingly-fictional interactions that we have online.

The primary example that comes to mind for me is the sexual harassment and violent threats received by various female public figures via social media. Between the intensely personal threats targeted at Anita Sarkeesian and the leaked nude photographs (and ensuing slut-shaming and victim-blaming) of Jennifer Lawrence, women who occupy space online as public figures are subjected to truly horrifying treatment by users who are able to hide behind their usernames.

Why is being female online an inherently dangerous act? Women in the public eye are often afforded no privacy, no assurance of safety, and frequently, no escape from shame and stigma online. In the real world, we can evaluate in the moment how threatening a street harasser may be. Online, we don’t know anything about the harassers: they have obscured their identities and their capabilities.

The Supreme Court has decided to take a case about threats made on Facebook, Elonis v. United States. This becomes a question of personal safety online for many, especially when the defendant in this case claims that making threatening Facebook posts about his wife was “therapeutic” for him.

University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron explained that among various manifestations of sexual harassment, the kind that happened online had the worst impact because “the absence of cues about attackers led participants to fear the worst.”

How can we reshape online space to prevent these moments of psychological manipulation and humiliation? Perhaps we can begin by questioning the norms that allow the female identity to be targeted and proliferated in compromising ways. Cyborg feminism should now encompass the safety of all persons in digital realms, not just a recognition of the gender dynamics of a cyborgian era.

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