Sexual Harrassment: Online & Otherwise

The greater the feeling of anonymity the more likely it is that people will behave inappropriately. This holds up both online and in real life.

An article on Shiny Shiny got me thinking about this. A quick quote:

I raised my hand and (desperately not to scream) explained that there is actually a huge issue with women and sexual harassment online, and on blogs. I mentioned Kathy Sierra, Devious Diva, and the fact that women are threatened with rape and violence, simply for speaking their minds online.

While I've never been threatened online, I have seen my share of, well, offensive behavior. I've noticed that guys are more likely to be physically or verbally aggressive at a club where the music is loud and the lights are low. I've noticed that guys are more likely to make an inappropriate comment, gesture, etc, if you're walking by them than if you're standing next to them. I guess it feels more anonymous if you aren't going to stay physically near them. Is it that they think no one will notice, or that they actually think it's ok?

I've also noticed that a woman can't be in the news without someone making remarks about the woman's looks. It's as though many people lack the ability to assess one set of attributes (intelligence, etc) without assessing all attributes (looks, etc).

None of this is particularly shocking, I suppose. I guess what surprised me is how inappropriate the comments get.

About two years ago, the Seattle Times wrote an article about why people are choosing to work at Google over Microsoft. The first few paragraphs were about me, and I stumbled across some forum where they were discussing the article. I started from the beginning of the four pages of comments and at first, it was pretty much on topic. Around the end of page 2, someone found my website and some pictures of me. Pretty quickly the comments degenerated into a very sexual and very vulgar nature. When someone found a picture of me and a Black friend of mine, they became not only vulgar and sexual, but also racist. I would repost some of the comments, but frankly, I don't even feel comfortable re-printing it.

Just a few weeks later, I posted something about Google and Open Source. You expect the usual set of pro-Google or anti-Google comments there. You do not expect someone to make this comment (which, incidentally, didn't even begin to compare to some of the comments on the previous forum): "You certainly are a slut when it comes to corporate fanboyism. I hope you're this easy in getting into the sack."

More recently, posted a New York times article about students in CS which features a photograph of a few male and female students programming. As expected, a huge chunk of the digg comments were assessing the attractiveness of the women.

After a while, you just start to expect this kind of behavior. You take it as a given that guys will grab your waist in a club, that they'll grab your arm if you're walking away from them, that they'll argue with you if you won't give him your number, that if your name or picture ever appears in the news, that they call you "hot", "ugly", "fat", "easy", etc.

Such is life, and such is the behavior you expect from strangers. But here's what gets me: is it just that the guys I know are that much better, or do they not have enough anonymity to act like the rest?