On March 3, 2009, National Public Radio host Tom Ashbrook hosted a conversation about cyber harassment with David Margolick, Marc Randazza, Anthony Ciolli, and myself. Our discussion focused on the attacks on female law students at AutoAdmit in 2007. Here is a little background: anonymous individuals posted hundreds of sexually explicit, threatening, economically-harming, and allegedly defamatory statements about named female students. For instance, “[female student’s name] is a dumbass slut with huge fake t****s who I want to rape in the ass”; “I will force myself on her and sodomize her repeatedly”; “She deserves to be raped so that her little fantasy world can be shattered by real life.” Posters suggested that they had access to the named women, noting what they wore at the law school gym, providing updates on their whereabouts, and encouraging others to take pictures of the named women and post them on the site. Posters accused named women of having sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., “[Named female student] is a slut but don’t f***k her she has herpes”). They sent emails to former and prospective employers urging the law firms not to hire named women due to their low character. A poster told the community there that he sent an email to a named student’s faculty members with embarassing information about her. Posters hailed the sender as a hero who should be awarded a Congressional medal. Others engaged in a google bombing campaign to ensure the prominence of the offensive threads in searches of the women’s names: “We’re not going to let that bitch have her own blog be the first result from googling her name!”
During the program, former New York Times At the Bar columnist and current editor at Portfolio magazine David Margolick characterized the AutoAdmit attacks as mostly “juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are.” He called them “frivolous frat boy rants.” Margolick said that because the female law students who graduated from the most prestigious law school in the country now have good jobs, they suffered no harm. Mark Randazza agreed with this characterization of the harassment: “these are digital natives; it is their juvenile shtick.”
As my article “Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment” (forthcoming Michigan Law Review) argues in great detail, far too many people like Margolick and Randazza trivialize the serious harms that women uniquely suffer as a result of such cyber harassment in much the same way that society downplayed or ignored workplace sexual harassment until 1970s. In the face of threats of sexual violence, women not only feel afraid, but also chilled to act on their own desires. Women withdraw from online discussion groups, shut down their blogs, and alter their physical activities to avoid offline harassment connected to the online harassment. For instance, AutoAdmit victims stopped going to the gym to ensure that the anonymous posters could not take a picture of her and post it online. The cyber harassment also harms women’s dignity and sense of equal worth. Online assaults objectify women by reducing them to their body parts. Harassers further humiliate women by reducing them to diseased body parts. This treats women as moral subordinates and undermines their self-respect just as workplace sexual harassment makes women feel like sex objects, not competent workers. Women suffer a performative harm: they may assume male pseudonyms online to avoid cyber harassment. And cyber harassment inflicts distinct harms to women’s emotional and physical well-being. Women fear that online threats of sexual violence will be realized: anonymous threats are all the more frightening as they are shorn of any cues that might alleviate that fear.