Thwarting Sexual Harassment on the Internet

by Catherine Waerner

See also
Catherine Waerner's leaflet on this topic.

This document is located on the

Suppression of dissent website

in the section on Documents

Sexual Harassment is the use of sexualised intimidation, insult and threat to exert control over women. On the Internet, such behavior is more common and more outrageous than in the physical world because of the anonymity of the communications medium and the disproportionate number of men using it. Stopping such behavior is important both for the equanimity of individual women accessing the Net and for the health of the Online environment generally. A search through several types of theory has elicited some interesting tactics for dealing with such harassment. A three-part strategy directly confronting harassers has been developed, along with other tactics for preventing and diffusing harassment and for eradicating it on a wider scale.


What is Sexual Harassment on the Internet?

Defining Sexual Harassment

"Public places can engender a characteristic set of incivilities that can injure an individual’s self esteem either fleetingly or, since the occurance of these incivilities is repetitive and recursive, more momentously and even permanently." [Gardner pp8-9]

Sexual harassment has occurred since time immemorial, but has only been defined as such in the last 30 years. [Langelan p22, Wise & Stanley p80] The feminist movement has helped to define a male behavior which is immature, destructive, intrusive and hurtful towards women and with the objective of oppressing, threatening or devaluing women. [Marais & Herman p13, Langelan pp25-26, Wise & Stanley p15] There is a wide range of behaviors which may be called sexual harassment, differing too in the severity of their intention and consequences. The most severe forms are indecent exposure, threatening telephone calls or correspondence, stalking, and going to the extremes of battery, rape, child molestation and murder. [Wise & Stanley p7]

This text concentrates on the more frequent, everyday behaviors which are more antisocial than long-term imprisonable crime, and are most often enacted by men towards women. I acknowledge that sometimes men harass men , women harass men, women harass women, and some of those instances may be relevant to this paper; however for the sake of simplicity I will write of the common manifestation of harassment. These behaviors have been thoroughly documented. Among them are tendencies to demand and monopolise women’s attention; speaking loudly, frequently and bombastically, sending inappropriate gifts or invitations, and seeking personal information such as address or telephone details for future contact. Harassers can tend to use patronising names, obscene gestures, debased terms for female body-parts and make animal noises. Physical harassment may occur as bottom pinching, breast grabbing, ‘accidental’ brushing past or invasion of a woman’s space. Overtly threatening harassment can range from hostile put-downs to graphic descriptions of pornography. [Langelan pp25-26, Gardner pp121-123] Some warning signs are a man’s conversation which is oriented around sex and genders in all contexts or even excessive complimenting and approval to gain psychological access. [Dzeich & Weiner p325] There are many other sexual harassment behaviors, too. Such instances occur in many situations from jokes and cartoons , to family events, public streets and the workplace.[Gardner, Langelan p25] This behavior may involve single men or groups. [Gardner pp213-7] Sexual harassment is a deviant practice which some men choose to use sometimes or many times upon the women they encounter in their lives.

Men who harass have ready explanations for their behavior, which have been refuted by feminists, community groups and courts of law. [Firestone p448-449, Bell & La Rue, p1] Sexual harassment often gets disguised as romantic attention - "smile for me, darling" [Langelan p25, Wise & Stanley], irrepressible sexual attraction - "you shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt" [Dzeich & Weiner p324] or hatred - "that bitch." [Whillock & Slayden pp x, xiii] This is a tactic to exert authority, ownership or superiority over women. Gardner decries the mean-spiritedness of sexual harassment:

"In public places, a cloak of anonymity can allow him to express safely his contempt, hostility, or simply his feelings of entitlement to judge others…..and excusing his action with the rationale that he is merely expressing his admiration. [Gardner p227]

Such excuses seek to make the man’s behavior acceptable and justified as it punishes alleged deviancy in a woman. The lie in these excuses is that any women of any appearance is vulnerable to them, and that awoman’s virtue (e.g.) may be criticised at any point along a complete spectrum:

"So virginous - I couldn't resist her in that bikini - dressed up to the nines - fancy lady - frigid - prize catch - mutton dressed up as lamb - great tits - cheap but easy - frump - she's let herself go - fallen woman - old hag - lesbian."

