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A Discussion of Feminist Theory and Practice:

Cyberfeminism and Intersectionality

Matthew Ponsford
Matthew Ponsford 1 of 38

Feminist Theory and Practice

Articles written by Desrosiers1 and Lewis2 focused on the feminist movement

from different demographic and jurisdictional standpoints in the United States and Britain,

respectively. The authors emphasized the blatant politically centered misogyny of the

United States in contrast to the subtler, but equally pervasive, objectification of women in

Britain. In Canada, Linda Kealeys writing offers further insight into the historical basis

for the oppression of women by men through the deceptive use of new scientific

knowledge.3 In analyzing this theory, it made me realize that womens bodies have not

only been used politically to suppress freedom of choice and independence, but

biological assumptions and sociological rationales have also been utilized to fabricate

particular, private roles for women in society.

Kealeys reference to the sociology of Herbert Spencer and biology of Patrick

Geddes reminded me of the dangerous dichotomy created during the 1800s and early

1900s feminist movement relating to a womans private role in the home compared to the

male-dominated public arena. Similar to the oppression of women in patriarchal societies,

the Holocaust presents a contrasting example of the use of scientific rationale and

research to defend horrific crimes and oppressive tactics. 4 A Minnesota-based

conference explored the role [of] mainstream medicine and science in the creation of the

Nazi state, a discussion point which I think can be applied to the womens movement of

Alisse Desrosiers, What is feminism and why does it still matter? (9 July 2012) online:
<> [Desrosiers].
Abbey Lewis, Why feminism still matters in Britain (and everywhere else) (31 July 2012) online:
<> [Lewis].
Linda Kealey, Introduction: A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada 1880s-1920s
(Toronto: The Womens Press, 1979) at 8 [Kealey].
Arthur L Caplan, The Meaning of the Holocaust for Bioethics (Philadelphia, PA: The Hastings Center,
1989) at 2.
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the early 1900s.5 Both the Holocaust and womens movements demonstrate profound

examples of how science can be utilized to oppress and rigidly control members of

society. Men, particularly state-controlled officers, politicians and other bureaucrats,

possess unprecedented power and, in the case of the womens movement in the early

1900s, that power is used to control and manipulate womens bodies.

Literature continues to grapple with the appropriate use of metaphors, parallels

and analogies to the Nazi era to contemporary discussions surrounding bioethics,

scientific research and biological assumptions. 6 I feel strongly that the womens

movement is an appropriate comparative lens. This is because the less discussed aspect of

womens rights events is of the particular biological qualities used to justify womens

temperaments as separate from their male counterparts; a claim which purports women

held a beneficial, specialized aptitude to handle matters of home and family.7

Although the 1800s saw a rise in the number of middleclass women entering

fields such as medicine, teaching, nursing, journalism and social workareas more

sensitive to human needsgender equality continues to be a struggle in many fields,

including the military. An example is the recent milestone decision in the United States to

end the combat ban for women. Long overdue, the prevailing attitude was that women

could not match men in combat, attributed largely to differences in biology and physical

limitations imposed by widespread misperceptions and gender discrimination.

And we are reminded that however beneficial policy changes may serve women,

for every battle won there is rampant gender-based prejudice permeating society.

Take for example Margaret Wentes controversial opinion suggesting that: physical

Kealey, supra note 3.
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differences between men and women are very large and further men are better fighters

because they are bigger and stronger and can endure far more physical punishment before

they break down.8 The article consists of dangerous physical, sociological and emotional

comparisons between men and women in the presence of a large national readership. It is

clear that politically motivated objectives to exclude women from particular realms are

rampant, even some one-hundred-plus years after the era depicted by Kealey.

But Wentes commentary consists of dangerous biologically derived assumptions

as well. One example includes: If a woman isnt strong enough to carry a wounded

soldier off the field, theyll just work in teams! In 2013, though we would expect the

public discourse to have changed, we witness the common use of biological rationales to

support and validate male superiority over women. In relation to Canadian women

serving in front-line combat since 1989, a counterproductive battlefield trait:

protectiveness and brother-sister protective thought continues to perpetuate the notion

that men save women, allow for womens entry into society and its particular roles, and

control the very nature of womens work once barriers are finally broken.

Although obscure gender-based differences in height, muscle mass and other

physical attributes are highlighted, research does not and cannot support a rational

connection between these statistical differences and womens performance on frontline

battlefields. In fact, the historical exclusion of women from such roles makes it nearly

impossible to compare such connections, which is why Wente relies on anecdotes from

the Canadian Forces to substantiate her discussion. The identity of woman is not

biologically dictated but is actually a social choice.

Margaret Wente, Women in combat: Lets get real, The Globe and Mail (26 January 2013) online:
Matthew Ponsford 4 of 38

It is a disturbing reality, but throughout history the field of biology has been used

disproportionately to objectify, control, undermine, and chastise women. The expectation

was for women to raise children and control the household but remain weak in other

contexts, such as in the military. Although Nazi Germany used science to monstrously

and systematically oppress and murder millions of innocent Jewish men, women,

children and homosexuals, similar tenets of scientific application can be seen today.

Although the form and severity may have shifted, the process is similar and irrefutably

damaging. The result: womens roles in society are further limited by false scientific

rationales. The falsehoods create an inextricable situation; a position which prevents

women from understanding and achieving their equal potential in all aspects of society

including the battlefield.

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Feminism and the Intersectionality of Oppression

The hierarchical relations among women explored in The Race to Innocence:

Confronting Hierarchical Relations Among Women9 reflected the language and tools

used to oppress people from similarly marginalized groups. The commentary showcases

that dominance through difference fulfills self-interests. Society is overshadowed by an

assumption of common oppression. Often, a failure to recognize the intersectionality of

oppression makes women feel compelled to make their own marginality a top priority.

I will attempt to use the framework and discussion developed by Fellows and Razack to

contrast the often divisive and undermined collective challenges within the womens

movement to the battle for full equality within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender

(LGBTQ+) community.

