Surveillance Culture and (Not So) Digital Harrassment

Cyberspace is a place of visibility where producers lose control of their content at an viral rate. It is the stage of mass exhibitionism and mass voyeurism, a surveillance culture like those explored in We Live in Public, and that openness has given birth to cyberstalking.

Image by Paintedrose13

How easily can internet users separate their digital presences from “real life?” The web seems like the perfect place to escape from the oppression of a person’s physicality. It is a place where anyone can adopt any identity, regardless of their offline appearance—except that the digital and physical worlds often play off each other. We use email and Facebook to augment our IRL relationships, and friendships (and romances) formed online frequently lead to physical meetings. Even when we separate our online personas from our offline identities, we often talk about our lives: annoying coworkers or customers, family difficulties, funny stories about friends. Maybe we discuss romances and school, or mention the current weather or a local store offhand.

Our anonymous accounts begin to describe us. References to being female on Reddit are oft-met with comments announcing whether or not the woman has posted nude pictures on the site, and pictures of “attractive” (slim, White, clear-skinned, apparently close to the age of consent but on which side is dubious) women are met with sexually harassing private message and photographs of penises (“unattractive” women are harassed publicly and violently). Implicating oneself as female in FPSs inspires enemies and teammates alike to abandon strategy in favor of (team)killing the trespassing woman.

The digital realm, allegedly an escape from the inequality and danger that women face offline, is transformed into a minefield, where a single misstep can permanently destroy a persona. A single instance of revealed (or mistaken) identity results in days-weeks-months of harassment, depending on the victim’s continued use of a given persona and the location in cyberspace that the victim identified as: a woman/person of Color/ transgendered person/non-heteronormative/having a mental disorder or physical disability/a combination of any of these.

The harassment does not always end with the deletion of a given online persona. Woe betide the person who utilizes the same username for different webspaces. And if a harasser locates a victim’s Facebook, workplace, real name, telephone number, or address, the rest is relatively easy to discover. If the victim is unfortunate enough, isolated harassment becomes full-blown stalking, complete with cyberbullying across multiple websites, defacement and take-downs of their personal sites, and threatening phonecalls. Reddit is fond of financial attack by “pizza bomb.”

The digital is inextricably connected to the physical, because it is produced by people who exist offline. The internet enables instantaneous global communication, and can thus provide a safe space for people living in homogeneous environments, but also provides a record of its users’ activities and opens users to the threats of harassment and stalking. Prosumers do place not only their content, but also themselves, before the eyes of the online world—and all its offline users.

Compulsory Heterosexuality: the War on Lesbians

Trigger Warning: Rape

Photo by Pierre Nel

“Compulsory heterosexuality:” the idea, proposed by Adrienne Rich in 1980, that society requires women to hold heterosexual lives, and that is primarily enforced through violence against women. Contemporary society is less discriminatory toward LGBT+ persons than 1980s America, but queer women are still marginalized, alternately brushed off and attacked.

Lesbianism is culturally treated as if it does not exist. Porn featuring lesbians, but targeted toward men, fetishizes the sexual unavailability of gay women. Search “lesbians” on Google and the second and fourth results are porn. Lesbianism and bi- pan- and polysexuality are often brushed off as “just a phase” or “experimenting.” Asexuality is treated as a disease or grab for attention. This heteronormative culture is demeaning and hurtful, but not dangerous, right?

Photo by Greg L.

Wrong. Some current cultures–including American subcultures–force or coerce adolescents and adults into heterosexual arranged marriages. A few days ago, a Hong Kong billionaire put out a $65m award for the first man to marry his daughter—in response to her marriage to another woman. Then there’s the violence of “corrective rape.”

“Corrective” rape is the rape of lesbians by men, with the alleged intention of “curing” them of their lesbianism and thus making them sexually available to men. It is a result of a culture that denies the legitimacy of lesbianism and refuses to protect queer women from hate crimes. South Africa, where gay women are afraid to walk the streets and are harassed by police, has recently come under international scrutiny for its institutionalized violence against gay women. And South Africa is not the only country with “corrective” rape. Gay women are raped in Kenya and India. They are raped in the United States.

American lesbians live in a society that refuses to protect them. When they are raped, their attackers are unlikely to be arrested, let alone convicted. This past February, a bill to finally extend protection against domestic violence to same-sex relationships passed the Senate Judiciary Committee—after being voted against by every Republican.

And how does the internet impact compulsory heterosexuality? As seems to be the usual, the web empowers both the oppressing institution and the factions that combat it. Porn fetishizes lesbians, propagating the idea that gay women exist to satisfy male sexuality and denying the legitimacy of lesbian relationships. Blogs, forums, and other web 2.0 sites provide spaces for the safe discussion of sexual orientation, and give rise to empowerment movements like Hollaback and Project Unbreakable. The internet spreads media that eroticizes violence against women, but also helps people unite to fight against it.

Contemporary society recognizes the existence of non-heterosexual women more than the society of 1980s America, but feminists have a lot of work left before gay women are safe.