Women are placed in a Catch 22 situation where they are vulnerable to some prejudiced remark whatever their apparent social/ personal category. By emphasising only superficial differences, women are not perceived as individual humans, but as interchangeable objects of attention - "chicks". [Firestone pp449-500] Langelan explains that sexual harassment is about power, not sexuality [p40]. Such men abuse sexuality using a "vulgar slur that pretends to be flattery". [Gardner p 9] They use it as a coercive power tactic to exclude women, claim advantages and have fun. [Langelan pp40, 41-42, 49, 50, 61] The National Council for Research on Women in the USA agrees:

"The inappropriate sexualisation of an otherwise nonsexual relationship, an assertion by men of the primacy of women’s sexuality over her role as worker or professional colleague or student." [Langelan p34]

Wise and Stanley explain that the proof that harassment is about power rather than sex is that they have observed gay men using it as a tactic, too. [pp92-93] Sexual harassment is routinely chosen by many men as a means of enhancing their self-importance and high social placing, by improperly criticising or ridiculing female differences as inferiorities. [Langelan pp46-47, Wise & Stanley pp63, 81, Firestone p448]


Consequences for women

"On a societal level, the actions of millions of harassers who are meeting their emotional needs at women’s expense add up to something much larger: a daily, hourly, unrelenting enforcement mechanism that restricts women’s freedom, maintains the social structure of male supremacy, and enforces the overall social norm of male dominance and female submission." [Langelan p47]

Harassment has serious consequences for individual women, for the men who choose to harass, and for our society. Harassment is used as a way to control women because it can be very effective. The shock can dissolve a woman’s confidence immediately:

"…all sexual harassment is based on real, material power. The fear women feel when they are harassed is not the product of an overactive, ‘hysterical’ imagination." [Langelan p31]

The damage to women caused by harassment can include a shrinking from further attack, to the point that they will not even seek help in case it provokes retaliation. [Langelan p3]

This is, of course, is the purpose of such attention, but the deeply damaging consequences of sexual harassment must be emphasised and validated. Harassers minimalise and trivialise the effects of harassment upon women, blaming it on supposed female tendencies to be frail or attention-seeking, which deepens a woman’s agony further.

The consequences of harassment on men who choose to enact this behaviour is that if they appear to benefit from it and get away with it, their behavior will continue. Such men will probably also escalate their harassment and widen the contexts in which they use it.

This does continuing damage to such men’s faculties of ethical judgement, as they get into the habit of seeking ethical loopholes like claiming irresistible sexual compulsion:

"such an attitude demeans the notion of ‘human’……Whatever it is that constitutes ‘humanness’ is located in the mind and heart, not the libido. ‘Human’ implies reason, compassion, control - all the qualities that distinguish [men] from their cats and dogs……Sexual harassment unquestionably harms females, but men are equally debased when it is allowed to flourish." [Dzeich & Weiner p324]

Allowing a deviant behavior to pass unchallenged and then flourish undermines the integrity of the guilty party and weakens the position of the ‘object’ of his attention.

As harassment is chosen as a behavior on a frequent basis, women experience the burden of the cumulative effects of any number of incidents. The consequences of harassment are that we live in a:

"society that constantly bombards women with the message that, because of their sex, they are subordinate. The threat that women can be punished if they get out of line is always present, openly or implicitly………Harassment produces an environment that is dense with male power." [Langelan pp46-47]

The attitudes present in sexual harassment are compounded with, as Pharr notes, the many sexist messages brought to women through the mass media:

"When we internalise these messages, we call the result ‘low self-esteem,’ a therapeutic individualised term. It seems to me we should use the more political expression: when we internalise these messages, we experience internalised sexism, and we experience it in common with all women living in a sexist world. The violence against us is supported by a society in which women-hating is deeply embedded…" [Pharr p311]

These consequences are wide-reaching and profound, both personally and on a societal level.

Sexual Harassment on the Internet

"What some of these men do online…..has to be seen to be believed. To my mind it is nothing short of sexual terrorism, designed to drive women away from the centre of power". [Spender p183]

Sexual Harassment appears on the Internet in a peculiarly virulent form. This is because there are many more men than women using online services, and each male user seems to spend more time online than female users. Surveys suggest the proportions of people are around 94% male, and that the male presence is dominant in content. [Spender pp166, 167, 168-170.] Also, the anonymity of the Net [Spender p195] gives an atmosphere of seclusion, where the harasser feels that he may behave in an unacceptable manner with impunity.

Sexual harassment on the Net appears in two forms. One is where male harasses a female contributor in a public chat forum. The second is where the harasser sends emails to a woman’s address. [Bell & La Rue p3] As with physical incidents, there is a broad range of behaviors, from insults based on gender during online arguments, through attempts to "pick up" female contributors, to persistent offenders sending women violent messages, pornography and threats. Documented cases include scripted sexual fantasies of killing a particular woman sent to her from a University classmate, [Bell & La Rue p5] and harassers seeking out and stalking women where they live. Spender cites behaviors such as butting in, "flaming" (arguing heatedly and insultingly for the fun of it), over-analysing women’s posts, seeking ego-massaging, and asserting their presence and opinion in women’s spaces. [pp195-198, 202-207, 245] Sexual harassers even enter moderated groups, as this warning posted on the women’s online site Pleiades demonstrates:

"Pleiades old-timers might remember a poster who called himself Reality Check. This past winter he was banned from all Pleiades forums because of his penchant for sport-hassling, baiting, and flaming….he has been making reappearances in several forums…….He uses a number of aliases and even different ISPs - but the hallmarks of his writing style, and the basic content of his messages - haven’t changed:
  • *He uses short paragraphs, usually just 1-3 sentences long…..

