A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real

Content note: misogyny, harassment, threats of violence and rape and death, images of same

Here’s the thing. For hundreds of millions of people, the Internet is our workplace: we go there to collaborate, to do research, to promote our work. The Internet is the place where we meet our friends. It’s where we get our news. It’s where we organize charity activity, or political activity. For hundreds of millions of people, the Internet is a central hub of human activity.

Now. Think about what it would be like if every time you went to work, every time you went out with friends, every time you went out to get a newspaper, every time you went on a charity walkathon, every time you went to a neighborhood meeting to plan the new public park, you had people screaming at you how worthless you are, how ugly you are, how much they hate you, how much they want to torture and rape and kill you.

Think about showing up to work at 8:30 in the morning, and sitting down in this room.

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These are photos from an art installation, A Woman’s Room Online: An immersive experience of the daily harassment women face online, created by Amy Davis Roth (a.k.a. “Surly Amy”), creator of the Surly-Ramics jewelry that’s become iconic in the atheist and skeptical communities, blogger at Skepchick, managing editor at Mad Art Lab, and one of the main targets of online misogyny in the atheist/skeptical world. The installation is a room, a small office space — four walls and a ceiling and a floor, a desk and a computer, a phone and a wastebasket and a clock and a plant — covered in real-world, publicly posted messages of misogynist hatred, abuse, and threats, aimed at women on the Internet. (If you’re in the Los Angeles area or are going to be there soon, I strongly urge you to see this show in person: photographs don’t capture it, a description doesn’t capture it.)

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Think about showing up to work at 8:30 in the morning, and sitting in this room — papered everywhere with messages of hate, messages about your ugliness and worthlessness, messages telling you in graphic detail exactly how you should be violently raped and killed. Think about riding the bus or the train, going out to cafes and restaurants and bars and game nights, all the same, all papered with messages of contempt and violent hatred.

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Photographs don’t capture it; a description doesn’t capture it. Photos and descriptions don’t capture the extensive detail of the pieces of this hatred — and they don’t capture the trapped, suffocating sense of being surrounded by it.

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This is what life is like for women on the Internet. This is especially what life is like for outspoken feminist women on the Internet. This doesn’t happen to all women on the Internet — but it is depressingly common, and it is especially common for women who say anything at all about misogyny, about sexism, about how it might be nice to have a woman’s face on their country’s currency.

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It’s absurd to say that the Internet isn’t the real world. The Internet is where hundreds of millions of human beings work, play, organize, fundraise, share ideas, help each other, console each other. It is probably the single most important innovation in how the real human world operates in the last fifty years.

And it’s especially absurd for atheists to say this. Atheists are always going on about how we own the Internet, how the Internet is what’s going to bring down religion, how the Internet means nobody can be sheltered from the idea that God doesn’t exist, how it means nobody who’s let go of their god-belief has to think they’re alone. You don’t get to say that — and then say that the Internet isn’t real, or that what happens on the Internet isn’t important.

The Internet is important. The Internet is real. And for millions of women, the Internet is a toxic cesspool. Telling women that if we don’t want to be abused and threatened we should just not go on the Internet is telling us to not participate in the world.

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Speak out. Don’t minimize it; don’t rationalize it; don’t deny it; don’t make excuses for it; don’t blame the victims of it. If you see something, say something. When you see people say these things, say, “That’s not okay. Don’t do that.” When you see people minimizing and rationalizing and denying and excusing and victim-blaming these things, say, “That’s not okay. Don’t do that.” Tell hosts of online spaces who tolerate it to stop tolerating it. Tell women who speak out about it that you support them: say it to them directly, and say it publicly. When women out speak about it, help them spread the word.

And don’t tell women to shut up about it. Don’t tell us that living in a room papered with hatred isn’t important, or that it isn’t real. Don’t tell us that listening to people scream at us how worthless we are, how ugly we are, how much they hate us, how much they want to torture and rape and kill us, is the price of living in the world.

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A Woman’s Room Online: An immersive experience of the daily harassment women face online is on display at CFI-Los Angeles through October 13, 2014.

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A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real
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26 thoughts on “A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real

  1. 1

    reading, shaking my head, tut-tutting at the awfulness of it all, thinking how wonderfully effective this piece of art is in conveying how it must feel to be targeted…

    and then the last picture, like a punch in the gut…to bring it all home:

    …THERE IS MORE EVERY DAY…

    My respect for the women who put up with all this and still have the strength to carry on and speak up just keeps growing.

  2. 3

    I’ve been reading about this installation for a while now, starting with Phil Plait’s description a few weeks ago. You would think people would wake up to realize that misogyny is it’s own problem, not one that will end simply with the rejection of organized religion. Maybe we should make Sam Harris write an essay on the “estrogen vibe” while seated in this room?