The authors describe a race to innocencethe notion that women in

subordinate positions are somehow uninvolved in the oppression of other women. It was

made clear that measuring who is most oppressed is unproductive and I could not agree

more.10 Narratives of subordination are often discounted in the LGBTQ+ community,

particularly with respect to bisexual and transgendered individuals. A powerful parallel

between this concept and the one that Razack describes is the belief that our own claim

for justice is likely to be undermined if we acknowledge the claims of Others.11 In this

way, the containment of the Other is a making of the dominant self.12 Misperceptions

regarding the struggles of bisexual individuals and, particularly, the lived experiences of

transgendered persons, risks injustice for the entire LGBT community.

Mary Louise Fellows & Sherene Razack, The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations
Among Women (1997-98) 1 J Gender Race & Just 335 [Razack].
Ibid at 6.
Ibid at 7.
Ibid at 10.
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The authors ask: what makes us [women or LGBT individuals] feel so

consistently innocent of one anothers oppression?13 The importance of conditioning our

responses to one another within particular communities arises. Women are both

oppressed persons and oppressors in various contexts, as are gay men and other members

of the LGBTQ+ community. An example that can be contrasted to the womens

movement is the self-shaming of gay men through controversial language such as

faggot, queer and homo. In this way, verbal abuse both is and initiates attack.14

Verbal taunting and abuse that largely begins in classrooms and schoolyards in many

neighborhoods is used in some contexts between gay men to isolate individuals and

subject them to mental turmoil. Similar to the protective mechanism employed by women

in refusing to acknowledge the oppression of other women, some students have taken up

the ideology of fag as a set of practices and activities for protecting themselves.15

Girl jokes are sometimes used to taunt self-identifiedor perceived to begay men,

revealing the relationship between the derogatory use of fag and the socially dominant

narrative of heterosexual masculinity.16 In this way, gay men gain privilege by engaging

in behavior that subordinates other gay men.

Another example of the destructive use of language to disenfranchise and

subordinate transgendered individuals from the collectivity of the LGBT discourse is a

harmful comment made by actor Neil Patrick Harris in December 2011.17 On an episode

of Live With Kelly! Harris used the offensive term of tranny, while imitating a

Ibid at 8.
George W Smith, The Ideology of Fag: The School Experience of Gay Students (2005) 39: 2 The
Sociological Quarterly 309.
Ibid at 323.
Ibid at 325.
GLAAD Blog, Actor Neil Patrick Harris Apologizes for Using Anti-Trans Slur on Live With Kelly,
online: Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation < /blog/actor-neil-patrick-
Matthew Ponsford 7 of 38

transgender person. An openly gay man, Harris quickly apologized for the use of this

dehumanizing slur, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)

reiterated that most transgender people associate that term with personal experiences of

violence, hatred and derision.18 Again, we are reminded of the interlocking structure of

dominance within the LGBT community as a parallel to the same trends and challenges

present in the womens movement.

Another example of gay men projecting dominance onto other subordinated

groups includes an interesting discussion of gay mens sexism and male privilege in

relation to women. Yolo Akili, an online blogger, vividly describes an incident at a gay

club in Atlanta where a white gay male aggressively grabbed a heterosexual black

womans breasts.19 The man stated: Its no big deal, Im gay, I dont want herI was

just having fun.20 The author used various examples to illustrate the minimization of

assault by gay cisgender men and women who perceive or acknowledge the perpetrators

as gay men. In this way, gay mens assault against women, both marginalized groups,

underscores the dominant cultures message to women: their bodies are not their own.21

It is both shocking but also not unexpected to witness such profound sexism and

misogyny by gay men toward women.

As has been illustrated, just as women are hierarchically positioned in relation to

one anotherthrough race, class, sexual orientation, ableism, religious affiliation and

other hierarchiesmembers of the LGBT community continue to perceive themselves as

innocent. The community must acknowledge that the collective wisdom of competing

Yolo Akili, Gay Mens Sexism and Womens Bodies, online: The Good Men Project
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marginalities propels social justice forward. Trivializing differences destabilizes an

otherwise cohesive equality-seeking movement, for both women and LGBT individuals.

As oppressed persons, women and LGBT communities must understand that despite their

subordinate position in society they are nonetheless implicated in the oppression of others.
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Social Constructions of Gender Identity

We live in a world where individuals who do not fit conventional gender

assumptions of heterosexual hegemony and normative identity remain vulnerable to

oppressive violence, mischaracterization and exclusion. Gemma Edgars Re Alex/Real

Alex: Transsexual Narratives and their Possibilities for Resistance22 and Shes a Boy I

Knew23 by Vancouver filmmaker Gwen Haworth explore the challenges of female-to-

male (FTM) and male-to-female (MTF) gender transition in Australia and Canada. Both

works illustrate gender, sexuality and identity-centered prejudices. In the analysis to

follow, I aim to: (a) explore the concept that gendered identity is unnatural because

anatomy is not determinative of identity; (b) discuss how Re Alex is an example of gender

as a social construction and (c) explain why identity policing both reveals and

perpetuates discrimination by restricting gender to woman and man.

First, transsexual individuals are those who believe their real sex is opposite to

that reported at birth; a difference exists between ones external genitalia and brain

sex.24 The Court in Re Alex allowed a name change on Alexs birth certificate, passport

and health card. This decision was crucial for Alex to self-identify socially and legally as

male. Since September 2011, Australia no longer requires sex reassignment surgery to

issue a passport with a new gender. As well: A passport may be issued to gender diverse

applicants in M (male), F (female) or X (indeterminate/unspecified).25 The Australian

Governments revised policy removes discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual

orientation and gender identity. As of May 2012, Passport Canada has considered a

Gemma Edgar, Re Alex/Real Alex: Transsexual Narratives and their Possibilities for Resistance (2005)
23 Austl Feminist LJ 79 [Edgar].
Gwen Haworth, Shes a Boy I Knew, DVD (Vancouver, BC: Shapeshifter Films, 2007).
Edgar, supra note 22 at 81.
Australian Passport Office, Sex and Gender Diverse Passport Applicants: Revised Policy, online:
Australian Government < sexgenderapplicants.aspx>.
Matthew Ponsford 10 of 38

similar measure to allow a change in gender on Canadian passports, or X instead of M

or F. 26 Currently, gender reassignment surgery is required for gender change on

Canadian passports, a limitation critics rightfully point out as discriminatory against those

individuals who are financially unable to undergo surgery, or simply choose not to.27

Shes a Boy I Knew reminds us of the relationship among gender, sex and

technology in portraying identities as woman or man and the dangerous identity

policing which pervades society. In reality, the concept of gender is a stratified

continuum, but rarely is this notion captured through technology and print media.