    *He will often attack other posts quote by quote

    *He repeatedly states his belief that white men are persecuted above all other demographic groups, with frequent references to violence perpetrated against men - particularly in domestic relationships…..

    * He will often bash Pleiades admin, accusing us all of being lesbians (and, as of late, lesbians looking to convert teenage girls) and of discriminating against men.

    His most recent noms de guerre include Milly, Melissa, Chantal, Maralyn, Julie, SillyMe, and mehe." [Pleiades]

  • Langelan’s list of general sexual harassment behavior describes nicely what happens on the Net: dominating the show, condescension, ridiculing emotional content, selective attention, and arrogant problem solving. [Langelan pp223-225] I have seen many offensive and derogatory opinions touted on the Net, including explicit jokes, misogynistic attitudes and men-as-victim propaganda. The UseNet site soc.feminism had so many posts from misogynistic men that alt.feminism was created to cater for them. (Don’t go there!) It appears that sexism, though using new technology, is following the same forms.


    Why we should fix it - why it’s unacceptable

    "It is a lie to suffer abuse and be silent. The lie hurts both the victim who is consumed by anger turned inward and the abuser who justifies his contempt for his victim with her passivity." [James p384]

    Men often cite the ‘law of the jungle’, the importance of freedom of speech and the need to defend their opinions as a reason why the Internet should be allowed to continue in anarchy. However, women have the right to voice their opinions without being persistently attacked, and freedom of speech goes for everybody:

    "When it is illegitimate to fight for your own dignity, legally or socially, you are invisible and expendable, the sludge of humanity, to whom anything can be done and nothing will be done about it." [Langelan p14]

    The virulence of the harassment is real and if women are going to continue to bother with the Internet, the online culture must become accommodating. Spender is concerned that women often "retreat into silence" and wants the culture changed:

    "There has to be a campaign to change the climate of computing, and the nature and quality of support services which help women make the transition to the electronic medium. We have to come up with different hardware, software and personnel, where the focus is on women’s way of knowing and doing." [p 185]

    It is important that women continue to use the opportunities of the Internet. This medium was touted for its egalitarian nature, and women want to reinstate this sentiment in its culture. Women want to be online and feel comfortable doing so. Therefore, the obstacle of harassment is unfortunate.

    The Internet is a focus of public attention, and as such, presents a great opportunity for enacting change that is noticed. As an easily and widely accessible medium, it is the perfect site for the broadcast of the ethics of tolerance. Studies of the social importance of written communication have found that social contexts and written discourse stand in a "reciprocal, mutually constructive" relationship to each other. [Rubin p1] Writers have been found to collectively create "discourse communities" by reaching a common cultural consensus. [Rubin pp1-2] Thus, if women can act to produce social change on the Internet, it may have positive effects in "real life", too.

    Much value and respect is placed upon the written word. [Wise & Stanley p28, Rubin pp21-22] This is taking a new form on the Internet. The Internet is a nexus in communication between personal communication and the broadcasting of information to the masses. Like television, radio and newspapers, the Internet has a wide audience; it is a broadcaster. However, the act of broadcasting is uniquely accessible to every subscriber. Personal, sometimes private correspondence can take place, but for the first time, any person can reach a big audience without, say, buying out Rupert Murdoch. It has been said that:

    "Acquisition of literacy has always had political implications." [Rubin p21]

    Keeping this in mind, it appears that some men get an extra kick out of the ability to broadcast. It is great for showing off. One can get personal and nasty, and dominant, and everyone is watching. Thus, it is doubly important that women put in a strong showing in this interesting arena, because the results of women’s actions will also be noticed.


    How we should fix it - methods of change.

    "Harassers can no longer count on women retreating helplessly or acting like fearful, embarrassed victims." [Langelan p22]

    Women have made many responses to sexual harassment on the Internet. Many carefully monitered forums have been established where women can speak, be heard, and have harassment vetted from the database. [eg. Plieades] Anti-harassment sites such as WHOA (Women Halting Online Abuse) [] and Cyberangels.Org are open for women to visit, giving specific tips and support once harassment has occurred.

    Legal statutes are important, particular in the case of dire threats, however taking a legal course for stopping online harassment appears to be useful onlyin a last-ditch effort or in extreme cases. The case mentioned above of the man sending sexual fantasies involving the death of a classmate to her email account did not result in a criminal charge - the writings were interpreted as fantasy only. This matter is now under appeal. [Bell & La Rue pp5-6] If the recent bungling of the pornography issue was anything to go by, the Australian Government is not able to grasp the Internet conceptually either, let alone develop workable policy. As the legal process is long and results ambiguous [Langelan pp14, 16], most forms of ‘everyday’ harassment would appear to be best nipped in the bud immediately. Such action would have to be done in an ethical manner, and it would have to be a significant learning opportunity for the man using the harassment strategy. In order to stop most cases of sexual harassment, women would be best off deciding to "confront harassers on grounds women define." [Langelan p14]

    My wish is to create a document of ideas for women’s immediate, practical use. I hope to inspire women with confidence, pride and assurance. I would like to provide knowledge and skills which would assist them in negotiating the online environment. The following is a documentation of the theory and research behind my pamphlet. I have also postulated some broad-ranging in-depth ideas.


