Is the internet sexist? Online abuse as a form of violence against women

dsiplay of books on feminism and misogynyRuth Lewis, Mike Rowe and Clare Wiper, Dept of Social Sciences, Northumbria University

With Facebook exposed for its failure to prevent violence and abuse appearing on its site, the online abuse of women is once again in the news. At the same, time, public debate about online abuse has been growing apace amidst significant concern that the quality, tone and content of public debate are deteriorating. Our research is the first national study to examine experiences of people (mostly women) who receive abuse via social media. The research is based on a national survey (n=227) and interviews (n=17) with people who experienced abuse when participating in feminist debate online. While feminism enjoys a resurgence, with a lively presence online, feminists online seem to be particularly, but not exclusively, targeted for online abuse. And that abuse is not a distinct experience, unique to the online world; what they tell us suggests online abuse is an extension of violence against women in the real world.

I was Tweeting about #EverydaySexism and received emails from several men detailing how they were going to sexually abuse me to remind me who was in control in society.”

Media coverage of high-profile individuals (eg Caroline Criado-Perez, Mary Beard, Jessica Ennis-Hill) suggests that abuse is typically extensive and extreme. However, our research shows instead that there is a continuum of experiences. These include concentrated, frequent, highly threatening and hateful abuse: one respondent reported a “threat to kill me and my son”. At the other end of the spectrum is more sporadic and less inflammatory abuse, comprised of unpleasant, non-threatening, single messages. Nearly half (40%) experienced online sexual harassment and more than a third (37%) experienced threats of sexual violence. “I was Tweeting about #EverydaySexism and received emails from several men detailing how they were going to sexually abuse me to remind me who was in control in society.” About half experience online abuse ‘constantly’ or ‘most weeks’ while half experience it between once a month and less than once a year.

‘But it’s only words’ is a common response to concerns about online abuse. But this research shows that accumulative routine, everyday abusive encounters can have significant impacts. Three quarters (75%) of those who found it ‘really traumatic’, received abuse more frequently, while a similar proportion (73%) of those who ‘shrugged it off’ received it less frequently.  In general, the more frequent the abuse the greater its impact; far from becoming diluted by its frequency, the effects of abuse are cumulative and exacerbated. Impacts include ‘triggering’ (reliving past traumatic events such as sexual violence], anxiety, depression and fear. “Depression and anxiety, triggering of past experiences of real-life abuse, increased mistrust of people”  “I ended up being prescribed beta blockers in the short term as I would wake up in the night with palpitations.”

Many women deal with abuse on and offline by ‘normalising’ it. ‘It’s just to be expected’, ‘what can you do? That’s life!’ are typical responses to abusive behaviour in the workplace, the pub, on the street and online.  ‘Normalisation’ occurs online even in response to death and rape threats. After receiving voluminous abusive messages, detailing threats of physical and sexual violence, a ‘simple’ threatening, abusive message may, in comparison, be experienced as relatively mild. ‘Normalisation’ can be an effective strategy for dealing with online abuse but it raises concerns about the longer-term, insidious harm of considering death and rape threats as ‘normal’.

Misogynistic abuse is not confined to male perpetrators; one of the first people in the UK to be convicted of sending abusive tweets was a woman and her tweets included references to rape as well as threats to kills.  A finding from recent Demos research which was highlighted in media coverage was that 50% of propagators of abuse were women. Leaving aside the methodological limitations of this research (it counted the aggressive use of the words ‘slut ‘and ‘whore’, thereby neglecting the more complex, detailed, descriptive forms of abuse such as this example from our research “he named the train station local to me in an oblique way [and] had a conversation with himself about making a special visit to a particular person (me) & named the station he’d be catching the train to. This man is a known rapist….”), such coverage indicated surprise that misogynistic language has been incorporated into routine, conventional public discourse. Online abusers may adopt the discourse of misogyny regardless of their gender. This is not ‘male violence’, so much as ‘masculinised violence’; that is, violence that draws on and generates misogynistic discourses and is generally perpetrated by men against women and girls but may be perpetrated by women.

Is this kind of abuse ‘silencing’ women? Yvette Cooper and others are concerned that online sexist abuse is ‘putting a generation of women off politics’. That’s what’s behind the ‘Reclaim the Internet’ campaign launched by MPs Yvette Cooper, Jess Phillips, Jo Swinson and Maria Miller. This isn’t the first instance of women being elbowed out of public space; Mary Beard has traced the long, shameful history of women’s exclusion from public debate. However, there are signs of hope. Our research shows that some women are galvanised by experienced abuse; far from being silenced, half (54%) said they were more determined in their political views. While emotions such as anger, worry, vulnerability, fear and sadness reduced over time, feelings of being galvanised to act increased.

Far from being unique to cyber space, such misogyny is an extension of offline violence and abuse of women and girls.

