University of Georgia
Terry College of Business
How Virtual Is It?
On a summer night in 1995 I witnessed my first gang rape. I stumbled across it while exploring America Olinís (AL) "chat rooms" (areas in which Interment users converse with each other on specific subjects in real time). Having heard so much about the potential for human interaction in this burgeoning communications medium knows as cyberspace, I decided to check it out. Thatís when I began my nocturnal forays on AOL. In my initial searches, I discovered that there was lots of sex - most of it banal reflections of barroom culture. then, one night, as I scrolled through the list of rooms, among those created by individual members rather than AOL, I saw on entitled "Rape Fantasy." Couldnít be, I said to myself, but finally decided that I had to know. So I called it up on-screen and, to my shock, entered a room where a gang rape was taking place. There, on my screen, five men were writing about brutally violating a woman who seemed to be encouraging them.
Hereís what appeared on my screen (although the names of the participants have been changed, they closely parallel the ones they used on-line);
Greg0987: Hold her down, guys.
Panther: I got her legs.
Robodude: I got her pinned.
Greg0987: She wants it bad. Donít ya, bitch?
Brenda: Give it to me. Give it to me good.
Panther: Iíll fuck you so hard, itíll teach you open.
Bigcock: Like it rough, stupid cunt? Hit her in the face, Greg. Smash her.
Pussyeater: Donít move or Iíll cut you with this knife.
Greg0987: Me first, then the rest of you go. Stop moving or Iíll hit you, bitch.
Barely a minute passed - though it felt like hours - before I broke my silence.
Me: What the hell is going on here?
Greg0987: Weíre raping her, what do you think?
Me: I think this is really sick.
Greg0987: Chill out. Weíre just playing.
Me: Playing? Women are raped and beaten every day, and it isnít play.
Greg0987: If you donít like it, get out of here. You donít have to stay.
Before I could respond, I was assaulted by so many private messages telling me to shut up or get lost that my machine jammed and I had to reboot. I sat there in front of my computer, feeling shocked and enraged.
Was this some unusual occurrence? Hardly. After the skirmish over the passage of the Communications Decency Act in 1995, many of these overtly violent spaces seemed to have disappeared from the AOL chat room roster. But their disappearance is an illusion. Although AOL no longer allows words like "rape" or "sex" to be used in naming public spaces, anything goes when it comes to user-created private rooms, and Internet users also skirt the ban by coming up with inventive names. The result is that anyone seeking a "gang bang," or a host of other sexually graphic and often violent scenarios, including "incest," can either find it easily online, or create their own room.
It hardly takes a rocket scientist to guess what may be going on in rooms with titles like "daughterblowsdad," "Unusual Desires," and "Torture Females." When I checked out "Torture Females" last October, a man threatened to burn my hand and hang a 19-pound weight from the inside of my vagina with sharp pins. All this to get him hard. And in one incest room, on more than one occasion, participants who claimed to be teenage boys described acts of sexual violence against female siblings that seemed all too real. But my experience on AOL were pretty tame compared to what goes on in unsupervised Internet Relay Chats, MUDs (multiuser dimensions/dungeons), or similar interactive spaces that have few boundaries or controls imposed by any online service.
The often violent nature of many of the sexual "fantasies" played out in these interactive chat rooms raises important questions about the dark side of human sexuality and the way in which the Internet permits its free and unquestioned expression in easily accessible public spaces. Despite the disclaimers of many of the participants that what occurs on the Net is pure fantasy, questions abound. If "words are deeds," as Sherry Turkle, a sociology of science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon & Schuster), what exactly are the deeds being carried out in these spaces? Do they belong merely to the realm of fantasy role-play or do they transform the sexual psyches of the participants? Are fantasies being explored or are past deeds being recounted? Do these games ultimately blur the distinction between fantasy and the reality of womenís sexual desires? Or, since men are so often at the helm of these games, do they merely reinscribe male domination of female sexuality in both realms - the real and the imagined? While participants will tell you they understand the difference between fantasy and reality, what of the lurker who never participates but avidly takes it all in? How can we measure the impact on him or on the woman who consents to an erotic scenario and finds it spiraling out of control?