    Direct Action

    "Sexual harassment infringes on people’s freedom and women’s lives at the most elementary level. Like air pollution, harassment is pervasive - sometimes better, sometimes worse, but almost always present in our communities. There is no way for women to escape this abusive behavior, except to stop it, decisively, with an environmental cleanup campaign." [Langelan p27]

    The most workable tactic for dealing with the vast majority of petty cases of sexual harassment appears to be direct action. A strategy of making space for oneself, and demanding that one’s person be respected is quite reasonable. People in our society sometimes seem reticent to cause offense to others, to the extent that they allow themselves to be damaged rather than rock the boat. Verbal self-defence is a worthwhile skill to acquire. For some practical suggestions, I have drawn on the work of feminists and other theorists.

    Langelan takes a very direct approach to repelling harassers:

    "Women need an additional remedy, a strong ,effective, direct-action strategy to go hand-in-hand with the changes they are creating in the law and in corporate and institutional procedures. Confrontation is a way to name the behavior, hold the harasser accountable for his actions, and disrupt the power dynamics of harassment. It is neither passive or aggressive; it does not involve appeasing the harasser or yelling obscenities back at him. Confrontation gives women a strong, honest, nonviolent set of tactics that work." [pp31-32]

    The ideas espoused by Langelan have merit as they teach women how to respond immediately to a challenge or threat, surprising the sexual harasser and targeting his vulnerabilities. Langelan aims to minimise retaliation by unsettling and confusing the harasser, causing him to retreat. [pp84-85] She postulates that a clear, calm rebuttal of sexual harassment will undermine the effectiveness of the harassment, raising the cost of doing it, and labeling it unacceptable. [pp93, 103] This approach correlates with the recommendations of Rickel, Gerrard and Iscoe, who have noted that women who actively fight and resist incidences of assault or rape deflect the attacker more than women who do not, and that women who resist actively made a good psychological recovery. [p144]

    Langelan has developed a three stage system for putting a harasser in his place:

    Langelan herself clearly explains the theory behind this tactic:

    "The most sexist men - the harassers - do not extend that principle of respect to women; women are the ‘other’, the object, the prey, not equally human…….Men who are insecure about their manhood and prestige often try to compensate….by acting macho……..That combination - a deep emotional need for respect and power for himself and an easy, reassuring habit of abuse and disrespect toward women - is the standard psychological package behind most harassers behavior.
  • Consequently, it is doubly effective when the ‘doormat’ used a well-structured confrontation statement to challenge the harasser, explicitly and calmly on the basis of that same fundamental principle: the essential right to respect….To his astonishment, he’s also just lost control of the interaction.

    The contradiction she forces him to face, between his own need for respect and control and the realisation that his behavior is crashing down in failure, is extremely uncomfortable. The more sexist the man, the more excruciating and disorienting the encounter is for him." {Langelan pp88-89]

  • The philosophy inspiring Langelan's up-front but ethical approach is a feminist perspective on nonviolent activism. Feminist nonviolence aims to refuse to co-operate with patriarchal power-wielding, express anger and indignation with the unjust behavior some men choose to use, including sexual harassers, and yet show respect and concern for the person exhibiting such behavior. [McAllister 1982a p iii] Nonviolence theory states that people using violent behaviors, including sexual harassment, do not regard their victims as being fully human. Nonviolent tactics assert the humanity of a harassed person, by a showcase of defiantly persistent ethical behavior. Nonviolent action is not passive, but actively resists acts of injustice, working towards positive change. It is important to criticise the offensive actions, not the person doing them. It is hoped that such action may persuade the harasser to cease his behavior as he becomes aware of its repugnant consequences. It is hoped that he may be converted towards acting with integrity. [Lakey pp5-16, Costello p176, McAllister 1982b p393, Meyerding p10]


    Our Visualisation and Perception of Men

    "We are constantly in danger of reflecting men at, not twice, but ten times their natural size, as extraordinarily powerful." [Wise and Stanley p129]

    After reading several positive, forceful feminist texts on combating sexual harassment, I was shocked by the defeatism endemic in writings on workplace bullying. I felt that bullying literature would be relevant in the commonality of their interest in the use of unfair verbal harassment to circumscribe the behavior of others. However, I found the approach taken by writers on 'Bullying’ concentrated on documenting, describing and protesting bullying behavior and the social conditions in which it thrives rather than fixing the problem. This picture is set up partly to convince the public that bullying exists. Much of society pulls the wool over its eyes as regards this issue. The passion of anti-bullying activists such as Tim Field is to be commended. Identifying and accepting the existence of a problem is the first step towards solving it. In itself, this may be important towards the eradication of Net harassment. If every woman documented every instance of harassment received, and sent it to some authority, the significance of the problem may become more appreciated.

