Book Review: Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, Bailey Poland (2016)

November 9th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“THE PERSONAL COMPUTER IS THE POLITICAL COMPUTER”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, harassment, and death and rape threats.)

When dealing with things like cybersexist abuse, it cannot be said often enough that there is no way to solve a problem without understanding it.

[I]t is worth noting that nearly every technological advancement throughout history has been seen as too liberating for women— and therefore dangerous.

Like many women who dare to voice an opinion online, Bailey Poland has first-hand experience with cyber-harassment and abuse. She typically gets a few dozen abusive tweets every night; when she briefly became the latest target of Gamergate, that number jumped to several hundred. She monitors the Twitter profiles and Facebook pages of past harassers on the daily, looking for signs that another wave of abuse is imminent. She and her activist friends have a sort of informal arrangement, where they tip each other off to possible threats. Dealing with the daily onslaught of abuse is tedious, demoralizing, and exhausting – and that’s kind of the point, from the harasser’s perspective.

One particularly dedicated misogynist harassed Poland for over a year, periodically sending her rape and death threats via Twitter. She finally decided to file a police report – and was lucky enough to get an officer who took her concerns seriously and was reasonably knowledgeable about the internet. (Either one is rare, but both together? Like an invisible pink unicorn!) Even so, nothing came of it; the department couldn’t even be bothered to keep Poland updated on its progress. And this represents a best-case scenario: the vast majority of victims don’t even get this far.

But Poland didn’t stop there: rather, she decided to make online harassment and abuse the topic of her first book. In Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, Poland explores the odious and often scary landscape of cybersexism. This encompasses not just the most egregious abuses: death and rape threats, doxxing and swatting, Gamergate and MRAs (and, now, the alt-right), but also more subtle forms of sexism and sexist microaggressions, such as mansplaining, talking over women, and dominating conversations. Even the very design of the internet – with its anything goes, Wild West type attitude – ignores women’s experiences and prioritizes men’s “freedom of speech” and self-expression over that of women and other marginalized groups.

Poland’s discussion is thoroughly researched and wide-ranging. Among the topics of discussion: what constitutes cybersexism, and how it’s largely an extension (and amplification) of the sexism women face offline; examples of online harassment, using the well-known Gamergate and Men’s Rights Movement (MRA) as illustrations; the psychological, interpersonal, professional, and financial effects of harassment on victims (and, surprisingly, perpetrators); the type of advice women commonly receive about dealing with online harassment, and why it fails so spectacularly; current solutions that women can employ, as limited as they may be; and possible directions for the future, using the cyberfeminist movement of the ’90s as a jumping off point.

Poland’s analysis is both multifaceted and intersectional: even as she’s quick to point out that she comes at this issue from a position of relative privilege (white, heterosexual, cisgender), Poland is careful to address the added abuse heaped on women who belong to two or more marginalized groups. Black women are subject to an especially pernicious blend of racism and misogyny (“misogynoir,” a term coined by the queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey); likewise, trans women deal with both misogyny and transphobia (“transmisogyny,” coined by Julia Serano in Whipping Girl). That said, the book does primarily focus on the United States and U.S.-based laws re: online harassment.

While the book is well-researched and meticulously documented (23% of the ARC is endnotes), it is hampered by the dearth of studies on online harassment. Most of what does exist primarily looks at the effects of harassment on businesses and financial institutions – which should come as no surprise, since we seem to value corporations at least as much as individual people. And while there are precious few studies that address cybersexism, almost none tease out differences in race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or other axes of oppression.

Given this obstacle, Haters is all the more impressive and necessary: cybersexism, harassment, and abuse is an enormous problem with a myriad of consequences for its victims, both online and off (and really, is there any difference between the two nowadays? I suspect that the “It’s just the Internet” excuse will die with my generation.). Just like sexism and gender-based violence “IRL,” it’s well past time we address it. Half of the population are women; we are doctors, physicists, artists, gamers, comic book creators, activists, organizers, astronauts, and politicians. Some of us are kids or teenagers or young adults who are still trying to find our way in the world. A whole lot of us are brimming with untapped potential. Imagine how much richer the world would be if our talents were nurtured and celebrated, instead of denied and quashed. Imagine how much better off humanity would be, if we acknowledged the humanity in us all.

While the topic is engaging and timely, I did sometimes find myself struggling to finish a chapter. The book has an academic feel, which I expected; while the language is a little stuffy at times, it’s still fairly accessible to lay readers. (Poland dips her toes in a number of disciplines: psychology, sociology, women’s studies, criminal and civil law.) Poland adopts a dispassionate, almost removed tone that may alienate some readers, but I understand the reasoning for it: tip your hand too much, and a woman risks being dismissed as an overemotional, hysterical harpy, incapable of reasoned thought. Given a choice, I prefer a fiery, passionate feminist take-down, but I could go for either or, really. There are benefits and costs to each.

But Poland does have a habit of repeating the same point, using different phrasing. Not just across chapters or even different sections in the same chapter – that I can understand – but in the same paragraph. I suppose it’s for emphasis, a second attempt at convincing the skeptics out there, but I just found it drawn-out and a little tiring. Those times I struggled, I think this is 90% of the reason why. Luckily this mostly occurs in the early chapters; by the time we hit Gamergate, things really start to pick up. And I learned a ton, even though I thought myself moderately well-informed on these issues.

 
Table of Contents

1 THE MANY FACES OF CYBERSEXISM: Why Misogyny Flourishes Online 1

2 TYPES OF CYBERSEXISM: What Online Harassment Really Looks Like 35

3 DON’T FEED THE TROLLS: Why Advice about Cybersexism Fails 61

4 THE EFFECTS OF CYBERSEXISM: Professional, Psychological, and Personal 89

5 MISOGYNIST MOVEMENTS: Men’s Rights Activists and Gamergate 123

6 DEALING WITH CYBERSEXISM: Current Solutions 159

7 FIGHTING BACK: Remixing Cyberfeminism and Strategizing to Reduce Cybersexism 201

CONCLUSION: A Call to Action 251

Notes 253

Bibliography 271

Index 293

 

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes, Poland adopts an intersectional approach in her exploration of cybersexism and harassment online. In addition to gender, she talks about race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, fat phobia, and more.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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