Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cyberbullying or Virtual Rape

I have been thinking since the griefing attack in Second Life, about the psychological impact of these attacks. I recognize that a physical, real-world rape is a terrible thing, and do not want to diminish its impact on the victim in any way. Still, I wonder if the effect of being mobbed publicly by images of penises, or being trashed on AutoAdmit is not a similar attack on one's sense of security and belonging. If rape is a crime of violence and domination, not of sexuality, these psychic affronts deserve to be examined as virtual rapes.
There has already been recognized "cyberstalking" or "cyberbullying" (see here for a Wikipedia brief article on the topic):

… harassment by use of electronic devices though means of e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, blogs, mobile phones, pagers, and websites. (snip)

Certain characteristics inherent in online technologies increase the likelihood that they will be exploited for deviant purposes. Personal computers offer several advantages to individuals inclined to harass others. First, electronic bullies can remain “virtually” anonymous. (snip)

Further, it seems that cyber-bullies might be emboldened when using electronic means to carry out their antagonistic agenda because it takes less energy and courage to express hurtful comments using a keypad or a keyboard than with one’s voice. Additionally, cyber-bullies do not have to be larger and stronger than their victims, as had been the case in traditional bullying. Instead of a victim being several years younger and/or drastically weaker than his bully, victim and cyber-bully alike can be just about anyone imaginable.
Second, electronic forums lack supervision.
(Wikipedia "Cyberbullying" visited 3/26/07)

In both the Second Life griefing attack and the AutoAdmit trash-talk attacks, the perpetrators remain anonymous. In fact, on AutoAdmit, the "hottest law student" contest was abruptly called off, not after the women being posted without their consent protested (they were trashed even more when they asked to be removed) – it was called off when a male commentator was inadvertently outed. Oooh.

On the other hand, what is most appalling in both sets of attacks is the misogynistic nature. The griefing attack used penises to disrupt an interview. The attacks on AutoAdmit, while including racist, anti-semitic and homophobic comments, certainly displayed attitudes that devalued women as a group, and specific individuals. There were comments that considered sexual attacks and punishments against these women, and discussed their physical attributes in overtly sexual ways. These are both specific examples of cyberbullying of a sexual nature.

The women attacked both on Second Life and on the AutoAdmit chat have said they felt demeaned, devalued and threatened. Women law students who have been the subject of AutoAdmit attacks have said they felt they could no longer go to the gym, and had trouble attending class. They felt violated and threatened.

At a Yale.edu class website, the professors, Marcia Cohen and Sherrie H. McKenna describe women's reaction to rape.
... but all victims feel varying degrees of fear, guilt, embarrassment and anger. These emotions will not surface all at once but will effect the woman for a long time after the attack. It is important for all those close to her, especially the men to understand her feelings and support her through the crisis.
The fear a woman feels may weave through all aspects of her life. More than likely she was attacked going about her business, feeling safe in her world. Once that security is invaded the woman may be fearful about the once routine activities of her daily life. She may approach strangers and even friends and acquaintances with a new caution.
A woman may feel guilt, wondering why she was the victim. She may question whether she really did “ask for it” or lead someone to the wrong impression. She may also be embarrassed about what other people think of her. These feelings may cause her to avoid sexual relationships for a time.

On the Wikipedia article about rape, these comments about the psychological effects of rape:
Rape has been regarded as "a crime of violence and control" since the 1970s. Psychological analysis literature identifies control as a key component in most definitions of privacy:
• "Privacy is not the absence of other people from one's presence, but the control over the contact one has with them." (Pedersen, D. 1997).
• "Selective control of access to the self." (Margulis, 2003)
Control is important in providing:
• what we need for normal psychological functioning;
• stable interpersonal relationships; and
• personal development. (Pedersen, D. 1997)
Violation of privacy or "control" comes in many forms, with sexual assault and the resulting psychological traumas being one of the most explicit forms. Many victims of sexual assault suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which also center around control issues. Therefore, some argue that it makes more sense to look at the issue of sexual assault as an invasion of privacy (Mclean, D. 1995)
(Wikipedia, Rape, visited 3/26/07)

I think we should consider how virtual worlds -- whether Massively Multi-Player games like Second Life or chat and listserves, enable such attacks on individuals. We should also recognize that the effects of such attacks, whether you call it cyberbullying or virtual rape, are very bad, attacking the victim's security and sense of self. It is interesting that real and virtual rape can be perpetrated against either gender. I wonder if it will be taken more seriously as a crime against the person as more males report attacks against them, either in the real world or the virtual one. Am I too cynical?


Anonymous said...

i agree with you. Have faced the a different level of cyberbullying in SL which have posted on at my blog. Personally i do not think that the AR tool by LL is all that effective. If there's a community watch of residents who look over this sort of harrassment in metaverse we might have less offenders and more peace and dignity to carry on productive work within SL.

Thanks for a great read!

Betsy McKenzie said...

I followed ThinkPink, who has her own story of Second Life sexual attack. More disturbing still, she links to http://tinyurl.com/2awwow , Kathy Sierra's blog, Creating Passionate Users. She tells a very disturbing and eloquent story about cyber bullying against her and the effects on her. She is a technology consultant who canceled appearances due to death threats delivered on the blog meankids, by some of the blogosphere leaders. Very disturbing and disappointing.