Given the number of actual rapes that are committed in our society, this online behavior obviously mimics real life. But what effect does it have on us in both our real and virtual lives? Clearly, "virtual rape" is not the same as the rape a woman experiences in the physical world. But something as yet unnamable is going on in chat rooms where an erotic scenario can shift to a gang bang with a few keystrokes from an observing male who jumps in with, "Letís skull-fuck the bitch." It is not that all, or even most, Internet sex is violent; rather, that the potential for violent intrusions hovers around any exchange, be it sexual or not.
Women on the receiving end of this graphic sexual violence on the Net have indeed reported being traumatized by the experience. While many may turn off their computers or leave a chat area if they feel attacked, they often have trouble shaking the memory that a stranger at a far-off computer terminal wanted to hurt them. Vonnie Cesar, a 27-year old nurse and regulate Internet user from Albany, Georgia, is still troubled by an early experience. "I went into a chat room pretending to be a 15-year-old girl, just to see how people would respond to me," she explains. "One of the men asked me to go into a private room with him, and when I did, seven or eight other guys came in and started sending me pictures of women who had been beaten and raped. The picture looked real - not like some studio shot or makeup job. They said then wanted to rape me, spank me until I bled. What made it especially scary is that, as far as they knew, I was just a young girl, a virgin in fact."
Cesarís story has disturbing implications. What if she had actually been a 15-year-old girl? Or what if one of the male participants, some of whom may be teenagers themselves, decided to act his sick fantasies out on a real girl? While most Internet providers allow parents to restrict childrenís access to sexually explicit areas online, the reality is that not all parents become so involved. Consequently, there are many young people frequenting Internet chat rooms and being influenced by what they encounter. For young people still learning the difference between fantasy and reality, the lessons may well be that violence is a normal part of male behavior, that for men sexual domination is erotic, and that for women passivity and a willingness to be victimized are the rule.
Because the Internet is still fairly new, it remains to be seen how such violent role-playing will affect our sexual relationships and our larger goals of ensuring male respect for women. "The question is, are we desensitizing people about how they can relate to each other, rather than helping them move toward more compassionate relationships?" asks Patti Britton, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist and a spokeswoman for Feminists for Free Expression, an anticensorship group. Regardless of the risks, Britton remains opposed to stifling free speech. "I donít think we can draw a casual link at this point, but what I do know is that what we suppress, expresses. If we keep our fantasies in darkness, they grow stronger. So maybe weíll find that through the Internet, weíre ĎGestaltingí out the demons that keep us from having healthy relationships." Perhaps. But isnít it more likely that airing such violent inclinations freely and without reproach will merely normalize these tendencies, insuring society to the viciousness and inequality at its core?
No doubt, the Internet makes it easier for disturbed people to find each other or to identify unwitting victims. Participantsí risk of being victimized is heightened by the fact that the Internet also encourages a false sense of trust and of whatís real and whatís make-believe. There is no eye contact in cyberspace, no opportunity to hear the inflection in a personís voice. A person can omit certain facts about themselves, or accentuate the qualities that might be more socially acceptable so even the most unbalanced person might appear sane online.
Two cases late last year seem to indicate that for some Internet users, there is a dangerous link between online fantasy and real-world behavior. In October, a Maryland woman was found murdered in a shallow grave behind the home of a man she had met on the Internet, to whom she had allegedly expressed a desire to be sexually tortured and killed. Slightly more than a month later, a 20-year-old student at Barnard College in New York City claimed that she had been held captive and sexually assaulted by a Columbia University graduate student she had met on the Internet and agreed to meet in real life. While one of the grad studentís attorneys has cited the womanís sexually graphic e-mail to him in claiming that he "didnít force anybody to do anything," the case points up the essential dilemma about where or whether fantasy and reality intersect. If, as many users assert, what is said online should be taken as fantasy, then the young womanís explicit e-mail should not be taken as evidence of her real-life desires. Or should it?
Given that more and more women are going online, the prevalence of graphic depictions of sexual violence will bring pornography into an increasing number of womenís lives. "Up to now, pornography has been somewhat avoidable," says Gloria Steinem. "You canít avoid the newsstands, but you donít have to open the magazines." Steinem sees some slight benefit to this. "Now, the Internet brings it into your home, and thereís the chance for an important education for people who think itís rare or harmless, or who donít realize how sadistic pornography really is." A woman seeking anything from an erotic online encounter to professional networking could find herself being accosted by some Internet junkie seeking to impose his twisted fantasies. Women if offices also report that pornographic images and fantasies are becoming an increasingly common workplace reality, as male coworkers gather around each otherís computer terminals to check out sex sites online.
