Online Harassment Insurance Is Useful, But It’s Another Tax On Women For Being Women

Harassment online is a thread in an already densely woven fabric of socially acceptable and institutionalized resistance to women’s participation in the public world.

This week, Chubb, a global insurance company, announced “trolling insurance,” for its U.K. customers. A person can now buy insurance protection against online harassment. Policyholders will be able to claim up to £50,000 to pay for, among other things, therapeutic counseling, time spent not being able to work, or having to move. This idea, sound on the surface, is in the end, another lady tax.

The company is insuring cyber bullying, and they think their target claimants will be children. They hope to tap into a market of worried parents. However, the insurance will also cover adults who are victims of online abuse. The market for women is far bigger than the market for bullied kids. One study estimates that 75% of online abuse is targeted at women. 

Chubb is defining cyber bulling as “three or more acts by the same person or group to harass, threaten, or intimidate a customer.”

An in-depth study of online harassment conducted by Pew Research earlier this year found that 40% of Internet users report experiencing some form of online “harassment,” defined in the study as name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, sexual harassment, physical threats, or sustained harassment. Women, however, are much more likely to experience the kind of harassment that meets the criteria for coverage: stalking, sexual harassment, and sustained harassment. Men are more frequently called “offensive names,” or “purposefully embarrassed,” in one-off incidents. “Young women,” researchers concluded, “experience particularly severe forms of online harassment.”

For women, harassment isn’t, as is often believed, simply a matter of name-calling, the type of online harassment most frequently experienced by men and perpetrated by strangers. The harassment of women is more likely to be sexualized, sustained, perpetrated by someone or people they know, and be tied to stalking or other forms of gender-based violence.

While a great deal of press coverage focuses on anonymous abuse of women writers or actresses, most women are not public figures, and they don’t have huge social platforms. They are going about their lives as biologists, teachers, debaters, business consultants, mothers, technologists, activists, students, and violinists and they are being harassed while they do it. It really doesn’t matter what a woman does or where she lives. She’s fair game for slurs, slut shaming, defamation, pornification, rape threats, blasphemy charges, and doxing. Women, globally, have to deal with socially, and often legally, allowable, electronically-enabled abuse every day.

Consider stalking alone. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men are stalked during their lifetimes. Victims who work, experience “twice as many stalking tactics and were stalked three times longer than unemployed victims.” Stalkers often make working difficult by targeting coworkers, vandalizing workplaces and other similar tactics designed to destabilize their targets. People who are stalked also experience property loss and incur expenses, which include things like security systems or more expensive travel.

While harassment almost always involves abusive language, such as demeaning slurs, it increasingly incorporates the nonconsensual sharing of photography, often stolen. This is different from unsolicited pornography, such as the dissemination of violent rape porn gifs or photographs manipulated to be sexualized. Sometimes, abusers extort victims in the “real” world, threatening to or sharing intimate images, pictures stolen from computers or, in too many cases, rape videos. Women are far more likely to be pornographically objectified, in all media.

Women also are far more likely to be targets of abuse that deliberately damages reputations, including organized destruction of business opportunities. Women’s book and business reviews, or ratings, for example, might be deliberately flooded with negative and derogatory comments and their businesses given poor reviews. Sexual surveillance, either perpetrated by an intimate partner or by strangers, is pervasive.

Doxingdeadnaming, and impersonation are routinely used to threaten targets with the potential of future harassment. Often, harassers will also target parents, spouses, and children. Harassers use identity theft, fraud, and impersonation, including encouraging others to act criminally, resulting in assaults.

In many parts of the world, online harassment is used to incite physical violence against women or is used by governments to silence them. In some countries, women who have publicly been called prostitutes, or accused of blasphemy have been killed, attacked with acid, and threatened with “televised gang rapes.” One of the biggest, immeasurable costs of this abuse is the suppression of girl’s and women’s free expression.

Online harassment is often tech-enabled, reactionary, gender-based backlash. Women bear the bulk of the financial, emotional, professional, psychological and physical costs. It affects our ability to work, go to school, exercise, earn a living, and freely express ourselves. Women silence themselves, opt out of doing certain work, avoid certain topics, are fearful, and restrict their level of public engagement, and worry about how their employers or schools might respond if they are targeted. In addition, women report higher rates of finding online harassment stressful. This is not because they “can’t stand the heat,” as was suggested by one journalist after a woman objected to having her rape-potential rated on a public forum, but because the abuse online exists simultaneously with three facts:

  1. Women have to be, and are, hyper-vigilant in daily life. This hyper-vigilance is characteristic of post traumatic stress, the kind that occurs when women are followed, stalked, harassed on the street, and assaulted. Harassers leverage this pre-existing reality. Some studies show that online harassment takes an even greater psychological toll than offline harassment does.
  2. The abuse we experience online is intersectional. A lesbian woman experiences homophobia and sexism. A black woman, racism and sexism. A Muslim or Jewish woman, religious hatred and sexism. For women with disabilities and transwomen, the effect is multiplied in several dimensions.
  3. We still face sexist, patriarchal constraints that compound the negative effects of online harassment. There are preexisting, offline limitations on our ability to work, go to school, earn money, be politically active, and shape culture that abusers count on to increase the efficacy of their harassment. Limitations that, for the most part, men do not face.

Harassment online is a thread in an already densely woven fabric of socially acceptable and institutionalized resistance to women’s participation in the public world.

A teenage girl in Pakistan might not only be harassed, but might find that her life is at risk, at the hands of her own family, if a conservative member of her community non-consensually shares a photograph of her on Facebook. A woman in Texas whose ex-husband vindictively posts sexts might be legally fired by her employer.

A girl in Canada might kill herself after she is extorted and shares photos, and her classmates slut-shame her to death.

A media critic might have to cancel speaking opportunities because of threats made on an open-carry campus.

A trafficked 10-year-old in a country where child marriage is acceptable might be terrorized when her trafficker tweets a picture of himself drowning her best friend in a toilet, just to prove he can.

A woman’s small business might collapse after an online mob actively decides to flood YouTube and Yelp reviews with defamatory comments.

And, for those tempted to go all “women over there,” it pays to remember that “revenge porn” (a name that strongly suggests that a woman who stops consenting to sex deserves having her intimate photographs commoditized as nonconsensual pornography) is still not illegal in half of the United States.

The Pew Research found that 37% of people experiencing sustained harassment, sexual harassment, stalking, or physical threats, were “extremely” or “very” upset as a result, compared with 19% of people who were name-called or embarrassed. Moreover, more than 80% people who were victims of name-calling and embarrassment said they weren’t concerned about their reputations and that they weren’t hurt by the harassment. Compare this to people who received sustained harassment: A third felt their reputations were affected negatively and that they had experienced damage as a result of the harassment. Women are almost twice as likely to be upset and, by extrapolation, seek help or therapy. And buy insurance to pay for it. Which, I suppose, is better than having to pay out of pocket, which many are forced to do today.

This insurance is actually, at least, a positive effort to understand a very changed world, one in which the costs of harassment are acknowledged. That is a positive step. However, it also falls squarely into a bucket with an infinite array of services, applications, weapons, and products that women have to pay hard-earned money for in order to “stay safe.” It is just one more way that we are expected, and encouraged, to pay for violence we are subject to because we are women.

If there is one real upside to this insurance it is that the company will hire a specialist to find out who is doing the harassing, something the police and social media companies have been remarkably unprepared, unable, or unwilling to do. If caught, they should pay the premiums.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

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