An alarming example of the sexism that is rooted in preconceived notions of gender is a

recent Dossier magazine cover featuring Andrej Pejic, an androgynous Australian-born

male model.28 The models hair and makeup is portrayed as typically female and it is

unclear to the viewer if the model reveals a chest or small breasts. The controversy began

when both Barnes & Noble and Borders bagged the magazine as it would for

pornographya decision which would not have been made had the image portrayed a

non-ambiguous and gender-normative male chest.29

The blogger questions why womens breasts are seen as a threat to public order

often targeted by the lawyet the sight of a males chest is unquestioned. The author

argues that a mans body becomes obscene when his gender becomes ambiguous or

feminine enough to warrant his (or her) gender suspect. So what, then, is it about

gender that propels the masses to categorize biological, physical and personality traits as

Tristin Hopper, Genderless passports under review in Canada, National Post (8 May 2012) online:
Lisa Wade, What Makes a Body Obscene? (27 December 2011), online: Sociological Images
Matthew Ponsford 11 of 38

male or female? Why does society force individuals to self-identify as a particular

gender when intersex people are born with ambiguous chromosomes or genitalia and may

wish to identify as neither?

The unnatural state of socially constructed gender is widespread; our concept of

gender is so deeply entrenched that examples such as Re Alex require individuals to

literally assemble proof of their identify. Alex is not alone in having his genitals,

chromosomes, hormones and gonads medically examined to further elucidate how ones

sense of self is produced.30 The process itself is demeaning and proves further reliance

on external norms. Alex was also expected to wear certain clothes, possess a certain name

and use particular washroom facilities. In this way, everyday choices by Alex and other

individuals are no longer their own but comprise the images and impersonated norms

projected by those around them.

Evident in the captivating stories of Alex and Gwen, like so many transsexual and

transgender experiences, is the sense of losing and regaining control; surviving and

persevering depends on fleeing societys established understanding of what is sex and

gender. As seen in Shes a Boy I Knew, focusing on strong interpersonal relationships

challenges typical depictions of transsexuals as ostracized and marginalized people

commonly witnessed through media and technology. There remains an underlying hope

that relationships can be amelioratednot fragmentedby recognizing the plasticity of

identity, if one chooses to identify as anything at all.

Edgar, supra note 22 at 90.
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Third Wave Feminism and the New Age Feminist Movement

The cornerstone of third wave feminism is the idea that because no monolithic

version of woman exists, we can no longer speak with confidence of womens issues;

instead we need to consider that such issues are as diverse as the many women who

inhabit our planet.31 Third wave feminism originated in the early 1990s and is generally

a more inclusive framework of feminism, acknowledging that women are of many races,

ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. The third wave perspective interprets feminist

values from individual experience rather than an overarching collective identity. The

movement is situated in an era of economic growth amidst rapidly expanding information

technologies.32 Budgeons essay and Stepford Wives33 are powerful illustrations of the

fragmentation between 1975 notions of femininity and socially transformative third wave

feminism. In my analysis, I will use external works to support Budgeons theory that

popular culture is simultaneously responsible for the celebration of female empowerment

through the third wave and the critique of this new-age feminist movement.

In contrast to third wave feminism, postfeminism is fundamentally opposed to

broadening the feminist struggle because feminism is dismissed as an issue of the past.34

Gender equality is said to have been realized and the achievements of women celebrated.

Third wave feminism, then, is often criticized as an ambiguous discourse situated

between second-wave feminism and postfeminist thought. Although society has come a

long way from the predominantly domesticated existence of women depicted in

Stepford Wiveswomen primarily concerned with matters of the homethird wave

Shelley Budgeon, The Contradictions of Successful Femininity: Third-Wave Feminism, Postfeminism
and New Femininities in Rosalind Gill & Christina Scharff eds, New Femininities: Postfeminism,
Neoliberalism and Subjectivity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 279 at 282 [Budgeon].
Stepford Wives, 1975, DVD (Columbia Pictures, 2001) [Stepford Wives].
Budgeon, supra note 31 at 281.
Matthew Ponsford 13 of 38

feminism acknowledges that feminist values remain important but the tactical approach

for achieving the central aims of feminism must change. This is because present-day

challenges present themselves in subtler forms compared to historically overt behaviors

that disadvantaged and undermined women.

For example, although women have gradually entered professions typically

comprised of men, pay equity remains troubling. In 2013, the gender wage gap stands at

28% in Ontario. For every $1.00 earned by a man, a woman earns $0.72; 10-15% of the

gap is attributed to systemic gender discrimination.35 Statistics alone, including pay

equity, women elected to public office, the number of female CEOs, the sponsorship of

women in sport, and other inequalities, can easily refute postfeminist assertions of gender

equality.36 In this way, contradictions of successful femininity exist between postfeminist

thought and the third wave and within the third wave movement itself.

One of the criticisms of third wave feminism is the ambiguous way in which

feminist values are defined in an increasingly complex generation. A common vision of

feminism is increasingly difficult. Conceptual irregularities within the new feminist

project are well documented, including a criticism that the movement seems to be a

confusing hodgepodge of personal anecdotes and individualistic claims.37 Conversely,

much of the literature is united in that women, as part of the new feminist movement,

share more commonalities than differences. One academic noted: [today] the presence

of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride.