    In generating the drama deemed necessary to create recognition of a social problem, and citing searingly devastating examples, these authors have created a Goliath too powerful to overcome. The action of bullying has been set up as a spectre of doom, an indomitable force and a whimsy of fate. Their perception of bullies may be illustrated by Tim Field’s conclusions:

    "Therefore, before challenging a bully, each person must weigh up the pros and cons of their situation. To put up with the abuse? The consequences on health, relationships etc will continue to deteriorate. To challenge the bully? And risk losing one’s job, or have other intolerable pressures brought to bear? In a few cases the bully may back down; the probability at present is that things will get worse. For some, moving on is the only option. But as some people have found….it can be out of the frying pan into the fire. Better the devil you know." [Fields p202]

    Tim Field produces 13 options for dealing with bullying. Of these, only 4 were in any way positive. Negative options listed included giving in, agreeing with everything the bully says, resigning, finding another job and taking medical retirement. [Field pp214-219] Positive options were listed, but the commentary was defeatist; Field continually re-emphasised how hard it is to combat bullying and how exceptionally strong a person has to be in order to pull it off. [pp214-219] His only entirely positive suggestion [p219] was to take up activism against bullying in a wider forum - which is what he has done by writing his book!

    I am not denying that bullying and harassment can be devastating and disturbing, but I contest that talking oneself into a corner will not help. Langelan describes the feeling of shock in one’s belly, the sick feeling of being verbally attacked and not being able to respond effectively. [pp22-24] In several parts of Field’s book, he reveals in his language that he is still hurting from his own bullying experiences; he plaintively protests the unfair, illogical and fraudulent nature of bullying. [Field pp13-14, 22] On one page he has written a litany of futility, listing every option for action, but with a refrain asserting that whatever one does: "it gets worse". [Field p39] Feeling powerless, unable to do anything about an intolerable situation and full of pent-up rage is debilitating. One’s emotional energy is directed inwards, and the psychological wound grows with the circuitous thinking of the impotent.

    From this dreadful feeling comes Langelan’s conviction that taking assertive, direct action can counter an attack immediately, cauterising the wound before the rot sets in. Wise and Stanley assert that the media focus on "extreme and sexualised examples" [p67] of sexual harassment contributes to the culture favouring harassment, as it focuses:

    "…on the most helpless women. So, we perceive the extreme as normal, perpetuating the myth that women are helpless. Instead we need to bring to light the ordinary spectrum of harassment and what women can do to fight it. [pp110-113]

    Unusual among the bullying texts was Corporate Hyenas at Work [Marais & Herman]. This South African book used the behavior of a hierachical pack of Hyenas as an analogy for people interacting in a destructive, selfish manner in a workplace. This analogy revealed the hyena behavior to be forceful, effective and devastating, but fundamentally flawed. These authors explained that the hyenas shed integrity in order to engage in destructive behavior. The hyenas behave according to immature defence strategies. Therefore, though vulnerable to insidious attack, a non-hyena could rise above the hyena strategy with a strong display of integrity, using mature defense techniques. [see Appendix 1 for defense strategies] I feel that, similarly, as harassment is immature, morally flawed behavior, then a harasser is by definition in some way vulnerable. Highlighting the flawed and so vulnerable nature of these people should lessen the spectre of fear such harassment inspires. It may help more women stand tall and enact an empowered response. [pp1, 12, 13, 28, 29, 52] similarly, Wise and Stanley warn that it is a trap to believe a man’s own estimate of his power and self-worth; his reality must be challenged in order to reveal it’s true nature. [pp129, 138] Marais and Herman are advocates of a "pro-active response", being alert and immediately acting productively, rather than a "reactive response", when one is caught out and struggles for a positive outcome. [p144]


    Another perspective on keeping positive: Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)

    This untraditional approach to thinking about the mind is based on how the brain operates. One premise of NLP is that the brain believes everything it hears. Thus, if mother yells "Don’t climb up there, Johnny, you’ll fall!", little Johnny will almost certainly fall. On the other hand if his mother calls out "Johnny is very careful to hang on tight with two hands. Mummy is coming" then Mum has some chance of extracting Johnny from the tree unscathed. This is why it is best to keep messages to harassers clear and positive; "cease contact!" rather than "don’t keep on bugging me!"

    This differing viewpoint on a problem/ challenge is used in more complex visualisations, too. If a particular incident is upsetting, a person can visualise it in their head. The image will be up close, loud and in bold colour. The trick is to spend time picturing the incident receding into the distance, becoming duller, greyer and fuzzier, the voices softer. Then, one could even imagine an alternate version of the event, where the outcome was more satisfactory. Then one could bring it closer, louder, brighter and clearer again - but not too close. One can visualise one’s emotional reactions changing at the same time.

