Can a Sister Have Some (Cyber)Space?: On Black Women Seeking Safety Online

by Felice León

Social media is terribly intrusive and I tend to stay away from the hyperreality that it yields. On Facebook, I only accept friend requests from people that I know (in real life), or from people that I have become acquainted with through friends. Due to this vetting, my experiences on social media have been tolerable. No terribly egregious or inappropriate experiences come to mind. My friends, who also keep a fairly low profile on social media, agree—not too much drama. Though my friends with a greater social capital and larger networks have been harassed, vis-à-vis rude and nasty posts.

In the past, I’ve willingly exchanged information with guys (in person), but when our communication went electronic the interaction became really shady, really quickly. Recently, one gentleman slung insults, after I decided not to reply to his texts. His persona changed while hiding behind the guise of a text message. An e-thug. My response: Absolutely nothing. I maintained radio silence.

However, for many Black women, their negative experiences online go far beyond a few mean messages. They are victims of online harassment, or when others post cruel and demeaning photos; offensive name-calling; online threats (physical and sexual); sexual harassment, negative comments and stalking. This behavior can be conducted via text, email, social media, blog comments, etc. Stay Safe Online refers to the acts as also being forms of cyber bullying. Either way you put it, it’s dangerous behavior.

Cari Champion and Gabrielle Union are two victims of online harassment that have recently caught the media’s eye. Last week Champion was the subject of racist and sexist tweets, whereas Union was one of over 100 female celebrities with nude photos that were leaked on the Internet in the past few months. She recently spoke out.

According to an October 2014 Pew study, online harassment is most prevalent amongst young women, aged 18-24. These women reported online stalking at 26 percent and sexual harassment at 25 percent. Yet, African-Americans and Hispanics are even greater targets for online harassment. The study reports, “Some 51% of African-American internet users and 54% of Hispanic internet users said they had experienced at least one of the six harassment incidents, compared with 34% of white internet users.”

Last week, comedian Artie Lang tweeted racist, sexist and downright disturbing messages about Cari Champion, of ESPN’s First Take. He live-tweeted a sexual fantasy and referred to himself as Thomas Jefferson, while Champion was one of his slaves. He went on to describe a scene where he would whip Champion, but she would gain control of the whip, beat him and break free. In another tweet, he said that the couple would have eight illegitimate children. The rant went on. This man’s jokes were vile with themes of rape, violence and slavery – clearly, he has issues. I suppose that this is the most attention that the washed-up comedian could get. Still, it wasn’t enough to gain Champion’s. She has not issued a response.

Gabrielle Union is taking online harassment head-on. Union wrote an emotional letter in the December issue of Cosmopolitan, as a response to the nude photos that surfaced this summer. Union, a rape victim and advocate of women’s rights calls the act “a new form of sexual abuse.” She also describes it as “a hate crime against women.” The intention of these nude photos was to humiliate, intimidate and control these female celebrities. She states, “Anytime you lose control over your body it’s a violation and a crime.” It was a cowardly attack by individuals that chose to do dirt anonymously. The Web was its unknowing facilitator.

Champion and Union are two Black women that exist as public figures in the world. Champion, an attractive woman was a target for threatening tweets from a perverse and tasteless individual. Union, an adult, made the decision to take an intimate photo for her love interest. Though a celebrity, Union deserves privacy and the opportunity to share a special picture with her boo. Plastering her nude photo on the Web is unacceptable.

Historically, Black women have been hypersexualized and objectified. And with the advancement of the Internet, this continues with anonymous violent and sexual threats, as well as violations of privacy. As Black women, “safe spaces” on the Internet are few and far between. This harassment is a hindrance to women expressing themselves online. Emailing, texting and social media are a part of our daily routine. Women shouldn’t feel anxiety about logging on to Twitter. Sexual harassment can lead to demoralization, isolation, depression, hostile environment. It reinforces the objectification of women. I find that feeds belonging to attractive female celebrities or public figures are often filled with solicitations for dates, reminders of sexiness and a barrage of half-baked pick-up lines.

In hopes of finding a solution to this online harassment, Twitter partnered with feminist organization, Women, Action, & the Media (WAM!). According to The Daily Beast, this is essentially a Twitter harassment-reporting tool. Previously, users were directed to an Abusive User Form that was limited reporting. WAM! has created a more thorough form allowing women to report abuses. This partnership seems to be a small step in the right direction, but we need to get to a place in our culture where men stop finding it appropriate to harass, demean, and threaten women altogether.

Can a sister have some [cyber]space? I shouldn’t have to put on metaphorical boxing gloves every time I Tweet.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Felice León is a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and freelance journalist from New York. You can follow her on Twitter @RTSWFL.

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