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The Internet, as experienced through the eyes of one woman.
I stopped reading comment sections three years ago, after the third or fourth time I was called a “nigger bitch” and instructed to kill myself by someone, or several people, who disagreed with a review I wrote of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Having thick skin is well and good, but I place a premium on survival. For me, that means no wading into the murky waters of Disqus and Livefyre, even at the cost of useful and important dialogue.
In "Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” a recent, widely shared article that appeared in Pacific Standard, Amanda Hess chronicled the often-horrifying experience of being a woman online, where research suggests we are targets of harassment at a rate of 27 times more than men; just like walking down the street, existing on the Internet is undeniably a gendered experience.
The Internet is even less of a safe space for racialized women, who are alternately treated as invisible or hypervisible within a contradictory paradigm that attempts to sideline their voices while establishing ownership over their bodies. On one hand, the Internet allows people who have historically been silenced to speak a little bit louder, but, on the other, that speech is often taken as an invitation for gender- and race-based abuse.
Anonymous readers and followers, many of them presumably men, lob vile comments and threats of death and rape our way, as omnipresent reminders that we exist only at their mercy. And law enforcement, woefully behind the times, have neither the resources nor the collective political will to devise protocols that can protect women against digital harassment. “Until domestic violence became a national policy priority, abuse was dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. Today’s harmless jokes and undue burdens are tomorrow’s civil rights agenda,” Hess concluded.
The Internet is even less of a safe space for racialized women, who are alternately treated as invisible or hypervisible within a contradictory paradigm that attempts to sideline their voices while establishing ownership over their bodies.
It’s easy to ignore the fact that there are real, irreversible consequences to the “harmless jokes”: young women like Rehtaeh Parsons and Jessica Lane, and a slew of others, were compelled to commit suicide rather than endure the onslaught of digital harassment. They were the unlucky.
As Hess outlined, women are often told to be less sensitive or to disengage altogether in the face of trolls. Those are our two options, because if something happens on the Internet, it can’t be that serious. The false dichotomy between online and offline as respectively “real” and “fake” further perpetrates Internet-based harassment. Not only does it cloud the lens through which law enforcement views digital crimes, I suspect offenders themselves view the abuse as "not real" and therefore less consequential. But whether a threat is uttered on the subway or in a Twitter mention, the harmful part is the point at it which it is received, not the circumstances under which it is sent.
Ultimately, though, the perceived disconnect between life online and life away from the keyboard betrays a larger societal hurdle that must be cleared. It’s 2014, and the Internet is real life. It’s where friendships and relationships are born, career opportunities are seized, where important personal and professional decisions are made, and where people go to claim identities for themselves that life may not have given them the opportunity to do.
But for those fortunate enough to have so-called effective coping mechanisms, who know how to compartmentalize, or have internalized the need and mastered the ability steel themselves against anonymous and undeserved abuse, there is still a perverse, unspoken emotional toll. Research suggests every digital social interaction, be it an incoming iMessage or a retweet or an Instagram like, mimics a dopamine-fueled euphoria. That may be true, but it belies the fact that, for instance, I cannot look at my mentions tab on Twitter without experiencing anxiety—heart racing, breath short—for fear of another stranger threatening to jump me or kick me in the head. It’s easy to know theoretically and intellectually that bullies go away when you ignore them, but with every single mean comment, a little piece of you shrinks. And then you sign back in and do it again.
Rawiya Kameir is a regular contributor to Complex, and has written elsewhere for The Toronto Standard, Thought Catalog, and The Daily Beast. She tweets often at @rawiya.