The messages I am talking about are sent anonymously by a few men to female users of the Internet. These are not your average pieces of electronic mail. They are abusive, and often sexually explicit.
This type of harassment is easily confused with the "Flame Wars" - the arguments, sometimes ill-tempered, between users that have long been part of communicating on the Internet. But this activity goes beyond any name-calling. Harassment is described in the dictionary as the act of carrying out many small attacks on the enemy. This is exactly how Net-harassers work. They do not send one or two messages - they send dozens.
This harassment is a symptom of the fact that most of the Internet's users are men - about 80 per cent, according to a recent electronic opinion poll. Young men are also disproportionately represented. Perhaps this helps to explain why harassment has been a problem for women on the Net since they first started using it. Furthermore, it has driven an unknown number of women off the Internet for good.
The messages are sent privately. They affect all ages and types of women. Many women say they feel unsafe posting messages on to the Net. And many believe the few men who send these messages are, in effect, insulting the majority of men who do not. Sincethe senders of messages identify female recipients by looking for first names in e-mail addresses or in contributions to Internet discussion groups, some women have resorted to "hiding" behind male pseudonyms to prevent harassment.
The content of these messages is disturbing. Generally, they vary in style from the sort of thing you might find in a men's soft-porn magazine to explicit sexual messages, usually involving the particular women who receive them. So just who are the men who send these horrible messages?
Some are users with free access to the Internet. Others set out to frighten women off the Net. A sad few get their sexual kicks by writing obscene material to unsuspecting users.
Lisa S has her own theory: "They think any woman on the Net has to be a feminist, so is a legitimate target for abuse." Many women feel these men are immature.
I have suffered the same myself. I have more than 12 years' experience in computing at all levels. Within two weeks of my getting on to Fidonet, a network of largely amateur bulletin board services (BBSs), the abusive messages started arriving.
They got worse: they became sexual attacks, then abusive. One day I downloaded my mail packet and found half was nothing but sexually orientated messages. I rang the Sysop (system operator) of the bulletin board. The writers of the messages were barred from his board.
After a chat to the Sysop of another board, I wrote a long message that was posted into a "Sysop-only" area of Fidonet. I explained that I was seriously thinking about leaving Fidonet because I felt fed up and frightened by the abusive messages I was receiving.
The result? Overwhelming support from the Sysops. As one put it to me: "If you go, they win, and the whole communications hobby loses. We cannot afford to lose any women here."
I now have a coping strategy in place. First, the senders of an abusive message receive a strongly worded reply. If they continue, then they receive a message from the Sysop. If they still persist after this warning, they are barred from that bulletin board. If I ever feel too threatened by these messages, I will go to the police.
Other women seem to feel as strongly about the problem as I do. "It makes me so angry," says Susan J. "I came on to the Net to chat and to debate issues. I didn't join just to be a target of some immature man's ego-boosting attempts."
But do women inadvertently give the come-on to these men? Possibly. For example, forgetting to put a "smiley" - the three symbols ":-)", designed to be looked at on their side - used in electronic communication to show that the writer is joking in a message, is lethal. Never write a message in a rush, say many female users.
Not all women are angels, however. Some seem to go out of their way to attract the wrong type of response. And for them to complain afterwards is hypocritical.
Persuading women to talk about this electronic harassment is not easy, but a few are willing to share their experiences. Paula H hit back as soon as she started to receive harassing messages, and had the offending men barred from the BBS she uses. RachelB was driven out of the comms hobby altogether. An active user of Fidonet and several other areas of the Net, she started receiving harassing messages after posting an opinion on civil liberties.
Helen R operates a bulletin board in the US. "I get paged day and night by men who then want to spend an hour or so online. They tell me what they would like to be doing with my body, and how much I obviously fancy them." She adds: "I put up with it, butI'm sure many other female users give up in disgust."
What can women do to prevent harassment? First, they must be careful about what messages they post and where. Any message needs to be written so that it cannot be open to misinterpretation. Yet even with the most obvious precautions, many women are leaving the Internet and others refusing to join up for fear of being harassed. So what can be done?
First, the problem needs more publicity. Second, women must be prepared to take a tougher stance against the men who send them explicit messages. Sysops on bulletin boards have woken up to what's happening and are attempting to deal with the problem. Thewider Internet poses a different problem. As it is less regulated, women need to be made aware of the potential problems and how to deal with them.
No legal action has yet been taken in this country against men who have sent this type of message. Yet the law provides a possible remedy: sending anything sexually explicit or threatening is illegal under the Telecommunications Act. Harassers could therefore be taken to court. A successful prosecution in this country might well put off any would-be harasser.
Until then, women in Britain may continue to feel that they are unwanted on the Net - and may give up and leave. It takes a strong woman to put up with this type of aggravation. After all, why should she have to?
I don't believe the Net will ever be free of sexual harassment unless every woman who uses it chooses a male pseudonym. Women are going to have to decide for themselves whether these disadvantages outweigh the benefits. Women do not want special treatment, simply more respect.
The future of the Internet depends on attracting more users - especially females. Sexism and harassment need to be tackled by everyone if the Net is to grow. And if the Net becomes a battleground of the sexes, we will all lose out.Reuse content