    The point to this technique is to minimise the potency of a traumatic episode. A woman who has been harassed could use this trick. However, changing the visualisation of a potential threat could, I believe, be valuable too. This is why harassers need to be described as damaged, flawed and therefore damaging people rather than as scary, furtive maniacs. [Ideas taught to me by my Uncle, Paul Larkin, also Dimmick]


    Empowered Action to Expose Flaws

    " aren’t the all-powerful and totally integrated beings that they and the notion of ‘sexist man’ suggests. [Women see men] as they actually are. [Wise & Stanley p129]

    Above, Langelan was cited for her technique of using ethical confrontation to reveal a man’s vulnerabilities to him. A positive, empowered response to his harassment may induce a conversion to integrity, or at the least, persuade him to cease and desist. It may be helpful to discuss some potential personal flaws harassing men may carry and explore ways of using them to diffuse attacks and promote reform.


    Tactic one: Deny the harasser your attention

    Harassers are often looking for a woman to respond, to take the bait, and to react. Denying this response undermines his agenda and communicates your contempt. Mothers sometimes ignore unacceptable behavior in children. Lacking a reaction, the children stop. This can work for adults, too. In the context of the Internet, one could simply not answer in any way. On a pubic forum, simply continue your conversation blithely, thus trivialising the harasser’s contribution. If he sends you email, do not open any attachments and do not reply.

    If this does not work, an active approach may be necessary. Mothers find that ignoring works best if the child is told what is going on: "Nobody is listening to that screaming".

    The child is then taught an alternate behavior: "Ask for help if Billy takes your dinosaur." Similarly, on the Net, a denial of interest is a powerful active statement:

    "I am not interested in pseudo-romantic harassment from strangers on theInternet. I will not listen. Women don’t like that stuff. Cease contact."

    This could deflate a harasser’s agenda nicely.


    Tactic two: Expose an immaturity flaw in a harasser

    In my concise handout for women, I cheered women on with the exhortation "Chin up, sister - he’s only a man!" As I write this I feel that this is not the correct thing to say. It does not address the point that a harasser is immature. The tendency in some men which behooves them to behave in such an unacceptable manner is still childish. "Grow up" is a simple, standard response to harassment, and it is shrugged off as being lame, but it is accurate. [Wise & Stanley p132, Gardner p214] When making a statement to a harasser, making an appeal to his adult conscience may help him attain some adult responsibility for his actions. For example:

    "Stop sending me pornographic jokes NOW!!! Every adult knows that pornography is damaging and intimidating to women. It twists violence to make it appear sexy. Stop sending out those pathetic "jokes" completely, and find something funny to post us."

    One little response may seem to have little effect, but if every women sent such a response to every incidence of Net harassment, many boy-men may get the message and grow up.

    Marais and Herman mention a joke illustrating Hyena morality, where the eleventh commandment reads: "Thou shalt not be caught". Simply, immature behavior is revealed by a lack of sincerity. [pp48, 37-39] This insincerity can be exposed and condemned by an empowered person. Specific to the Internet, a woman could post a letter condemning the harasser in a public forum, or have friends send letters to him saying they have observed the behavior and find it abhorrent.


    Tactic Three: Expose inappropriate use of private space

    Wise and Stanley note the strategy of playing with male perceptions of public and private space. They cited a scenario where a man forces his attention on a woman at a bus-stop, then continues to speak to her on the bus, calling on the assumption of prior acquaintance to make this conversation appear acceptable. This tactic is to make the woman appear to be rude if she rebuffs him. The technique suggested to overcome this strategy is to state in a loud voice: This man harassed me at the bus stop and is continuing to harass me now. I am getting off the bus, and I am calling on you all to see that he remains on the bus. Thankyou. [Wise & Stanley pp175-179] This tactic can be used in an online environment, too. If a man sends both public messages to you on a chat site, then starts sending harassing private emails, simply publish them on the chat site and insist that it stop. Publicly calling a man to task for invalid attempts at a private relationship is a powerful way of removing his assumption of impunity and asserting the dishonesty of his actions.

    These authors found that invading the harasser’s privacy brought him up smart, too. Harassers who persistently ask personal questions despite attempts to freeze him off could be asked embarrassing personal questions in return. [Wise & Stanley pp166-168] If one was to follow non-violent activist principles, avoiding direct questions would be necessary. Rather than attacking him, a woman could ask: How would you like it if we asked you xyz The technique of shocking a persistent harasser with invasions of his own privacy could be used with great effect on the Internet.


