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love in a heartless place? being a woman online

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Last week the story broke that a man had set up a female online dating profile, to see if women really did have it easier than men when hunting for love in cyberspace.

His story described how he took the profile down in two hours, stating:

I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth. I came away thinking that women have it so much harder than guys do when it comes to that kind of stuff.

While this came as a surprise to him I’m guessing it wouldn’t come as such a surprise to many of you. Harassment against women online is a daily occurrence, as can be seen in the recent stories coming to light about the number of prominent women receiving rape and death threats via the internet.

I myself have started to find it increasingly difficult to find any article or interesting site online, no matter what it may be about, without someone in the comments section going on a random and unexpected rant about how terrible women are. It can be particularly difficult for women online to discuss equality without receiving sexually aggressive or violent responses. So while harassment in online dating is a huge problem, what the man conducting the experiment received is just a small taste of what women experience online in a whole variety of situations.

One of the worst parts about this harassment online is that women are told, when they try to report the behaviour, that nothing can be done or that they are overreacting. Online interactions simply aren’t governed the way that real life interactions can be (I say can because it is still very difficult to get the law to do much regarding harassment in general), however the main difference between online and real life interactions is that is can also be difficult to tell who online is a ‘troll’, and who seriously wants to physically harm their victim.

So what’s the solution? According to Amanda Hess, who has received many threats online, she is often advised when trying to report the threats to simply stop using twitter or even the internet in general. Which is the approach that the subreddit submitter took after only two hours of spending time online as a woman.

However as Hess argues, it shouldn’t be up to women to delete their online dating profiles. It shouldn’t be up to them to stop using the internet (a pretty impossible feat in today’s world that I’m sure those dishing out the advice would never do themselves). We shouldn’t be told to ‘stop feeding the trolls’ when we respond angrily to yet another nasty comment aimed against women everywhere.

While it would be pretty difficult for any kind of legal action to be taken against every single moron out there posting sexist or racist comments (given not only the global nature and anonymity of the net but also the sheer number of these types of horrible comments), I think it’s time that the internet community, which I still like to believe is made up of 99.99999% decent human beings, banded together and actually supported each other in letting the not-so-decent people know that their comments will no longer be tolerated or ignored by the majority. We need to start taking online harassment seriously and listen to what the victims have to say.

As Nicole Elphick of Daily Life says:

‘There are myriad discussions happening about what it’s like to be female online, whether it’s for dating, gaming or social networking. So the best way to find out what it’s like to be a woman in these spaces isn’t to pretend to be a female – it’s to listen to women and actually take what they say at face value rather than assuming they are misinterpreting the situation.’

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