Say 'no' to online sexist speech

TODAY is Safer Internet Day. While the Government is planning new legislation this year to address harassment, it is essential to remember that online harassment often specifically targets women and girls.

Women and girls often receive sexist messages online. These range from threats of rape and violence to clearly unwanted sexual propositions and demeaning remarks based on gender stereotypes. Simple disagreements can lead to graphic death threats.

This abuse intensifies whenever issues relating to gender and sex discrimination are discussed.

In November last year, an Aware supporter was harassed online for days for publicly opposing song lyrics celebrating rape in military marching song Purple Light. The perpetrator attempted to dig up information on her hobbies and personal relationships, as well as drag her employer into the fray. One Facebook user even suggested that Aware staff "deserved to be raped and tortured".

Online spaces intended for political discussion often feature graphic and demeaning dissections of the body parts and physical appearances of prominent women, and sex acts that commenters imagine performing on them. This harassment can cause severe stress and psychological harm. Even if the thicker-skinned can tough it out, they should not have to.

The sheer volume of such speech creates an environment where all women and girls, even those not directly targeted, can never be sure that their actions and perspectives are assessed and taken seriously on their own merits, without accompanying denigration based on gender.

This has damaging implications for gender equality, as the online world becomes increasingly important both in our personal and professional lives and as a location of influential social and political discussion.

We need a strong community response to truly address this problem. Website, social media and forum moderators must not close their eyes to abuse. Instead, they should vigilantly remove harassing material, as well as warn or even ban users who turn to personal or violent attacks and denigration.

All participants in online discussions should let the perpetrators know that sexist speech will not be tolerated. Only then can women and girls participate in the Internet on an equal footing with men and boys - to the benefit of all.

Sumedha Jalote (Ms)

Communications Executive

Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware)

This letter was first published in The Straits Times on February 11, 2014.

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