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Is Technology To Blame For Threats Against Female Journalists?

Women who share their opinions and thoughts online, particularly professionally, are frequently targeted for heightened, often criminal and discriminatory, harassment. They are more likely to start their work days and often end their work nights with graphic attacks on their credibility, intelligence, bodies, sex, sexuality, looks, and more, frequently framed in violent terms. A recent in-depth analysis of tens of millions of comments by The Guardian found that eight of the top 10 writers who got the most abuse were women (four White and four non-White). The other two were Black men. All 10 of the least-harassed writers were men. Sexism and racism combined result in this disparate impact.

Among women journalists, women in sports are encountering some of the most vile resistance to their working. The Guardian’s analysis revealed that the more male-dominated a topical area, such as sports and tech, the more abusive the commentary on women writers’ work.

Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain are two sports journalists very familiar with this problem. Spain is one of three women who host The Trifecta, an ESPNW sports-talk-radio show, and DiCaro is a long-time Chicago sports-radio host. They are both featured in “#MoreThanMean — Women in Sports ‘Face’ Harassment,” the new “reading mean tweets” video, which launched as part of a campaign to raise awareness about what is frequently referred to with the anodyne “online harassment.” In the video, men read messages that have been sent to the women. They have not seen the messages prior to their filmed reading. As the tweets and messages get increasingly more violent and hateful, the men stumble and pause. A typical example: “One of the players should beat you to death with their hockey stick like the whore you are.” Another: “This is why we don’t hire any females unless we need our cocks sucked or our food cooked.”

As they read, the men come to look physically uncomfortable. They experience the displaced but jarring effects that the women live with every day. “I’m having trouble looking at you when I’m saying these things,” says one man to Spain before he finishes reading: “Sarah Spain is a bitch I would hatefuck.”

It’s not just that people still find women in sports “unnatural,” but that they feel that women should be punished for violating their ideas about masculinity and gender roles.

The video is highly effective in showing that “mean” does not capture what is going on, which ranges from run of the mill gendered insults to rape and death threats to the stalking and sharing of nonconsensual porn in the recent case of sportscaster Erin Andrews. While it’s arresting to see the men reading the tweets come to appreciate the inadequacy of the word “mean,” it is also frustrating. Like many similar or related videos that engage in role reversals to further understanding, there is the very real, frustrating, and unavoidable dimension of having to have male validation before people are willing to take what women say seriously.

In February, the Women’s Media Center launched the Speech Project, which I direct. The purpose of the project is to raise public and media awareness of the scope and impact of this type of harassment on women’s ability to go to school, to work, and to participate in civic and public arenas. The project largely came into being after Ashley Judd, who chairs the initiative, experienced first-hand what hostility toward a woman with an opinion about sports looked like. After she tweeted a comment about a March Madness basketball game, she was deluged with tweets from men calling her a cunt, a whore, and a bitch. They threatened her with rape and other violence. “The volume of hatred that exploded at me in response was staggering,” she wrote of the incident. This level of aggression is, unfortunately, standard for many women.

Many people chose not to understand the difference between trash-talking and the abuse hurled at women, which tends to be gendered, reference historic discrimination, and leverage legitimate threats. Online threats of stalking and rape are easier to dismiss as “just words” if rape or avoiding being raped doesn’t shape your passage through life as it does most women’s. Like Sara Spain, and one out of five women, Judd is a survivor of sexual assault.

Professional sports are hegemonically male, and hostility toward women — as journalists, coaches, athletes, or fans — is hardly new. The culture illuminated in “mean tweets” goes hand-in-hand with the one on ample display in an industry where masculine ideology pervasively makes sports a zone of harassment for women, but is written off as “fun and games.”

As coaches, women have made only scant, hard-fought-for headway. Title IX, ironically, opened the door for male coaches in the growing arena of women’s sports, but has done little to make space for women coaches. The NFL recently hired Kathryn Smith as the first female full-time assistant coach in the league’s history. Smith joins a very small group of women in men’s sports.

Women players and journalists face everyday sexism and sexual harassment, both the institutional and casual fan-based kinds. In March, the director of the BNP Paribas Open Tournament in Indian Wells, California, Raymond Moore, thought nothing of explaining that in his next life he wants to “be someone in the WTA [Women’s Tennis Association], because they ride on the coattails of the men.” He then went on to reference women athletes on the basis of their level of physical attractiveness to him personally.

Women athlete’s uniforms are often designed to sexualize them, a problem that exists more broadly in media. Dress codes that mandate skirts, skimpy shorts, and more ensure that women aren’t simply dressing to perform optimally, but to please optimally.

While top American soccer players are suing U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination, Brazilian superstar Marta struggles to be paid at all in a country where her male counterpart, Neymar, makes $15 million a year. As a soccer player, Karen Gibson grew used to fans calling, “Get your tits out” when she ran onto the field.

It was only in 2002 that 60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney loudly proclaimed, “The only thing that really bugs me about television’s coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Until 2012, when a woman brought it to public attention, ESPN’s online complaint form included the dropdown option: “Commentator — dislike female commentators.” As recently as last October, several women sportswriters were illegally barred from locker rooms after a Jaguars-Colts football game. “It’s still 2015, right?” asked Joey Chandler of the Tuscaloosa News.

All of this implicit bias and overt sexism is evident every day online, where there are very few restraints on hateful expression, particularly against women journalists, who tend to bear the brunt of abuse, from men and women both. Online comments are a symptom of deep cultural misgivings about women’s equality and rapidly shifting gender roles. Their profusion reflects an abiding societal tolerance for this kind of discrimination. However, technology isn’t limiting women’s public participation or workplace opportunities. Sexism is.

Every day, readers and viewers in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, feel sufficiently socially and culturally entitled to send women sports professionals messages meant to humiliate, denigrate, intimidate and shame them because they are women. There are costs: financial, professional, and personal. This culture of abusing women professionals for doing their jobs gains power when we pretend that the people targeted are not materially affected. It gains power when we use words that hide the ugliness and violence of the expression. It gains power when the focus is on the “evils” of tech and not the cruelty of sexism and racism that are clearly manifest. It gains power when there is little or not counter speech from the public or support from employers. It makes no sense to hide what is going on by using family-friendly, homogenizing language, or to minimize the importance, meaning, or effect of the profound sexism at play.

This morning at breakfast, after reading a related article, my daughter asked what Reddit was, and my husband provided an example of how a particular sports subreddit works to build a community where “people” can share information, talk about games, and generally have fun while engaging in sports culture. My daughter is an athlete, but the experience that she would have online, as a participant in such a forum, would radically differ from her father’s if she was identifiable as female. It’s important that girls and, particularly, boys, understand the difference and in those terms.

Women have made major strides as athletes, coaches, journalists, and other sports professionals. But there is a long way to go.


This piece originally appeared in DAME magazine.

Lead image: flickr/Esther Vargas