This summer, the Pew Research Center surveyed 2,849 Web users about their experiences with online harassment—anything from being “called offensive names” to being physically threatened or stalked. In a report released today, Pew found that 44 percent of men and 37 percent of women who use the Internet reported experiencing harassment there. Men “are somewhat more likely than women to experience certain less severe forms of harassment like name-calling and being embarrassed,” Pew found, but they’re also more likely to receive physical threats—I’d call that “severe.” Meanwhile, “women are significantly more likely than men to report being stalked or sexually harassed on the internet.” And women age 18 to 24 are at a heightened risk of receiving harassment of every kind: They are “uniquely likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment, while also not escaping the high rates of other types of harassment common to young people in general,” like physical threats.
At a glance, Pew’s findings conform to the gender split in crime victimization in general: Men are more likely to be murdered or violently assaulted by strangers, while women are more likely to be abused by their partners, stalked, or sexually assaulted, and young women in particular are targeted for gendered forms of violence. But while offline crime victimization surveys deal in precise definitions—even if they don’t always define crimes the same way—“online harassment” remains an amorphous category. Pew did not define terms like “offensive names,” “physically threatened,” “stalked,” “sexually harassed,” “harassed for a sustained period,” or “purposefully embarrass” in its interviews. (What’s the difference between being “stalked” and “harassed for a sustained period?”) The survey questions were often devoid of context: 18 percent of users said they believed online dating sites to be more “welcoming to women” than men, but were they referring to the likelihood of women actually getting a response on these sites (high) and not considering the probability of women getting harassed in the process (also high)? It’s impossible to know. Meanwhile, while men were much more likely than women to report being harassed on gaming sites, 44 percent of users agreed that online gaming was more welcoming to men than women. Because half of harassed users said they didn’t know the identities of the people harassing them, the gender breakdown of online harassers remains unclear.
Pew asked respondents to elaborate on their experiences with harassment, and the resulting collection of anonymous accounts speaks to the difficulty of arriving at a shared definition of what “harassment” even is. One respondent said that they were “told that someone should rape me which was horrific since it’s one of the things I fear most”; another “was called a racist on a blog for criticizing administration lies.” One said that a “man I went to high school with was sending me inappropriate photos and comments of a sexual nature”; another experienced “Chiding … for their likes and dislikes in things such as sports, cars, athletes, colleges football teams, things of that nature.” One was “told that if I stopped communicating with this man he would find me and rape me”; another reported that “any feminist who doesn’t already know me has been quick to characterize me as a privileged, misogynistic rape apologist.” Is being called a rape apologist the same as being threated with rape? No, but it’s all harassment here. Whatever it is, it affects women and men differently; the study found that 38 percent of harassed women said their most recent experience with harassment was “extremely or very upsetting,” compared with 17 percent of harassed men.
Pew isn’t the only organization suffering from a definition problem. In August, British think tank Demos published a study claiming that “male public figures are several times more likely than women to receive abuse on Twitter.” To reach that conclusion, Demos collected 2 million tweets sent to British journalists, celebrities, and politicians over a two-week period in January—1 million sent to women, and 1 million sent to men—and found that 2.54 percent of tweets directed at men “contained abuse,” compared to 0.95 percent of tweets aimed at women. In the Daily Beast, Cathy Young used the findings to argue that feminist concern about “the Internet abuse of women” is misguided. The “double standard,” she wrote, “has overtones of traditional chivalry which views women as more delicate and deserving of consideration—while nastiness toward men is treated simply a part of the rough-and-tumble of public life, to be taken in stride and shrugged off.” But the Demos study made no attempt to isolate, or even define, legitimately abusive tweets. It just counted tweets that use bad words; many of them aren’t even necessarily vulgar, much less objectively harassing. Demos’ list of no-nos included: arse, bloody, booooooobs, clitoris, ejaculate, masochist, pornography, and vagina. Men were both more likely to send and receive tweets that used these words. It strikes me that the person who views any tweet that references the word clitoris as abusive is the one feigning a thin skin.
This is not to say that we know that women have it worse on the Internet. It’s to say that, so far, we just don’t know. What the Pew study does show is that the Internet is producing a lot of garbage, and men and women are served different flavors. Understanding exactly how that works will require better definitions and more dedicated study.