    Tactic Four: Expose a man’s difficulty in expressing himself

    The volume and virulence of male postings on the Internet are taken as signs of power muscling; but Tannen points out that men usually demonstrate their superiority with taciturnity. [p176] The Internet, therefore, created a new social "game-plan" where a person’s presence can only be felt through written word. Is, perhaps, this outpouring from men a golden opportunity for us to study them and for men to explore themselves? Perhaps some of their contributions are often coarse and rude because they don’t know what else to say. Perhaps their vigorous presence is a grappling for control and understanding rather than a controlled, forceful take-over.

    James and Drakich note that it is women who prefer talk as a bonding tool, whereas men prefer activity. [p303] Perhaps women have an upper hand in the online environment that we did not realise we had! If the abrasive behavior of men on the Internet is because they are learning how to express themselves, we can definitely teach them a great deal. Ehrenreich discovered that many men view talking as competitive sport [p29] , particularly in public, which explains the ‘flaming’. She wonders if we could teach men to "converse in a stimulating, interesting and satisfying manner". [p29] Perhaps the Internet is a chance to show them our games.


    Tactic Five: Re-evaluate a harassers’ perception of eroticism

    Much of the sexual harassment on the Internet is explicitly about sexuality, more so than encountered in other aspects of life. Langelan found that most harassment was more judging comment than long fantasy, [p1-30] but many women on the Internet have encountered fantasy-type harassment. [Bell & La Rue pp15-18]:

    "…The first day I signed on with AOL, …After 30 min….I had received more than 7 different men and women asking me to have cybersex with them (in various ways I shall not tell). Sure that was sick and weird.
  • Then, I got this one IM from one guy (I suppose) and he seemed to know everything about me. I hadn’t told ANYBODY my features or had I even filled out my profile. He started telling me what he would like to do with me and how he would like to torture me and all this gruesome, gothic stuff. Anyway I got upset enough that I signed off" [Bell & La Rue p17]
  • The anonymity of the Internet increases the degree of explicit material men appear able to articulate, so this behavior may be a newly found symptom of a problem which has been repressed in everyday society. Firestone explains that men are subject to the cultural tendency which discourages touching. As sexual intercourse is often the only way some men receive affection, they crave it and covet it. [p449] Further, she believes the tension between the "erotomania" on the mass media, coupled with the beauty of women’s appearance, clashes with men’s fear of manipulation. [p452] This creates anger, resentment, and so a negative expression of sexuality. If women could acknowledge the anger and confusion expressed by men on the Internet, (while, of course, refusing to join in with the negativity!) it may diffuse dangerous tension.

    I hear that you are angry and resentful. That’s okay. However, I did not cause your feelings. I do not want to be tortured. Women do not like torture. Please stop writing threatening sex stories to me.


    Tactic Six: Spoil a harasser’s hopes of winning.

    Men take the playing of games seriously. They are important. [Elgin] Games are one of the activities they prefer to talking. Suzette Elgin believes that in order to defend oneself verbally, it is important to understand one’s opposition. She recommends the question: How could that statement be true? What conditions or rules would be present to make that statement true? [Elgin pp54, 56, 62, 70, 116, 128, 150] If a man is game playing, he will wish to win. Seeing as it is only a game, no one will get hurt, so it is okay to fight dirty:

    "The deliberate use of hate by rhetors is an overt attempt to win, to dominate the opposition by rhetorical - if not physical - force." [Whillock & Slayden p xiii]

    Langelan describes the tendency of arguing harassers to be inflexible - to "go to the mat" on every issue. [pp223-5] Rather than responding to a game player with righteous anger (‘taking it too seriously’), a better tactic may be to negotiate on the rules.

    ‘Hey, man, that torture stuff is a bit below the belt, okay? I’m happy to argue and swap insults, but please drop the violent sex line. Women don’t like that. You copy?’

    Who knows, you may make his day!


    Tactic Seven: Empathise with a man’s pain:

    Men may sometimes use Internet sexual harassment as a negative way to release tension and anxiety. Goodall cites the deep pain many men encounter, particularly at work. Workplaces can be barbarous, very competitive, lacking in security, privacy, camaraderie, rational management and variety. [pp80-82, 116] He quotes an office worker torn between two feelings:

    "I hate my job. And I can’t sleep at night because I am scared to death of losing it." [p81]

    I found the contrast between Goodall’s long list of work stresses with Firestone’s long list of sexual media images startling. The clash with the daily agonies of work with the media-induced expectation that men should be living in seventh heaven must grate pretty hard. "Are You Getting Enough?" murmurs the latest Austar advertisement, as two bodies writhe under purple satin sheets. No wonder men take their frustrations out on women. From this women can take two courses of action: lobby advertisers to stop the glut of sexual teasing, and redirect men’s angst:

    "If we begin with the idea that humans are - first and foremost - spiritual beings, then our "work" is directly connected to issues of human and environmental ecologies, which makes the work and communication of each one of us interconnected to the work and communication of one another. Ultimately, that bond - that inherent interconnectedness - that unity, is sacred." [Goodall p116]

    Goodall (who is male!) believes that if we see our whole lives as work and find harmony, good talking will bring people closer to each other. Now, fine, it is hard to get from a harassing deviant to paradise, and we don’t all have degrees in counselling, but if a man can be directed onto a more positive train of thought once he has let off steam, fine.