As of August 1996, there were approximately 36 million Internet users, a figure that is growing rapidly, according to Nielson Media Research, a polling and tracking group. But although more women are online today than a few years ago, most estimates still hold the ratio of males to females at two to one. For the moment, some of the most flagrant forms of male domination seem to flourish on the Internet because men, by sheer force of their numbers, dicate the tone and content of what occurs. Perhaps the persuasiveness of violent role-playing online is a reflection of male angst in an era of changing gender norms. Perhaps virtual rapist represent patriarchyís storm troops, who hope to hold the forces of history at bay by engaging in this last stand on the edge of a new frontier. If this is the case, sexual violence online may function as both an assertion of dominance and a means of chasing women away from the Internet. The experience of Susan Racer, a student at New York University, who reports being accosted upon entering some chat rooms by messages such as "Iíve just smacked you, and youíre lying on the floor" is an all too familiar one. Itís as if she is being immediately reminded of her place in the virtual world before she has a chance to assert herself there.
That many Internet providers guarantee users anonymity adds to the sense of license. People can choose screen names that disguise their identities and gender. Providers also allow users to create a profile of themselves - a brief and publicly accessible resume indicating age, sex, hobbies, and hometown - at their own discretion. Some users never submit any information, others stay close to the truth, and still others choose to alter their profiles to reflect whatever role or identity they wish to take on.
While anonymity makes sense in online support groups for survivors of abuse or incest, it also enables would-be aggressors to act without repercussions. "People experiment online with identities and actions they would never actually adopt in real life," says Claudia Springer, an English and film studies professor at Rhode Island College and author of Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Post-industrial Age (University of Texas Press). "The Internet offers an opportunity to be radically other than oneself without suffering the consequences."
Disguising oneís gender can provide some protection from online abuse. Nikki Douglas, the editor of the Web Ďzine RiotGrrl, says she sometimes goes online posing as a man to avoid the harassing messages and rape photos she receives when she signs on as herself. But gender cloaking can also take a number of bizarre turns. Consider, for example, that "Brenda," the woman being gag-raped in the chat room I entered, may have been a man posing as a woman. In such cases, these females impersonators are representing their fiction of what women want as thought it were the real thing. "If men are playing the role of the rape victim, they are playing out their fantasies of women responding to rape so they can have this text out there," says Catherine MacKinnon, law professor at the University of Michigan and coauthor, with Andrea Dworkin, of proposed civil rights ordinances recognizing pornography as sex discrimination. "It normalizes the violence for them by making it seem as if the woman likes it."
Certainly some women do consult not only to cybersex but also to violent scenarios. In fact, many techno-feminists argue that this medium represents a kind of sexual revolution for women in which they can act out their wildest desires with complete safety. Women who enjoy eybersex say it has enabled them to explore their sexual fantasies; they can go online and engage in an evening of anonymous sex without the fear they would experience from a similar scene in real life. But as in the case of that Barnard student, the world is not so tidy. Users often forget that across the miles, at another computer, is a real person who may not be trust-worthy or emotionally balanced.
Because women can log off whenever things get too violent. Carla Sinclair, author of Net Chick: A Smart Girl Guide to the Wired World (Henry Holt), denies that women can be sexually violated online. "Youíre not going to get on the Internet and end up attacked in some dark alley," says Sinclair, who posed for the April 1996 "women of the Internet" spread in Playboy. "All this talk perpetuates the idea that women are weak and that they have to be protected. Youíre only a victim if you say you are. You can empower yourself by getting out a chat room when it gets uncomfortable. People have a right to choose where they go, just as they need to take responsibility for the consequences their choices produce."
The problem with the way babe feminists like Sinclair define control and consent is that these world become synonymous with female compliance or retreat. Women either play the game or leave, which is hardly empowering. "In some cases, turning off the machine is a Copt and could be damaging to a womanís perception of herself and her sense of control," argues Laurel Gilbert, coauthor of SurferGrrls (Seal Press), a womenís guide to the Internet. "It could be analogous to the ways in which women shut down after being sexually abused and are left feeling awful about themselves and what happened to them."
