Originally published in mermaids and myths, geekgirl 1995/4

Myth: Cyberspace is a fresh new frontier

The way women are treated is quite stale, actually. The online community carries with it the same anti-woman baggage as the wider community. In cyberspace I'm exposed to even more whingeing about women-in-general than I am in Real Life. Sometimes¹ the boys' club atmosphere is overwhelming.

But ... no one can use physical standover tactics or shout me down (not literally, anyway!) for expressing a different point of view.

Myth: Words can never hurt you

Even fair-minded men seem to have trouble imagining what it's like living under a constant barrage of negative generalisations. Messages and sigs trot out all the tired old stereotypes: women are dimwitted, technologically illiterate, vain, trivial, exploitative, faithless, and incompetent. They are only good for one thing, they're only after your money, they have an exclusive corner on genital odour, and so on. Objecting to this kind of good clean fun is known as "male bashing".

But ... aren't those who complain of male-bashing demonstrating that they're hurt by words? What shame is there in being a "wimp" when there's such a lot of it about? smiley face

Myth: Flaming can't silence you: you can always flame back

Except that a "lady" would never dream of flaming, and any woman who isn't a "lady" is automatically an unperson. On the net, as in Real Life, the double standard flies high. If a woman is direct, it's brutality; if she's candid, it's lewdness; if she's not Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice, it's blue murder. Words (which of course can never hurt us - see above) often aim to invalidate us - by casting aspersions on our sexual purity and personal attractiveness, in particular. It's disheartening that these cheap tricks still pack so much punch.

But ... it is possible to change a mind or two, in between the "Ballbreaker!" chorus, if you can handle the feeling of having stepped back into the nineteenth century.

Myth: Women get no special treatment in cyberspace

Women get little but special treatment, from what I've seen. Any old message posted under a female name tends to attract replies: rarity value presumably, but also, often, the expectation that women will be kind, caring, soft, fluffy, and so on. Regardless of what we post, we often receive gallantry and flirtation, crude sexual offers, or collations of obscenities which trap us in the double bind of "ladylike behaviour". Much rarer is a straight answer, a fair exchange.

But ... the infrequency of a straight answer makes it easy to separate the sheep from the goats! And when I feel up to ignoring the special treatment, I still have a voice - an opportunity to participate in public discourse to an extent I haven't found anywhere else.

On the Web, there are men touting hotlists of women's home pages, as if women were an exotic species rather than participants. On IRC, female names are routinely hit on for "hot chat".

But ... as more and more women use the medium, men who behave as if women appearing in any public area of the net are "asking for it" will be recognised for the sexual terrorists² they are.

Myth: The online targeting of women for being women just can't be helped

I think fair-minded men could bring a little peer group pressure to bear if they criticised such targeting. This doesn't seem to happen much, though. More women need to get out there and determine what can and can't be helped.³

But ... if getting out there seems too scary, the net offers person-to-person communications, subject-specific mailing lists, a wealth of information on the World Wide Web - a zillion ways to learn, a zillion chances to discover how much we have in common with people we might otherwise never have known. It's hard to regard the status quo as unchangeable when the possibilities of the medium seem boundless.

20 October 1995


  1. Some times, and some places - the ambience in many public newsgroups springs to mind. But see Finding One's Own [Space] in Cyberspace by Amy Bruckman (available as a 60KB PDF) for useful elaborations on the theme "If you've stumbled into the wrong town, get back on the bus".
  2. I have worried that "sexual terrorists" was overstatement. There's a spectrum of sexual terrorism, and clearly targeting women with words is not at the same end as stalking or rape. I nevertheless believe it's on the spectrum: it constitutes, and fosters, predatory and contemptuous treatment of women. Verbal harrassment may be "mere words", but words are the fabric of the net. Moreover, physical threats are not unknown, nor are they always defused by distance.
  3. It's often claimed that poor treatment of women is determined by society, not the net - therefore it is society, not the net, that must fix the problem. But the net is part of society, and the fact that problems have not been solved Out There is no argument against working on solutions In Here.

Page created 4 September 1996; last updated 03 August 2006