Looking for evidence of gender inequality in sexual harassment on Twitter

As the use of social media has become an intrinsic part of our everyday lives, so also, has the visual presence of abuse. As a result, the violent and persistent harassment of prominent women online has been covered substantially in the media. This harassment is neither recognised as sexual harassment nor as a societal problem, as it is often viewed as an unfortunate side effect of the anonymity offered by the internet. This harassment should be seen as an example of gender inequality as it discredits and silences women’s voices online and halts the process towards equality by creating a hostile and misogynistic environment, which renders the online sphere, solely available to men.

To find out in what ways sexual harassment online could be seen as evidence for gender inequality, the study used critical discourse analysis on fifteen Twitter tweets judged to be sexual harassment. By looking for representations of self/other and the use of governmentality, the study found that the tweets conjured up a discourse of patriarchy which adhered to stereotypical gender definitions, only leaving one subject position for females – that of a sexual object. Further, by following a feminist adaptation of Foucault’s notion of governmentality, the sexual harassment could be seen as ‘controlling the gender borders’ and naturalising the power structure through judgment and subsequent punishment, if not adhered to. This study argues that the sexual harassment online needs to be acknowledged for what it is, gender discrimination, that leads to inequality as it impedes on a woman’s freedom of expression and movement and confines her in a subordinate subject position, which ultimately maintains a patriarchal social structure online.


In 2006, Jill Filipovic could not go to university without anonymous people confirming her whereabouts online and threatening to rape her (Citron, 2009). In 2007, Kathy Sierra had to move home, close down her technology blog and cancel all public speaking after having her home address and social security number aired online in conjunction with severe, aggressive and real rape and death threats (Bartow, 2009). She additionally received several graphic photographs where her head was photo-shopped onto the body of porn stars and with a noose around her neck (Ibid). In 2012, Anita Saskiaan, the creator of Feminist Frequency, was targeted maliciously on Twitter after starting a kickstarter campaign to get a more realistic representation of women in online games. In conjunction with rape and death threats, her YouTube and website was attacked and an online game called ‘beat the bitch up’ was created. In the same year, Caroline-Criado Perez received as many as fifty rape and death threats per hour on Twitter, after successfully having gotten Jane Austen on the British five-pound note. The threats spread to other females supporting her on Twitter, such as MP Stella Creasy, television critic Grace Dent and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, who also received a bomb threat (Mantilla, 2013).

Although society has reacted with shock and outcry towards the abuse these women experienced, this is not a new phenomenon, neither off – nor online. In contrast to the hopes that the internet would erase sexism, ever since being open to the public, women have been targeted through verbal and graphic sexism and sexual harassment online. This is not to say that men are not targeted. However, as they are targeted to such a lesser extent, this can be seen as a gendered issue (Bartow, 2009). For example the University of Maryland showed statistical evidence that female usernames in chat-rooms received an average of 100 sexually explicit of threatening messages per day, whereas masculine names received only 3.7 (Citron, 2009: 379). Similarly, the American stalking resource centre has reported that approximately 60% of online harassment cases reported involves male perpetrators and female victims (Ibid). Furthermore, the PEW research centre found that “an 11 per cent decline in women’s use in chat-rooms stemmed from menacing comments” (Bartlett et al., 2014: 3).

Regardless of these statistics, the attacks online are commonly ignored or overlooked by society at large. Many feel like the internet is a ‘wild wild west’ and thus, anyone who wishes to participate will just have to have a tough skin. Further, the attacks deemed ‘flaming’ and ‘trolling’ are see as solely perpetrated by ‘deviant individuals’ and ‘bored teenagers’ writing harassing messages ‘for fun’ (Case and Lippard, 2009; Citron, 2009). As a result, for most women, the options given are to ignore their attackers, confront them or choose to go offline. Furthermore, many women who do stay online choose to use gender neutral or male usernames and censor their speech, to avoid the harassers (Ibid). Not only is society ignoring the gendered component of this issue, it rarely sees it as sexual harassment even though these messages online can “reflect intrusive, unwanted, and coercive sexual attention from which there is frequently no viable escape” (Fitzgerald, 1993b, quoted in Bargh, Raymond, Pryor, & Strack, 1995, p. 768). It is an attack on ones gender as it is being invoked discursively online in a threatening and degrading manner. It brands women as inferior sexual objects and increases the likelihood of offline sexual violence. Furthermore, studies have shown (Waerner, n.d.) that women who have been exposed to sexual harassment can develop eating disorders, depression and PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder). Online sexual harassment has also led to suicide (Langelan, 1993).

As we are becoming ‘digital natives’, social networking sites will continue to grow in size and significance, as they are already the most visited sites globally (Chawki and el Shazly, 2013). However, if the recline of women online due to harassment continues, the issue of online sexual harassment will not only be an issue about mental as well as physical health and security, it will also become an issue of being able to participate completely as a full and free human being within society. If one cannot use the Internet to promote oneself or ones work, nor use it for social interaction, then one cannot fully participate socially, economically or politically within society. As a result, the harassment online also becomes evidence for inequality as it harms society by entrenching a male hierarchy online as well (Citron, 2009). Twitter has been chosen for this study because it has become a platform where abuse has become the most visible following the attacks of the women above. This thesis sets out to empirically provide evidence for the inequality produced online, by analysing a snap-shot of the sexual harassment a lot of women are experiencing daily on Twitter.

Table of Contents

Abstract…………………… 3

1.0 Introduction…………………… 10
1.1 Thesis Structure…………………… 11
2.0 Literature Review…………………… 12
2.1 Conceptual Framework…………………… 12
2.2 Research Question…………………… 14
3.0 Methodology…………………… 16
3.1 Methodology…………………… 16
3.2 Results/Analysis…………………… 17
3.3 Discussion…………………… 18
4.0 Conclusion…………………… 19

References…………………… 74

Image by Rijk Willemse used with permission under Creative Commons license._
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