  3. 4

    .Just photos of this room make me feel sick. My privilege is showing here. If I had to face this kind of abuse on a daily basis I hope I could become insensitive to it but the more likely result would be severe depression (to start with). How anyone can stand this is beyond me. The fact that people, somehow, can and make art like this is amazing. It’s beautiful and at the same time the most depressing piece of art I’ve ever seen.

  4. 6

    I’ve read enough over the last couple of years to have a deep sense of horror and revulsion at what monsters are circulating ‘out there.’ With the anonymity and ‘privacy’ the web provides, a substantial body of men reveal themselves as utter sociopaths and sadists. With some female abettors.

    Is the atheosphere worse? Or is it just the outrage that such creeps have been circulating among us that makes it seem worse. Putting Jane Austen on the 10 pound note, or blowing the whistle on hateful video game content, aren’t Atheist issues at all.

  5. 7

    It’s not worse in “organized” atheism than elsewhere.

    Sadly, however, it’s not better. And to those of us who think that the moral imperatives that come with an atheistic worldview (starting with treating all humans as co-equals), that’s a problem. We should be better.

    At the beginning of all of this, I wanted to ‘other’ the problem. “Just trolls”, I thought, or “Christians in atheist clothing stirring up trouble.” Or a “very small minority”. Sadly, it’s pervasive and the stink rises all the way to “the top”.

    The one little ray of hope I see is in how quickly opinions can change…witness the debate over marriage rights. 5 years ago, the thought of even asking the Supreme Court for an opinion on the subject would have been thought to be suicide. Now…it’s pretty inconceivable that whenever they rule that they’ll go in the wrong direction of history.

    Things can get better.

  6. 8

    Saw this work a couple of weeks ago, but had almost forgotten about it. How’s that for privilege? This is just so depressing, the monumental volume of it, and to think that it continues on, like a river of vomit going over a cliff. Can’t imagine being the target of it.

    Ever since I started reading about and awakening to privilege a couple years ago (which I’d never thought about, of course), and following A+ I feel almost hopeless, I see instances of crap everywhere all the time, mostly online. It feels as though we’re in the midst of a backlash, a pushback that just might “win.” But then those of you who have been the targets of this stuff have probably felt a backlash for much longer than I’ve perceived it.

    I probably just need to stop hanging out at a lot of places.

    Thank you, Greta, for posting this and trying to keep it in people’s minds.

  7. 9

    With the anonymity and ‘privacy’ the web provides, a substantial body of men reveal themselves as utter sociopaths and sadists

    while that’s true to some degree, don’t forget how many of these harassers have no problem doing it under their meatspace name, or having their meatspace name connected to their online identity.

  8. 10

    Is the atheosphere worse? Or is it just the outrage that such creeps have been circulating among us that makes it seem worse.

    it’s not the atheosphere specifically; at this moment in time, the geekosphere in general is throwing an epic shitfit over being criticized for being a toxic white dude club: comics, games, tech, atheoskepticism, SF/F, etc.

  9. 11

    Thanks for blogging about this Greta. I’ve been involved in the atheoskeptisphere for a few years and I’ve become aware of a lot of the misogyny and sexism in the community in that time. But with my privilege, I’ll never know what it’s like to experience this crap just trying to go about my day. I know you said seeing these images don’t do the room justice, but seeing them hits me in the gut more than just seeing screen caps or tweets here and there over the years (I don’t mean to minimize the tweets and screen caps. They’re horrific on their own. But seeing a roomful of them takes things to a new level of abhorrence). I cannot imagine what it’s like for women to deal with this over and over again. It’s a reminder that I need to do more to fight against this.

  10. 12

    I wish I could attend this installation in person, but I’m on the wrong coast.

    Greta, I’m planning to talk about this subject to a group in meatspace this weekend. May I use some of the photographs you’ve put up here?

  11. 13

    Thank you Greta for posting about this, and thank you Amy for such an amazing (and incredibly depressing) artwork. I really don’t know how you and all the others keep going in the face of such hatred, but I’m glad you do. All the people who have told me that it’s not a big deal, that feminists are overreacting, that you “just have to put up with this if you’re online” …. this is one more post I will send them in the (quite possibly vain) hope that some of them will be willing to consider the evidence.

  12. 17

    […] Greta Christina writes about the realities many women face online, and how “online” is not separate from “real life”. Online *is* real life.  Also included are images of  A Woman’s Room Online: An immersive experience of the daily harassment women face online, created by Amy Davis Roth.  Warning: the images are vile, degrading, disgusting, dehumanizing and you may find them triggering. I know I did, and I’m not a woman. […]

  13. 19

    Greta, I’m planning to talk about this subject to a group in meatspace this weekend. May I use some of the photographs you’ve put up here?

    Brian Murtagh @ #12: Yes. Please let me know if you need me to send you larger, higher-res images.

  14. 21

    […] « It’s absurd to say that the Internet isn’t the real world. The Internet is where hundreds of millions of human beings work, play, organize, fundraise, share ideas, help each other, console each other. It is probably the single most important innovation in how the real human world operates in the last…. » […]

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