Pay Equity Commission: Equal Pay For Work of Equal Value, The Gender Wage Gap, online:
Government of Ontario <>.
Lewis, supra note 2.
Claire Snyder, What Is Third-Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay (2008) 34 Journal of Women
in Culture and Society 175.
Matthew Ponsford 14 of 38

We scarcely notice that we have itits simply in the water.38 The statement begs the

question: if feminist thought is so deeply intertwined into the everyday narrative for

women of todays generation, is the concept of third wave feminism redundant? Or has

the third wave imposed an oversimplification of feminist history?

Another concern raised is that by categorizing the womens movement into

waves the continuous stream of activism throughout time is overlooked; what

remains is a conceptual/discursive gag on inter-generational politics.

Differentiation among generational understandings of feminist critique may create further

divisiveness, as noted by Dean, but the multifaceted and complex nature of modern

identitiesincluding race, colonialism, sexual orientation, disability and social status

may necessitate a more fluid feminism project. In this sense, the third wave seems very

much relevant and necessary.

Lastly, it is interesting that the third wave movement has empowered women

through their reflection of and relationship to popular culture trends. Often third wave

feminists include economically privileged women who are sex-positive, less likely to be

anti-porn, and more likely to be inclusive of men in the pro-feminist agenda. 40

Despite the distinction between prior feminist movements, generational difference

dominates the critical exchange among feminists. For these reasons, it is likely the

present generations malleable conception of third wave feminism will continue to reflect

the ideas, perspectives, attitudes, behaviors and consumer-centric trends of mainstream

Western culture.

Jonathan Dean, Whos Afraid of Third Wave Feminism? On the Uses of the Third Wave in British
Feminist Politics (2009) 11 International Feminist Journal of Politics 334 at 337 [Dean].
Ibid at 344.
Ibid at 339.
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Women in the Workplace: Discrimination and Employment Challenges

Gender segregation within the science and technology job market described in

Wajcmans article leads to an important question: is femininity truly compatible with

technological pursuits, or do entering technical domains require women to sacrifice

major aspects of their feminine identity?41 The analysis that follows will attempt to

explore the origins of a troublesome industry-based gender deficit by analyzing patterns

of employment and workplace discrimination, the domestic responsibilities expected of

women, and how the politics of technology remains crucial to the further inclusion of

women in historically male-dominated fields.

The 1975 Stepford Wives 42 reduces women to objects and depicts the

apprehension of women entering the fields of science and technology. Their roles and

desires are explored, including their attempt to manage family and motherhood, establish

careers and uphold feminist values. Technology in the film is portrayed as more than an

object or a machine; it also includes what Wajcman describes as the cultures and

practices associated with technologies.43 Technology is used as a form of control and is

represented by the Mens Association; a world without women. As Bobbie and Joanna

begin their quest for scientific testing to ensure the communitys water safety, the women

find themselves constrained. They are victims of patriarchal technoscience (the notion of

science and technology) and have been refused entry into a male-only space, rendered

vulnerable and silenced.

Judith Wajcman, Feminist theories of technology (2009) Cambridge Journal of Economics, online:
<> [Wajcman].
Stepford Wives, supra note 33.
Wajcman, supra note 41 at 1.
Matthew Ponsford 16 of 38

By repressing and disempowering women, their place in society is restricted,

symbolizing the social and gender inequality intersecting science, technology and human

relationships. A similar dystopian reality was depicted in Margaret Atwoods The

Handmaids Tale.44 The Republic of Gilead requires Handmaids to bear children for the

elite. Offred, the protagonist, is obliged to have sex with the Commander monthly. She

has no freedomeven her identity, like all Handmaids, consists of her Commanders

name, Fred, preceded by Of. Common themes between both of these works include

widespread sexual violence, complacency in a totalitarian state, and the political

subjugation of womens bodies.

So, in reality, why do women continuously struggle to gain entry into

technoscience fields? As depicted in Stepford Wives, women often endure oppression

with minimal resistance and become complacent with male power. But when women did

fight back, men attributed a womans recognition of control as a medical concern. Today,

women are visible and vocal. No longer do women succumb to male desire for

submissive and attractive housewives who follow commands with little control over their

own lives, as seen in the film or Atwoods novel.

Simply put, there is no clear explanation for the exclusion of women from

technoscience fields, but one factor is certainly historical discrimination against women.

This includes anticipated maternity leave and expectations of childcare responsibilities in

the home. Women are expected to shop for groceries, cook and clean, raise children,

remain sexually accessible, and glorify their husbands. 45 In Stepford Wives, Walter,

Joannas husband, expected his wife to make the house sparkle and ensure the kids

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985).
Susanna Paasonen, The Best Wives Are Artifacts: The Stepford Wives, Feminism, and Technology in
Figures of Fantasy at 37.
Matthew Ponsford 17 of 38

looked presentable.46 Thankfully the discourse is changing (but not the statistics). Some

employers now allow and encourage paternity leave as part of parental leave rights.

Canadas Parental Benefits Program (PBP) has slowly evolved to promote gender

equality and to help mitigate gender stereotypes.47 The assumption that only mothers can

use parental leave fuel[ed] employment discrimination against the recruitment and

promotion of women.48 Economists and policy makers continue to reevaluate unpaid

domestic work as a means of promoting gender equality, social cohesion, and human

development.49 A report published by the International Labour Organization confirms

that gender disparities in the division of labour between paid and unpaid work also

persist, with men spending more of their work time in remunerative employment and

women performing most of the unpaid work.50

The traditional roles of women in the home and men with machines is again

related to the social construction of gender historicallyand the false depiction of

contrasting male/female traits of reason/emotion and hard/soft with notions of

masculinity and femininity.51 In this way, men not only monopolize the use of science

and technology, but gender is embedded in technology itself.52 Thus technology is a key

source of masculinity and male power, materialized in tools and techniques separate from

female identity.