Online misogyny is a growing concern and the subject of political campaigning and academic research. This research from Northumbria University goes behind recent media coverage to examine experiences of feminists who receive online abuse. Far from being unique to cyber space, such misogyny is an extension of offline violence and abuse of women and girls. Similarly to offline, where women’s groups have campaigned against male violence, provided support and protection to women survivors and raised public awareness, feminists online challenge misogyny in cyber space and fight for women to share the internet, free from violence, abuse and intimidation.

Lewis, Ruth, Mike Rowe and Clare Wiper (2017), ‘Online abuse of feminists as an emerging form of violence against women and girlsBritish Journal of Criminology 

Ruth Lewis is Associate Professor in Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University.

Mike Rowe is Professor of Criminology in the Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University. Twitter: @mikearowe

Clare Wiper is a PhD student studying the online dimensions of violence against women in the Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University. Twitter: @ClareWiper

Researching development work, volunteering and activism

Mark Griffiths introduces his research on development work and volunteering in India and political activism in Palestine

I began my position at Northumbria in September 2016 and look forward to engaging with the vibrant research and student community we have here. My research has focused on development work and volunteering in India and political activism in Palestine. Across both sites I focus on the body, positionality and ethics, seeking to understand the role of affects and emotions in struggles for social justice.

For anyone interested, I’ve just had a couple of things published online that might be of interest: first a blogpiece for the Royal Geographical Society that gives an overview of an article I wrote last year on class and ethics, and second a video abstract I was asked to make for the journal Antipode in which I discuss my work in Palestine.

A view over the rooftops of Hebron showing blue sky and many low buildings
Picture of a long street in Hebron with telegraph wires over low, sandy-coloured buildings.
Al-Shuhada Street, Hebron. To find out more about the significance of this part of Hebron, see Mark’s paper

Mark Griffiths is Research Fellow in Environmental and Global Justice in the Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University.

Twitter: @casesofyou

Sociology: Gaining deeper understanding and helping my community

Ruth Stevenson reflects on her motivation to study sociology and her experience so far. 

Studying for a degree in Sociology at Northumbria, has so far turned out to be a more exciting and rewarding experience than I ever could have imagined. As a mature student, I came to study Sociology as a result of personal circumstances leading to an increased awareness of the challenges many of us face in modern society. Public service cuts due to austerity measures have, in recent years, torn through my local community, leaving many in dire circumstances. Those most vulnerable – the young, sick, unemployed, ethnic minorities and struggling families – are enduring the worst of austerity, suffering the loss of vital support services such as legal and welfare rights, as well as cultural and educational support, libraries, children’s centres, and early years’ support for families with young children. Campaigning for action and change in my local community led me to the logical step of higher education with a view to gaining a deeper understanding of social issues and the impact social policies and social structure have upon individuals and communities. With a comprehensive understanding of society and its institutions, I will be better equipped to support others.

Northumbria University Sociology department have given me the perfect platform from which to leap into the world of Sociology. Bringing the Sociological imagination to life in historical and contemporary context, from early 19th century theory to global 21st century issues, lectures and seminars spark debate and discussion and inspire me to further research to gain a contextual and more nuanced understanding of society. Each new topic and module, I know, will add to my comprehension. The lecturers and tutors have so far offered unprecedented support and sound constructive feedback, I feel engaged in the subjects and enthusiastic about learning, going into the second semester, as I have gained so much in the first, not only knowledge but new friendships and a new-found confidence.

The opportunity to apply for a bursary donated by a former Sociology graduate has been a highlight of my time at Northumbria so far. When I was successful in my application I found myself overwhelmed, not only at the obvious generous financial support, which is extremely welcome and will be immensely helpful to me, but also the knowledge that those who have studied Sociology and have been successful in their field continue to strive to make a difference, and continue to have the desire to help those who also feel compelled to understand and improve society. For this I am enormously grateful.

Ruth Stevenson is an undergraduate in Northumbria’s Sociology programme

Tackling sustainable development: Merit360 in New York

Recent MSc graduate, Laura Blackett, who participated in the World Merit programme over the summer, reflects here on her experience.

In September, I was privileged to be part of the inaugural Merit360 programme in New York, run by World Merit and working on action plans to tackle the sustainable development goals (SDGs). I spent 16 wonderful, challenging days getting to know many of the 360-strong cohort who represented 85 countries and brought a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion to meeting our goal: to address the ways in which the World Merit movement can impact each of the 17 SDGs, through campaigns, scaling of existing projects, and new ideas.

Having recently completed the MSc International Development at Northumbria University, and with a strong interest in making change through sustainable architecture, I joined the group working on SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Our group began to chat online a few months before the programme, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in New York, nervous and jet lagged; I started talking to people, and was completely overwhelmed by the incredible stories I heard. Everyone had their own reason for being part of Merit360 and choosing their SDG; they brought different priorities from their own countries, different ideas and specialisms, and an unbelievable commitment to making change.

