Why The Internet Is More Dangerous For Women Than Men

Hugo Schwyzer compares the attacks made on him because of his controversial past and those recently made on Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger, and asserts that women have it worse online.

Lest there be any doubt that the Internet remains a much more hostile place for women than men, consider what’s been happening lately to Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian is a video blogger and founder of Feminist Frequency, a site that features incisive progressive commentary on pop culture. Since she began a campaign to expose sexist tropes in video games, she’s been the subject of unrelenting and vile harassment from angry boy gamers. Last week, the “trolls” (rarely has the word been more apropos) created an “interactive beat up Anita Sarkeesian” game. With each click, the viewer can add blood and bruises to Sarkeesian’s image. 

Like Anita, I’ve also been a lightning rod for recent controversy. Since Clarisse Thorn’s interview with me ran here at Role/Reboot in December, my past has emerged as a hugely divisive issue. (For those unfamiliar with the background, the closest thing to a fair summary of the controversy came in this Raphael Magarik article in the online edition of the Atlantic.) A campaign began on Facebook and Twitter to get sites for which I wrote to fire me and take down my writing; detractors wrote and called my college’s board of trustees asking that I be terminated.   

Anita and I have both been targets of what Helen Lewis in the New Statesman calls “image based harassment.” (For very similar examples, see here and here.) But as the new interactive game makes clear, there’s a colossal difference between the attacks on Anita and those on me. In the seven months since the controversy over my past erupted in the blogosphere, no one has created an “interactive beat up Hugo Schwyzer” game. I’ve received no credible threats of bodily harm. Though my looks have been frequently mocked, I haven’t been subjected to the relentless sexually degrading commentary that’s been thrown at Anita. No one has suggested I ought to be raped. Even my harshest critics—and some have been very harsh indeed—have drawn the line at doing anything to make me or my family feel physically unsafe.

Obviously, there are also key differences between how these two take-down campaigns began. Thoughtful voices can disagree as to whether my past actions (which, many years ago—while I was drinking and using drugs—included both sexual impropriety with adult students and an attempted murder-suicide with a former girlfriend) disqualify me from writing and speaking around issues of sexual justice and body image. To a far greater degree than Anita, I was the architect of my own adversity. My critics were responding, fairly or not, to truths I shared about my own past. Anita’s trolls are attacking her for &tt;i>the truths she’s exposed about them and the sexist video game world they inhabit. That’s a hugely important distinction.

At the same time, a take-down is a take-down. For different reasons, lots of people want Anita and me to stop doing the kind of public work we do. (I suspect that on the fringes of the men’s rights movement, some of our faultfinders overlap.) Regardless of the merits of the criticism, being on the receiving end is painful. To have one’s livelihood threatened is terrifying; to be mocked is hurtful. It doesn’t matter if one is male or female—the first time you realize that a great many people dislike you and wish you ill is always a shock. I don’t know if anyone ever gets entirely used to it.  

In one posting about Anita, a gamer critic claims that she “wants equality for women in games (but) won’t take a shot to the balls like a man.” This is the classic sexist trope that women can “dish it out” but “can’t take it.” The reality, however, is that the “shots” that women take are invariably worse than the ones men are expected to endure. Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t have testicles, but she does have a face—a face that is repeatedly bloodied and battered in the latest vicious viral attack on her work and her image. The irony is that those who literally have “balls” are the ones dishing it out without any comprehension of what it’s like to be the target of so much sexualized, violent rhetoric. No male blogger, no matter how controversial or disliked, has ever been on the receiving end of anything comparable.

The good news is that Sarkeesian’s KickStarter campaign to fund research into “Tropes v. Women” has been the unintentional beneficiary of these hateful assaults. Originally designed to raise $6,000, the assaults on Anita have brought in solidarity donations that total more than 26 times that amount. But that happy note doesn’t change the reality that Anita has had to endure a despicable barrage of violent personal attacks. Judging from the reaction of the trolls who launched the campaign against her, the KickStarter success has only inflamed their misogynist bile. 

Cyber-bullying and “take-down campaigns” are an ugly fact of life for those of us who lead public lives online. Some of those take-down campaigns may have more merit than others, but most quickly devolve to nasty ad hominem attacks. And a quick comparison of what’s been done to Anita and what was done to me reveals just how much worse—and, frankly, more genuinely dangerous—things remain for women online.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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