Stepford Wives, supra note 33.
Statistics Canada, Fathers Use of Paid Parental Leave (Ottawa, ON: Perspectives on Labour and
International Labour Organization, The Unpaid Care of Work Paid Work Connection (Geneva: Policy
Integration and Statistics Department, 2009).
Ibid at 1.
Wajcman, supra note 41 at 2.
Ibid at 4.
Matthew Ponsford 18 of 38

It is clear that the notion that science and technology is a masculine-centered

arena continues to be a relevant and important aspect of the political discourse. Feminist

scholars continue to critique, evaluate and challenge traditional notions of gender-centric

technological use and creation. Emerging fields such as genetic engineering and

reproductive technology are challenging notions of gender identity as elucidated by

Wajcman. Moving forward, technologies will continue to be defined and shaped through

the social context in which they operate, just as gender is socially constructed relative to

the technoscience in which male and female identities coexist. The economic, social and

cultural conditions in which women find themselves will continue to determine how they

interact with and reshape the technoscience around them.

Matthew Ponsford 19 of 38

Revenge Porn and the Struggle for Social Equality for all Women
Offline gender-based discrimination is compounded by cyber harassment, attacks

often directed against women and their bodies, resulting in long-lasting consequences and

damage. Once suggested a utopian creation, cyberspace was described as a site of

liberation and self-creation, a global village, but has instead equipped cyber harassers

with powerful tools to discriminate, objectify, and defame women. Men are the

predominant perpetrators. In this analysis, I will explore how ubiquitous online revenge

porn websites contribute to the damaging phenomenon of victim blaming women in the

real, offline world; in what ways the online and offline realities of women are

increasingly blurred; and how revenge porn users are hindering the realization of social

equality for all women.

Franks described cyberspace as a platform that reinforces the unwilling

embodiment of women. 53 Although women increasingly utilize online spaces as an

attempt to escape offline objectification and harassment, women are instead subjected to

similar forms of objectification online, an experience dubbed double-embodiment.

Avatars and misrepresentations are now used to portray, harass, and subjugate women,

often resulting in long-lasting embarrassment, through imagery, multimedia, and online

social networks.

Victim blaming is often present in former relationships between men and women;

men ask women to share nude or revealing photos or videos and, feeling pressured,

women provide materials to male partners. Upon breakup, men use offensive language to

degrade their former partners, calling the women sluts and whores, and suggesting

Mary Anne Franks, Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace (2011) 20 Colum J
Gender & L 224 at 255 [Franks].
Matthew Ponsford 20 of 38

they are asking for it, deserve it, or should expect the treatment. The pattern is

evident in the recently proposed class-action lawsuit in the United States against, its website host, and male users who uploaded photos.

The case involves over 24 women who had former male partners send intimate photos to

the online website.54 Marianna Taschinger is part of the lawsuit. After sending nude

photos to her boyfriend, the images were uploaded to the website with her name and

personal information. The former boyfriend threatened to post more photos and called her

a slut.55 All of this was done without Taschingers consent.

After the case was filed in Texas, and fearing legal action, the website manager

promised to assess the situation and disabled public access. The site owners then allowed

paid subscribers to view, rate, and comment on the womens pornographic images.

Through this website, women were exposed to offline, physical threats as their

whereabouts was readily traceable. The case is a profound example of what Franks

describes as a reduction of women to their bodies by misogynist male forces.56

The disempowerment of women by was propelled further with the

websites assertion that: Maybe [sic] the site provided an outlet for anger that prevented

physical violence (this statement will be very controversial but is at least worth thinking

about).57 I would argue that evidence and anecdotes from women like Ms. Taschinger

reveals that online portrayals of women and their bodies through revenge porn directly

increases the likelihood that those particular womenor otherswill be exposed to

Carol Kuruvilla, Revenge porn? Women sue website charging X-rated pics of them were uploaded on
site and rated without their knowledge, New York Daily News (27 January 2013) online: Daily News
< national/website-sued-x-rated-pics-posted-women-knowledge-article-
1.1248924> [Kuruvilla].
Franks, supra note 53 at 252.
Kuruvilla, supra note 54.
Matthew Ponsford 21 of 38

physical violence or harm. Women part of the lawsuit lost jobs, relocated, and changed

their surnames, fearing their safety.

The case illustrates the widespread legal and social challenges revenge porn

presents. Women have been bullied, isolated, harassed, and even commit suicide as a

result of excruciating humiliation. An example of such a tragedy is the case of Amanda

Todd, a Vancouver teenager who killed herself after she flashed a strangers online

webcam and her topless photo went viral.58 The teen posted a heart-wrenching YouTube

video depicting the anxiety, depression, and harassment she faced daily.

I would argue that the most tragic dimension of the devastating and sexist revenge

porn culture is societys reluctance to acknowledge the need for perpetrators to be held

legally and morally accountable. Instead, women are blamed, tormented, and ridiculed.

Harsh comments include: Dont want to show your bits to the world? Keep your clothes

on. Its that simple and Any woman stupid enough to allow anyone to take nude pics

deserves to have them online.59 The victim-blaming mentality has perpetuated an offline

rape culture that disproportionately affects women and elucidates the gendered dimension

of female bodies as public property.60 Further, the ubiquitous nature of technology,

mobile devices, and online social media streams has worsened violations of womens

privacy and agency. Cochrane questions: [are we] perfectly fine with women being

Ryan Grenoble, Amanda Todd: Bullied Canadian Teen Commits Suicide After Prolonged Battle Online
And In School, The Huffington Post (11 October 2012) online: Huff Post Crime
Melinda Tankard Reist, Revenge Porn: Women stalked, bullied, lost jobs, forced to relocate, change
their name and died (31 January 2013), online: mtr <
Kira Cochrane, Creepshots and revenge porn: how paparazzi culture affects women, The Guardian (22
September 2012) online: <
paparazzi-women> [Cochrane].
Matthew Ponsford 22 of 38

sexual, as long as they are objects and they are passive? 61 In contrast to women

expressing themselves sexually, men are encouraged to do so, and are rewarded for such

behavior. And men are never asked what they were wearing when raped; meanwhile

women remain objectified, chastised, threatened, and blamed.

The double-embodiment effect explored by Franks is a stark reminder of the

threats women face in cyberspace and real life as well as how these realities intersect.

Victim blaming through offline channels affects womens online privacy and security,

and the worsening physical realities women face, originating from dangerous online

discourse, is also problematic. Responsibility by male perpetrators must replace the idea

that women themselves must prevent assault, abuse, and harassment. Gender equality for

women will not be realized without changing the discourse in our neighborhoods, schools,

workplaces, homes and, irrefutably, our online communities.