…we left with a desire to make a change in our communities, a plan of action, and an incredible global network of new friends

Once we’d registered at Hostelling International in New York we headed out to Indian Head Camp in Equinunk, Pennsylvania to spend 12 intensive days working on our SDG plans whilst being immersed in workshops and talks from international leaders and experts. The camp was beautiful and the owners Lauren and Joel, along with their fantastic team of staff, ensured we were well cared for and could focus completely on the work we needed to complete. Every day we had the option to start the day with yoga, a lake swim or a trail run; later we could take part in activities including paddle boarding, canoeing, ropes courses and a huge variety of ball games.

The speakers invited to join us at the camp were inspirational and brought valuable lessons from their international work. Most were able to stay with us for a few days, which allowed us opportunities to speak to them in greater depth. The camp kicked off with Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth and a great supporter of World Merit whose enthusiasm and work ignited a flame in us all. It would be impossible to name all those we heard from, but the stand-outs for me were Sir Ken Robinson (educational specialist), Lisa Kristine (humanitarian photographer), Haile Thomas (The HAPPY Organisation), Deepak Ramola (Project FUEL) and Patrice Madurai (The Cupcake ReSolution). In addition to this, we had a two day workshop from Wanderbrief focused on accelerating our new projects into viable social enterprises, and a wonderful two days about storytelling from Ashoka.

Over the 12 days at camp we worked closely in our SDG groups, who became like family. Our team of 19 represented New Zealand, Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, Yemen, Slovakia, Germany, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Canada, USA, South Africa, Kenya, France, UK, Colombia and Brazil; it was an intensive crash course in group working to figure out our dynamics, overcome differences and learn to compromise for the greater good. We worked on four projects: a campaign to bring the SDGs to cities all over the world, scaling up of Green Offices and Project for Public Spaces, and developing Ubuntu Design Group, an innovative approach to slum upgrading.

Our two weeks concluded with a whirlwind stop in New York City, including a fantastic day at the United Nations headquarters where each group pitched one of their ideas and closed the programme with more inspiring talks. All the work was collated into Action Plan 001 and we left with a desire to make a change in our communities, a plan of action, and an incredible global network of new friends.

One year as a Chevening Scholar at Northumbria

Computer with books arrayed in front of it such as 'Dead Aid'
My desk at Northumbria

Sangita Thapa, recipient of the prestigious Chevening Scholarship, reflects on her year at Northumbria, pursuing an MSc in International Development

Time flies. Feels like just a couple of months but one year has passed in beautiful England. I received a Chevening Scholarship 2015/16 to pursue MSc in International Development at Northumbria University in Newcastle. I am deeply honoured and proud to be the one among the 1800 future leaders globally and truly appreciate this wonderful opportunity. I have completed my course this fall and although I can’t wait to go home, I’m awash with a strange mix of emotions to leave Newcastle. I did not anticipate this odd pain. Never imagined I’d be in love with a place that was so alien, distant and merely cold, just a year back.

The MSc International Development course has enriched my understanding into the debates and discourse around the contemporary international development issues such as global poverty, inequality, sustainable development and geo-politics of development. I experienced a sea of difference in academic as well as personal development within one year. For me, this study-abroad experience is valuable not only in terms of the academic insights or the degree I earned but also in terms of the practicality to deal with and adapt to the diverse situations, circumstances and people. The experience has been deeply positive and enriching, which I’m sure, will continue shaping my perceptions, experiences and learning in future.

My knowledge and skills have definitely been refined by this intensive course. My understanding on how Northern charities function is enhanced through the volunteering experience in a local charity. At times, the demanding and rigorous academic culture would get me really weary and sick but at the other end of the spectrum, I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating environment of learning. The benefits far outweighed any momentary discomfort. The support and encouragement of my tutors, library and the department staffs were extremely positive. Equally stunning was my experience of different people, culture and multiple ideas and experiences stemming from the multicultural and cosmopolitan environment of Northumbria where there is a vibrant community of international students. Northumbria has a learning-focused, research-intensive and intellectually nurturing environment apart from having an excellent state of the art facilities such as an extensive library collection and the finest sports centre for its students.

I absolutely love Newcastle. It is a beautiful amalgam of a vivacious city life and the serenity of a countryside with breath-taking natural settings within short distances from the centre. The city is very safe for international students. Living in Newcastle is definitely not cheap but if you are prepared to study in the UK, it is not expensive either. At the end of my journey, I’m thrilled to go home and face challenges awaiting. This one year constitutes one of the best experiences I have ever had. I am grateful to Chevening for this truly amazing experience.