More Often Than You Think: Deep-trenched Sexism in the Digital Public Space

October 7, 2021 10:14 am || By

            Women’s use of public space has often been characterized by the possibility of gender-based violence, which has compromised their comfort and safety in the public. The development of the internet has created new public spaces in the form of “digital publics” and promised us for a more inclusive public space for all communities. However, as the internet evolves, we can see that this has not been the case. The internet has become a place where inequalities still persist, including gender inequalities. As a result, digital public spaces have also been rife with male resistance to women’s public visibility. This has made the internet a prime place for gender-based attacks against women – making gender the central component of the attacks – and further threatens women’s use of public space. This article will explore Sarah Sobieraj’s article, “Bitch, slut, skank, cunt: patterned resistance to women’s visibility in digital publics” (2017), on how online public space has become a new site of sexism against women and the typology of digital sexism, namely intimidating, shaming and discrediting.

            Technological development has created new public spaces such as social media and user-generated content platforms. This was envisioned as a way to flatten barriers to access, especially for disadvantaged groups who traditionally don’t necessarily have equal access to offline public space.[1] Digital public space is also meant as spaces for people with the same interest or cause to voice their opinions. Despite this, digital public space can be seen as a new site where inequalities in the public space are being reproduced and reinforced. As the internet matures, the entrenched inequalities (pertaining to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) that appear in offline publics, have permeated across digital publics, including gender inequalities.[2] Even online, women continue to experience the gender-based discrimination they faced offline – showing the prominent similarities of women’s relationship with physical public spaces and digital public spaces. Online harassment parallels harassment in physical spaces,[3] whereby women would always be cautious in navigating both online and offline public spaces. Digital sexism utilizes femaleness and the female body to use against women, making women’s online visibility as a tool to attack them.[4] Therefore, the gendered power dynamics that reappear in digital public space keep constraining women’s ability to participate in public spaces. Sobieraj contended that the aggressors repeatedly use three strategies to limit women’s visibility online: intimidating, shaming, and discrediting.

            The first strategy that is used is to intimidate. Aggressors use intimidation to threaten women’s safety and comfort in digital public spaces. The ways they do this include threats of physical violence, such as death and rape threats, and doxing the victim.[5] Doxing has become a common tactic of intimidation, where aggressors publish personal information of the victim without their consent – intended to harass the victim in their other activities. The victims of doxing will then feel more threatened in their daily lives as their private information, such as address, school or workplace, are known to the public. The second strategy is to shame women publicly, which is done to tarnish the public image of the victim. One of the forms that the attackers use to publicly shame women is unauthorized pornography, where the compromising pictures were taken with the intent of private usage only or without their consent in the first place (e.g. hidden cameras in public bathrooms/changing rooms), published to the masses.[6] The pictures that were published then became a way for online harassment to occur and publicly humiliate the victim and her body.

            The last and arguably the most common strategy to limit women’s visibility in digital public spaces is to discredit women. This is done by imposing gender-based stereotypes to limit women’s online presence. The usage of this tactic insinuates that women don’t have enough credibility to voice their opinion and is constrained by the gender roles of being a woman. Common words that are usually used to describe women and limit their participation in digital publics include “a b*tch, a ditz, emotional, needs to get laid, a dumb blonde, a wh*re, or suffering from PMS” to name a few.[7] Sobieraj also argued that political views or personal ideologies (e.g. a ‘social justice warrior’) of the targets can be the basis to suggest that women should not be taken seriously.[8]

A notable occurrence of this strategy can be seen in the online sexism and hatred that South Korean female archer An San received from South Korean men due to her short hair. She received many online sexist abuse from men due to her appearance, which her male detractors suggested that she is a “feminist”. The term feminist has become a word with more radical connotations in South Korea, often being equated with the label of hating men.[9] Her short hair became the basis for criticism and led her to receive a lot of online hate on her social media. One of the comments that she got Instagram was “Are you sure An San isn’t a feminist, she meets all the requirements to be one.”[10] This occurrence happened during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where she won three gold medals in archery and set an Olympic record. The suggestion that she is a feminist has resulted in the critics asking her to apologize and be stripped off her Olympic medals.[11] Because of the online hatred she received surrounding her Olympic campaign, this took away the spotlight of her win and subsequently discredited her accomplishments as a woman. Problematizing or even policing her short hair and the suggestion that she is a feminist to discredit her achievements show how this strategy is used to undermine women in digital public spaces.

The development of new public spaces in the form of digital public spaces was welcomed with open arms, promising a more democratic and equal public space. Digital public spaces have helped to open barriers to access for public discussions and for marginalized groups to voice their opinions. However, as we can see, it has become a new site where these deep-trenched inequalities are reproduced. As mentioned in this article, aggressors use the tactics of intimidating, shaming and discrediting to commit online sexism against women. These strategies are used together to make digital public space an unsafe space for women. Thus, the question on whether or not public spaces will ever be fully safe for women will still persist until there is a substantial transformation in the society itself.

Author: Jasmine Putri Noor
Editor: Sri Handayani Nasution


[1] Sobieraj, S., 2017. Bitch, slut, skank, cunt: patterned resistance to women’s visibility in digital publics. Information, Communication & Society, 21(11), p.3.

[2] Sobieraj. p.4.

[3] Filipovic, J., 2007. Blogging while female: How internet misogyny parallels real-world harassment. Yale JL & Feminism, 19, p.295.

[4] Sobieraj. pp.8-11.

[5] Sobieraj. pp.5-6.

[6] Sobieraj. p.6.

[7] Sobieraj. p.6

[8] Sobieraj. pp.6-7

[9] Jin, Y., 2021. She just won her third gold medal in Tokyo. Detractors in South Korea are criticizing her haircut.. [online] The New York Times. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/30/sports/olympics/an-san-hair.html> [Accessed 30 August 2021].

[10] Ibid.

[11] France 24. 2021. South Korea’s record-breaking Olympic archer fought sexism from day one – France 24. [online] Available at: <https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210801-south-korea-s-record-breaking-olympic-archer-fought-sexism-from-day-one> [Accessed 30 August 2021].