Matthew Ponsford 23 of 38

Cyberspace and Lasting Racist Ideologies in a Digital Age

Racial minorities are exposed to discrimination on a daily basis around the world.

An unfortunate reality is how prejudice has manifested itself in a diverse array of online

spaces. Online journalists, videogame fans, and social media users have all suffered

online racist abuse. For women, religious and ethnic minorities, and LGBT individuals,

online communities have facilitated widespread sexism, Islamophobia, racism,

homophobia, and transphobia. Sometimes this harassment and intimidation is directed at

members of an individuals own community. In this analysis, I will attempt to explore the

danger in portraying white people or the white race as the norm in online

communities, how cyberspace contributes to lasting racist ideologies, and how this harm

has profound offline implications for minority groups who seek meaningful employment.

Racist content online presents itself in many forms. As Lisa Nakamura discusses

in her work, online video games depict racism and other forms of discrimination as

technology evolves. 62 Nakamura described fives types of online racism: (1) visual

profiling of users; (2) voice profiling of users; (3) racism against avatars; (4) anti-

immigrant racism in virtual worlds; and (5) identity tourism. Identity tourism is when a

person holds an identity that is not theirs and, by passing as the Other, acquires a false

sense of empathy of what it is like to hold that identity.63

I wish to focus attention toward the visual profiling of online users and how this

phenomenon reveals itself within the LGBT online community, particularly regarding

Lisa Nakamura, Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet, online:
<> [Nakamura].
In-class viewing 5 Types of Online Racism Dr. Lisa Nakamura, online: <
Matthew Ponsford 24 of 38

Grindr, a location-based mobile hookup application used by gay men.64 Grindr is a useful

comparative lens because it illustrates the notion of the white person as the

predominant online user, and the racist ideologies expressed by self-identifying white gay

male users toward minorities. Bielski notes online dating is now the second most popular

form of matchmaking.65 Grindr is particularly worrisome given the blatantly offensive

and deplorable racist comments made by gay men toward minorities. Profiles include:

No Asian, No Indian, No Latino, No Black and NO CHOCOLATE/RICE. 66

Interestingly, Grindrs users retaliated through a revenge-porn-like website, submitting

racist and offensive Grindr profiles to Douchebags of Grindr.67

As Young describes the anonymizing power of cyberspace, presuming that

when anonymity disappears, people are generally more civil, it is interesting to note the

opposite trend in the use of Grindr by gay men.68 Although users are easily identifiable,

with profile photos and usernames containing part or all of their real names, the shift to

real identities online has not combatted or minimized racism. Often, users believe listing

ethnic preferences, as one would for smoking or drinking, is appropriate and fair.69

The conflicting views of sexual preferences as either racist or personal taste has proven


Zosia Bielski, No Asian. No Indian: Picky dater or racist dater? The Globe and Mail (6 September
2012) online: <
dater/article548736/?service=mobile> [Bielski].
Douchebags of Grindr, All your douchebag needs from the profiles of Grindr, online: Douchebags of
Grindr <>.
Jeffrey Young, As Technology Evolves, New Forms of Online Racism Emerge, The Chronicle of
Higher Education (13 March 2011) online: <
evolves-new-forms-of-online-racism-emerge/30351> [Young].
Bielski, supra note 64.
Matthew Ponsford 25 of 38

It is interesting to ask: do individuals monitor racism in real space? In fact, in

many contexts, we fail to effectively address racism offline. Either an individual is not

cognizant of the racist ideologies present, or they succumb to fears of attributing

potentially false accusations, damaging otherwise strong interpersonal relationships

professional or otherwiseor simply lack the courage to speak up. Online racism may be

easier to detect or monitor, given the permanency of written or uploaded content, but the

behavior remains difficult to combat. An example of online monitoring includes an email

response from Grindr, which stated that users engaged with [material] perceived to

incite racism, bigotry, hatred, or physical harm of any kind should be banned.71 It is still

unclear how many users are banned, but, indisputably, wide-scale online racism


Patterns of online racist behavior can also appear offline in real space. Racist

online discourse, sometimes dismissed as harmless or trivial, can reflect the lived realities

of minorities as they seek meaningful employment. Research suggests that ethnic-

sounding names can trigger subconscious discrimination that contributes to a lack of

response from prospective employers, despite exceptional educational qualifications, and

job experience. 72 A study entitled: Why do some employers prefer to interview

Matthew, but not Samir? found that employers were 40% more likely to interview a job

candidate with an English-sounding name compared to an ethnic name, despite otherwise

identical qualifications.73 One human resources manager commented on the findings,

stating: Foreign sounding names may be overlooked due to a perception that their

Wallace Immen, How an ethnic-sounding name may affect the job hunt, The Globe and Mail (17
November 2011) online: <
sounding-name-may-affect-the-job-hunt/article555082> [Immen].
Matthew Ponsford 26 of 38

English language skills may be insufficient on the job. 74 These perceptions were

unsubstantiated because applicants possessed identical English qualifications to their

English-sounding-named counterparts. It is interesting to consider how racist behavior

can present itself in a diverse array of online and offline spaces: dating websites, the job-

seeking process, and online message boards for minority journalists and reporters, as

discussed by Hasan.75

Extending Nakamuras lecture and written work to the racist behavior exhibited

by some gay white male users of Grindr demonstrates how cyberspace contributes to

lasting racist ideologies with respect to online dating websites, workplace recruitment

initiatives, and other online and offline interactions. Damaging racist conduct can be hard

to monitor and combat but the first step is recognizing the existence of online racist abuse.

As new forms of online racism emerge, it will become increasingly important to analyze

how depictions of race and racism online impact the real lives of individuals financially,

socially, psychologically, and in other respects.