But notions of power or freedom are at best an illusion in cases of online violence in which women are submitting to their own violation. Regardless of how "powerful" they may feel, they are still following a patriarchal cultural script that reaffirms gender hierarchy and validates the assumption that all women really want to be treated this way. "I would not call it a feminist triumph because we can choose to have our lovers beat us silly in this or any realm" says Elizabeth Reba Weise, coeditor of Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace (Seal Press). However, "I would draw the distinction between cheerfully playacting with your partner and having someone sew your labia shut. Having your partner call you a slut or a whore online hardly subverts the patriarchal order."
Worse, as MacKinnon argues, is that the consequences of these games may extend beyond the individual woman herself. "The word Ďconsentí can cover up some very important issues. If itís truly a woman being violated, seeming to go along with it, we donít know if she was sexually abused as a child and is therefore feeling this form of assault as being loved. We do know that most women used in pornography were sexually abused as children. But a lot of other women stand to be harmed by her appearing to welcome abuse. Whatever her experience, she isnít the only woman in the world. As all these men enjoy her purported consent to being violated, she gives sexual credibility to a male fantasy that can get other women hurt."
What does all this bode for the future? There have already been cases where sexual violence online has reached beyond the keyboard. It seems inevitable that more such cases will occur. And there is no doubt that new technology will also reshape online interactions. New sites under the CUSeeMe banner have sprung up on the World Wide Web, where users employ standard video cameras to watch each other act out fantasies in real time. According to Donna Hoffman, associate professor of management at Vanderbilt university in Nashville, video-conferencing of this nature, though offering only slow and grainy pictures at present, will likely become more refined in the next few years. In addition to the plethora of interactive CD-ROM sex games available, experts also expect weíll be seeing sensory devices that let users feel what they envision. Bill LeFurgy, editor of the weekly newsletter "Culture in Cyberspace," predicts that "in five to ten years it will probably be possible for people to hook up sensory devices to themselves that let them feel as they would if they were actually doing what they imagine online."
Meanwhile, women are starting to assert themselves online, and a new generation of Internet feminists is emerging with full claims on cyberspace. Some women are posting erotica on the Web, and others are standing up to those who, with violent messages, try to chase them out of chat rooms. One woman has launched her own campaign to seize control of sexually violent chat rooms and turn them into loving spaces. She claims that "this medium has tremendous potential to teach, and I want these guys to learn how they should treat the women in their lives when it comes to sex."
The shortage of women online may give women who choose to engage these men in their playpens more control, since many of them seem willing to consent to any scenario just to have cybersex with a real woman. And some women do see this as an opportunity to assert themselves by creating a woman-friendly climate that provides a more accurate representation of womenís sexuality and humanity. Techno-feminists like Douglas and Weise argue that, rather than fleeing violent spaces, women should turn the tables and hold their ground.
But many of us have no desire to engage the sexually violent Internet user or to play sex games online. So what do we do when they invade our turf? Groups of women together can chase violators out of chat rooms by simply barraging the interloper with "get lost" messages. We can also insist that Internet providers prevent users from changing their online names and profiles at will. While users could remain anonymous, by making them stick to one name, a degree of accountability would be instituted. You wouldnít be able to behave abusively under one name and then take another one to hide behind. Some providers, like The WELL, a small California-based bulletin board, already employ this policy, and users report few problems with sexual violence.
With computers and the Internet becoming an increasing presence in the lives of children, it is important to educate them early about the prevalence of sexual violence online, and about the difference between fantasy and reality. Children should come to the Internet knowing that what exists in the recesses of peopleís imaginations is not necessarily the truth about what they as individuals, or what women and men collectively, may want to experience in real life. Young people should know what kind of people may lurkn online, and be warned not to trust everyone they meet, not to give out personal information, and not to yield their right to this space to cyberspace bullies, or anyone else who tries to manipulate them.
If thereís moral to all this, itís donít just sit back and take the abuse. The most powerful thing women can do is refuse to collaborate.
Debra Michals specializes in writing about womenís entrepreneurship.
Ms. Magazine, March/April 1997
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Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander