This past Thursday saw a bold, contrary assertion made in The Daily Beast. Cathy Young, libertarian and “equity feminist” polemicist, asserted that harassment of men is ignored under the headline “Men Are Harassed More Than Women Online”.
The basis for the headline, and the key point for Young’s argument, was that a two-week-old press release from a UK think tank claiming “Male celebrities receive more abuse on Twitter than women” had been ignored. Being in the U.S., I can’t say much about how Demos press releases are usually treated, but I will agree that Young’s article was the first I’d heard of the research. However, looking at the release, it was immediately evident why it had been ignored.
From reading the press release, I assumed that this was the sum total of the methodology:
Tweets judged as being ‘sent to’ public figures include those that contain the @username of the public figure in question.
Demos categorised tweets as offensive if they contained one or more of the abusive words included in Google’s search language filter: https://gist.github.com/jamiew/1112488
The press release had every mark of being one of those bits of fluff that’s used to drive attention to the output of a research group. It referenced celebrities. It reinforced the status quo. It had nothing to do with the report it was promoting. I might have ignored it too, if Young hadn’t tried to turn ignoring it for whatever reason into a failure to protect men. It looked like a hugely shoddy study from the release.
As it turns out, the study was done a disservice by the description sent out. I corresponded with the study’s author about my immediate concerns with the methodology as described. He confirmed that, while the words in the list were required for a tweet to be considered abusive, they were not sufficient. They were then processed by computer algorithms trained to (1) recognize abuse and (2) identify whether the target of the abuse was the public figure in question. I asked about the latter because Ricky Gervais was one of the celebrities mentioned by name in the release, and Gervais has been criticized for retweeting his critics, which exposed them to abuse from his fans.
As I did that, a couple of additional critiques were being made of the study. HJ Hornbeck dove into the truncated data set provided by the researchers, and kindly shared his findings with me. He noticed that Piers Morgan and Ricky Gervais were extreme outliers in the amount of abuse they received. Between them, they received 27% of the abuse directed at the 65 public figures studied.
Removing these two from the celebrities dataset reduced the percent of abuse received by male celebrities from 5.19% to 1.00%. Because female celebrities received 1.37% abuse, this also left politicians as the only category in which men received more abuse than women over the two-week period of the study. It also left politicians as the driver of the overall results that men receive more abuse on Twitter than women.
I should note that there are only five male politicians in the sample. The researchers’ decision to gender-balance the number of tweets rather than the number of Twitter users studied, while a reasonable decision, means that there are about twice as many women studied as men. That leaves the data on men extremely susceptible to having means shifted by outliers like Morgan and Gervais. We don’t have individual data on the male politicians to determine whether any of them are similar outliers.
This is critical, as I can tell you right now that surprisingly little of the harassment I get online has “dirty” words in it. I often get waves of it sent by right wing blogs, and so it’s a lot of people who are really conservative and tend to have an upside down moral philosophy where saying a curse word makes Jesus cry but one is duty bound to relentlessly abuse women to put them in their place. I mean, I get cursed at, but by and large, the ugliest stuff is from people who hate and may even threaten women, but wouldn’t say “shit” because of God/The Children/Let’s Keep It PG.
She has plenty of examples if you need them. The same is true for most of the harassment directed at me. That list of words contains exactly one way to call someone fat. It isn’t one of the many I’ve received. Does that make [goes to look; grabs sample] this not harassment? People don’t have to swear at me or talk about genitalia to try to tell me I’m worthless.
We even have reason to think that use of profanity may be less often directed at women because many men are trained that they shouldn’t use profanity around women, a form of “benevolent” sexism. Does that training hold up when these men are angry? I have no idea, but it’s one more reason to be cautious with these results rather than base an argument around them.
An even better argument is that the list of words used to screen out “non-abuse” has nothing to do with threats. This is something of a hopeful sign, given that the list is a subset of answers people gave to Google asking, “What do you love?” However, it’s a fatal flaw for a study about harassment.
The False Equivalence
It’s also a fatal flaw in Young’s implied argument that attention paid to Jezebel being targeted with rape gifs, Anita Sarkeesian receiving threats with her address in them, Amanda Hess’s article about the lack of resources available to women receiving threats, and Samantha Allen’s article about technology company priorities–that attention to all these requires attention to this study for the sake of parity. Swearing may imply hostility. It may make people feel unsafe, and sometimes with good reason. You still cannot point to swearing at men as any kind of reasonable argument that people who pay attention to threats against women are displaying a gender bias in their priorities.
Young is very broad in the behavior aimed at men that she thinks counts as harassment. She suggests that accusations of rape apology should be considered harassment–without any caveat about whether the accusation is accurate. Does she really mean to suggest that no one on the internet denies that rape, particularly rape under certain circumstances, occurs? The scientific literature on the topic says otherwise.
Then there’s her assertion that we should consider “attacking his ‘male privilege'” to be “abuse”. Given that privilege is granted at the institutional or societal level, actually “attacking” it online would refer to all the work done by feminists online to create more equal systems. She’s welcome to try to make the case that this is somehow abusive if she wants.
She won’t try, though, because that’s not what she means. She’s trying to tell us that telling men that they have male privilege is abusive. That’s nearly as absurd as the idea that “attacking” their privilege is abuse. It isn’t abusive to tell men that they, particularly if they’re privileged on other axis, are viewed as the default in our society. It isn’t abusive to tell them that they’re seen as natural leaders, that rule systems that favor them largely go unchallenged, or that their emotional expressions aren’t seen to impair their rationality. It isn’t abusive to tell them that their starting perspective is limited by the fact that society reflects their own experiences back at them far more often than those of women.
Comparing any of that to harassment is more than absurd. It’s intellectually dishonest. So is her inclusion of Michelle Goldberg’s “Toxic Twitter” article, which discusses drawbacks of what some consider overly broad heuristics for detecting bias and “an environment of perpetual psychodrama”. Even Goldberg, who was criticized for blowing a few incidents up into an entire culture, did not suggest that anyone was harassed.
I will assume it was sloppy legwork, not dishonesty, that led Young to minimize the number of requests received by Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), an organization set up to help people being stalked and harassed online. While Young claimed that WHOA received about 300 requests for assistance a year, WHOA is quite clear that the 300 average is merely the people who fill out their demographic survey.
The actual number of requests is 50-75 a week, and those are people desperate enough to be willing to follow any instruction from WHOA to halt the abuse. Not only are these among the worst cases, but they are cases with, at most, a few attackers, as targeting attackers one at a time will not solve a large-scale attack. These are also people who chose to take proactive action rather than hoping the problem would go away and people who contacted WHOA instead of the police. Those are the people of whom 75% are female.
These are also the people who frequently have the least recourse. That is the major message I take away from the examples Young lists of attention paid to harassment of women. The women behind Jezebel did not run the network, and the men who made the decisions for the network made decisions that enabled their harassment. Samantha Allen cataloged various ways that social media sites were (or were hypothesized to be) built to meet the needs of the overwhelmingly white, male groups that ran those sites. Amanda Hess did the same with the institutions that are supposed to protect those of us who come under threat. She demonstrated, at quite some length, that they failed to protect women when requested to do so.
Young has not done the same with the men she listed as having been threatened. I don’t think she could.
At the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism conference this may, Soraya Chemaly gave a presentation discussing how the free expression of women online is being threatened. Part of her presentation was on the ways women are uniquely targeted, but the part that brought the most clarity to this issue for me was the section of her talk where she discussed how our societal definitions of violence are gendered.
Violence, threatened violence, and implied violence that targets men is recognized, validated, and taken seriously. These threats are real threats. Violence, threatened violence, and implied violence that targets women is not recognized. Instead it is redefined to be something else. It is a reaction to a provocation. It is an interpersonal disagreement that has inconveniently demanded public notice. It is the cost of being online. It is anything other than what it is: violence, threatened violence, and implied violence.
When we demand that misogynist harassment be taken seriously, we are saying that the implied violence and threats of violence against women be recognized in the same way that implied violence and threats of violence against men are recognized. We demand that rules regarding harassment be written to detect both kinds of threats equally. We demand that the tools to deal with harassment work as well on the abuse that targets women* as on the abuse that targets men.
No abuse is pleasant to deal with. The vast majority of abuse is much safer to ignore if we know we have resources we can count on to deal with the worst of it. If women have access to effective tools to manage the abuse they receive, if the worst of the abusers lose the privilege of using social media tools that amplify their abuse, if women don’t have to fight to see threats against them viewed as real threats, if women aren’t told (while men are not) that the only way to deal with harassment is to get off the internet, if women can count on prompt responses from law enforcement when they face an acute threat, then we too can ignore most of the harassment we face and get on with our work. We’re not looking for chivalry, but for a functioning, equal civilization.
Whether willfully or not, Young fails utterly to hear this message. Instead, she grasps at a study that uses a poor definition of harassment to accuse feminists of ignoring the harassment of men. And she goes on retweeting people who continue to tweet at me and people who interact with me after I’ve blocked them (and after she knows they’ll lie about being abused), which is “targeted abuse” by Twitter’s definition.
When looked at in that light, it’s hard to think she actually wants us to take harassment of and threats against men seriously as much as she just wants us to stop talking about harassment of and threats against women.
* Also other marginalized populations while we’re at it, but that’s not Young’s focus.