Mehdi Hasan, Online racist abuse: weve all suffered it too, The Guardian (11 July 2012) online:
<> [Hasan].
Matthew Ponsford 27 of 38

Commercialization of Sexbots and the Dehumanization of Women

High-tech robotic sex dolls, commonly referred to as sexbots, are becoming

startlingly realistic in their manufacturing and design, and their use has become

increasingly popular.76 An interesting legal question is whether or not the distribution or

circulation of sexbots constitutes criminally obscene material.77 Sexbot production may

relate to specific provisions of the Criminal Code,78 particularly sections 163(1) and (2)

which discuss materials tending to corrupt morals.79 In Canada, a high threshold exists

to ascertain the undue exploitation of sex.80 Legal arguments are highly relevant and

timely, but discussion to follow will focus on wider harms and ethical considerations

sexbots compel society to face, namely: (1) how sexbots impact the accessibility of

women and assault against them; (2) how the realistic construction of sexbots reduce

women to sexual objects; and (3) how the commercialization of sexbots has contributed

to an unprecedented level of degradation and dehumanization of women.

Although sexbots have been manufactured for women, men overwhelmingly use

synthetic sex partners to fulfill unrealistic desires and fantasies.81 Male use of sexbots

will be the focus of this analysis; surveys estimate 80-95% of sexbot fetishists as male.82

Once an unfathomable assertion, robotics research has paved way for an emerging era

Katie Black and James Wishart, R. v. Butler and the Roboticization of Obscenity: A case for applying
the Butler theory of harm to the rise of sexbots [unpublished, 2008] at 2 [Black].
Bob Tarantino, Gross: criminal obscenity in film and TV productions (2 January 2013), online:
utm_source=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed&utm_medium =HTML +email+-+Body++ General+section&
&utm_term=> [Tarantino].
Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 163(1)(2).
Tarantino, supra note 77.
Hank Pellissier, Sexbots for Women, online: Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies
<> [Pellissier].
Matthew Ponsford 28 of 38

that may live side by side with, and eventually love and be loved by, robots,83 a notion

that is already a reality for some male sexbot consumers.

A real danger is the sheer resemblance many of the sexbots produced have to real

womenrobots often engaged in realistic physiological reactions. Take Andy, for

example, a female sexbot created by First Androids in Germany, a life-like doll that holds

a pulse, simulates breathing, performs oral sex, and contains an orgasm-responsive

g-spot.84 Andy has been marketed as more sophisticated than RealDolls.85 Both of these

creations exemplify the increasingly realistic nature of sexbots; men can literally select a

female dolls height, weight, breast size, shoe size, face and facial expression, skin tone,

makeup (eye shadow, eye liner, nail polish), hairstyleeven pubic hair.86 A critical

danger is the vast racial implications: requests for doll skin tone orders include Asian

and light African.87 Including ethnicity as part of a mans order further reduces

females to fantasy-fulfilling sexual objects, enables undue accessibility of women, and is

particularly harmful for racial minorities.

Moral and safety issues have also been raised: do sexbots truly pose dangers to

living women? I fundamentally believe sexbots endanger womennot only because of

their impact on sexual assault and misogynistic behavior in the real world, or marital

dysfunction and breakdown, 88 but because sexbot manufacturers commercialize and

market sexist products with incomparable sophistication. Men can literally exchange one

Robotics, Science & Tech, Robot Programmed to Fall in Love with a Girl Goes too Far, online: Reality
Pod <>.
Kristi Scott, Andy Droid: Your Sex Doll Has Arrived, online: h+ <
16/andy- droid-your-sex-doll-has-arrived>.
Black, supra note 76.
Female Doll Order Form, Female RealDoll Products, online: RealDollTM <
bin/snav.rd?action=viewpage&section=frealdoll&category= orderfemaledoll> [RealDoll].
Vicki Larson, Can Loving a Robot Lead to Divorce? The Huffington Post (20 December 2011) online:
Huff Post Divorce <> [Larson].
Matthew Ponsford 29 of 38

female face for another. Unlike typical products that depict women poorly, or magazine

covers and advertisements that sexualize women, men are able to customize, purchase,

modify, disassemble, and physically interact with life-like female robotic dolls.

The closest society has come to this level of tangible interaction, in my opinion, is

male-female pornography, which depicts women as submissive, consensual, and passive.

Sexbots are the dangerous extension of that representation. Men can change female faces

as frequently as their temperaments desire, which, of course, is not possible in the real

world. Certainly, I believe this reality-altering capability is more harmful toward women

than it is therapeutic for men. In this way, sexbots do not simply reflect organic women,

but their use facilitates the malleability of womens bodies, personalities, and

physiological reactions, to the expectations dictated by male desirability.

Advocates for the production, use, distribution, and commercialization of sexbots

emphasize that advanced sexbots could cut down on a countrys rate of STDs and HIV,

as well as prostitution,89 offer medically therapeutic benefits, may benefit disabled

individuals or couples, and improve sex lives.90 I do not believe strong social science

evidence currently exists to support these arguments; in fact, a more pressing concern is

the potential for men to direct the behaviours and experiences they have with sexbots

toward real women. Despite an argument that sexbots will help construct more creative

lovers,91 and that they are not living beings, it is clear that sexbots disproportionately

commercialize womens bodies for mens sexual appeal. Sexbots objectify women and

Pellissier, supra note 81.
Yvonne K Fulbright, Sexbots for Better Sex? The Huffington Post (22 February 2008) online: Huff
Post Healthy Living <
Larson, supra note 88.
Matthew Ponsford 30 of 38

there are countless hypothetical human-robot interactions that cause and will continue to

cause social harm toward women.

Through the roboticization of women, sexbots deteriorate the human character of

an entire gender; the robots are sexually submissive, lack willpower, and reduce women

to silence. Even so, sexbots are widely available in a growing marketplace that aims to

meet the increasing demands of men; the market continues to expand beyond Europe,

Japan, and the U.S.92 The male-centric and consumer-driven culture permeates society

with limited discourse directed at the impact inanimate sexbots used by men have on

womens individual and collective realities. For these reasons, I believe that only by

considering the compelling moral, ethical, and social harm arguments can legal and

policy decision-making truly be rationalized.