    Tactic Eight: Bolstering your own confidence and knowledge

    Reading more feminist literature in general is a good idea, too. I have been collecting stories and books of positive contributions women have made to the world, direct action women have taken in name of noble causes, etc. Fostering a sense of pride in one’s gender is a source of support and positive power. Men do it all the time; thus the history of politics, war, science and the arts are full of accounts of noble, exceptional men:

    "It is no accident that patriarchy relates history as the history of war - that is precisely their history." [Zanotti p16]

    The television news is full of reportage of good deeds done by male politicians, emergency workers, sports heroes and musicians. Countering these images with a body of female sporting legends, figures from herstory, female scientists, politicians, musicians and other leaders can bolster one’s own confidence, pride and sense of one’s right to life unhindered by rubbish like sexual harassment.

    Gardner mentioned that it should not be women’s task to rid the world of sexual harassment, that ultimately it is each man’s responsibility to grow and behave in an adult manner. [p25, 201, 240] It is fine to simply do one’s best and hope that the men we encounter get the message; the onus is on them to change.

    Being a constant anti-harassment evangelist may become exhausting. Looking after ourselves is important, too. Trusting our intuition is good - it is the "surfacing of hard-earned and hard-learned knowledge." [Wise & Stanley pp174-175] Zanotti praises women for learning non-violent confrontation, saying that personal power "is the only type that is increased as you use it." We are reminded by Ehrenreich that the conversational expectations of feminism are wonderful, enjoying the sharing of personal experience, the weaving of personal with political life and the interesting speculation possible. The Internet is a place to watch this bloom. Frye asks that women’s:

    "…imagination and politics [be] shaped more fundamentally by a desire to empower women and create friendship and solidarity among women than by a commitment to appease, comfort or change men." [Frye p495]

    Her message is one of resisting disillusionment, maintaining inspiration and feeling free to grow and make progress. After all, aren’t women all very busy before sexual harassment interrupts their lives?!



    "…truly I am defending myself every minute I live and breathe in this patriarchal world….I will not let my life be used to sanction the reliance on violence: I refuse to be a victim and I refuse to endorse violence by resorting to it." [Deming quoted in McAllister p394]

    Expressions of power-wielding hate such as sexual harassment indicate an illness in society. Rather than repress them, it is helpful to hear them out and learn from them, as recommended in Hate Speech. ["Zonk"] However, in addition to that, we must not allow hateful words to fall on us without protest; the approach of feminist non-violence is:

    " acknowledge and connect with what is valuable in a person at the same time as it resists and challenges that person’s oppressive attitudes or behavior." [Meyerding p10]

    Marais and Herman list the many possible traumas which may steer people towards unscrupulous behavior, but they assert that, in the end, it is a choice to behave that way. [pp 10, 11, 32] Choices can be changed. McAllister quotes Barbara Deming:

    "I must never forget that men can take pleasure in our torture. I must never forget, either, that the very same men can feel dismay at this; and we can require them to act out of the one feeling rather than the other - if we ourselves can find our equilibrium as we hold the two faces of the truth in mind."" [McAllister 1982b p393]

    Examining critically the messages of sexually harassing men short-circuits the communication of contempt. [Whillock & Slayden p xv, "Zonk" pp260-1] The angry effects of poor treatment can only begin when men are treated compassionately as we protest their angry behavior. [Meyerding p12]

    If the Internet is to be grasped by women for its bountiful opportunities, learning to capably confront a harassing male contributor according to the ethics of feminist nonviolence is vital. Utilising these practical ideas about men and how to nudge them to re-orient their thought and behavior is a valuable skill. Finally, it is essential that women retain their original aspirations prior to any harassment and keep a grasp on a positive future, both online and in "Real Life."



    The focus of this paper has been on finding practical ways for women to immediately diffuse and change the behavior of a man who sexually harasses her on the Internet. The implications of myriads of women following this advice is an Internet community growing and becoming a healthier environment, with ramifications in the real world, too.

    Beyond that I have another suggestion. The phenomenon of a broad section of the male community openly using verbal dominance behavior is so unusual. More extreme examples of this may be the symptoms by men with serious social dysfunction. If the national and international authorities became interested in the Internet, they may use it to hunt perpetrators of sexual crimes. A team of profilers, counsellors and police officers could "trawl" the Net posing as women and see who they flush out. Such men could be counseled and converted or investigated. On a less sinister note, the Online environment may be the place to set up self-help groups for many categories of troubled men, as anonymity seems to allow them to air their thoughts and feelings more openly. Utilising male trust in the apparent anonymity of the Internet may have great social implications.



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