Black, supra note 76.
Matthew Ponsford 31 of 38

Sexting as Sexual Expression: Young Girls and the Information Superhighway

Sexting is defined broadly as sending and receiving sexually suggestive images,

videos, or texts on cell phones.93 It is thought that young females text more frequently

than males.94 The documentary Sext Up Kids95 emphasized the KAGOY reality: Kids Are

Getting Older Younger. But is this impression accurate? In this analysis, I agree that the

production and distribution of x-rated images by young girls is becoming increasingly

commonplace amidst a hypersexualized community; however, I discuss why the

phenomenon is not the moral panic that societys constructions of sexting suggests.

An important question, posed by Karaian, 96 remains: has mainstream culture and

generational divide created undue constraint on sexual free speech? I offer insight into

the problematic cultural discourse by contrasting the asking for it rape myth with the

practice of sexting, and discuss why constraining user-created sexual content by young

girls is impractical and suppresses otherwise natural modes of sexual expression.

Today, sexually expressive content may be more visible through the widespread

use of mobile devices, using different and more complex methods of communicating, but

not necessarily more common. Young girls are aware of the risks and potential

ramifications of sexting, often linking self-censorship to feelings of empowerment and

liberation. So why does society overwhelmingly view sexting with such distain and

Robert S Weisskirch & Raquel Delevi, Sexting and adult romantic attachment (2009) 27: 5
Computers in Human Behavior.
Lara Karaian, Lolita speaks: Sexting, teenage girls and the law (2012) 8: 1 Crime Media Culture 65
Sext Up Kids, CBC Documentary (11 October 2012), online: <
Karaian, supra note 93 at 64.
Matthew Ponsford 32 of 38

disgust? And why are girls predominantly labeled as inviting sexual violence or

engaging in disrespectful sexual expression?97

Karaian notes the erroneous linking of self-respect to a girls ability to censor her

sexual expression produces her as the problem98 [emphasis added] and contrasts this

statement with the implicit belief of asking for it in the rape myths discourse. The

notion of asking for it is, unfortunately, commonplace, conflated with the concept of

consent, and chastises victims.99 A recent piece, written by a friend and colleague,

explored this dangerous belief system, noting that: We tell them [girls] dont walk in

certain areas. Watch your drink. Dont wear that skirt. And if you dont behave as we say,

you are responsible for the punishment that others allot to you.100 I view our social

conception of sexting as an extension of the victim blaming that young female rape

victims experience. I see the legal debate surrounding child pornography charges for

sexting101 as an attempt to overshadow societys reluctance to tell men not to rape.102

Men, and the noxious media and cultural landscape, misdirect and dilute the real

message: men must not blame women and young girls. Men must be part of the solution.

Parental assumptions of sexting by young girls views sexting as predominantly

nonconsensual, when in reality many young girls willingly control the technology-

facilitated exchange on their own terms and conditions. Young girls also balance privacy

Ibid at 68.
Ibid at 68-69.
Allison U Smith, Asking for it: some personal thoughts on conquest, discipline, and girls bodies
following the Steubenville rape verdict (19 March 2013), online: The Shadows of Birds
discipline-and-girls-bodies-following-the-steubenville-rape-verdict> [Smith].
See Sarah Wastler, The Harm in Sexting?: Analyzing the Constitutionality of Child Pornography
Statuses that Prohibit the Voluntary Production, Possession, and Dissemination of Sexually Explicit Images
by Teenagers (2010) 33 Harv J L & Gender [Wastler].
Smith, supra note 99.
Matthew Ponsford 33 of 38

considerations.103 Karaian highlighted a study confirming that 12% of young girls felt

pressured to send sexually suggestive content, compared to much higher percentages of

young females who engaged in sexting for other purposes, including to feel sexy or act

flirtatious.104 And, rapidly, new technology is changing the way young girls sext and

express themselves: a new mobile application called Burn Note105 self-destructs viewed

messages, and incorporates end-to-end message encryptiona means of concealing

information or data.106

Despite improvements in secure electronic information exchange for young girls,

a stark generational divide continues. The older generation argues that young girls do not

have the capacity or maturity to safely engage in sexually expressive discourse, fearing

reputational or legal repercussions, cyberbullying, and real-world sexual harassment.

There has certainly been tragic consequences. Two examples include the suicide of

Jessica Logan after her ex-boyfriend distributed nude photos to classmates, resulting in

relentless bullying toward Logan,107 and proposed criminal law charges against minors

for accusations of child pornography, as per the Philadelphia case of Miller v Mitchell.108

However, the younger generation continues to embrace new forms of technology while

cyberbullying laws 109 become increasingly stringent. These legislative and judicial

measures will ensure young girls are protected in a world where technology is ubiquitous,

Karaian, supra note 94 at 66.
Ibid at 65.
Burn Note, Burn Note: About, online: Burn Note <>.
Natasha Burton, New App Deletes X-Rated Text Messages Once Theyre Read (3 April 2013),
online: Cosmopolitan < burn-note>.
Mike Celizic, Her teen committed suicide over sexting (6 March 2009), online: TODAY Parenting
Wastler, supra note 101 at 689.
NCSL Issues and Research: Cyberbullying, Cyberbullying Enacted Legislation: 2006-2010 The
Forum for Americas Ideas since 1975, online: National Conference of State Legislators
Matthew Ponsford 34 of 38

complex, and user-controlled. In contrast, I believe the legal principles surrounding child

pornography charges against minors harms young girls by shaming their sexually

expressive free speech.

Societys intolerance to sexting is constraining young girls sexual expression.

Our culture is reshaping young girls collective identities. Gendered double standards are

created: young girls are expected to speak a particular discourse, refrain from the

allegedly self-harming practice of sexting, and conform to intergenerational

interpretations of what constitutes offensive or disrespectful 110 sexual self-

expression. Constraining sexual free speech does not make young girls safer, nor do

young girls sexual transgressions amount to morally invalid expression. We must

continue to educate young girls about the widespread rape culture, but society cannot

rationally impose culturally-derived notions of morality. To do so would reinforce the

erroneous and discriminatory notions of morality misdirected at young girls.

Karaian, supra note 94 at 68.
Matthew Ponsford 35 of 38

Virtual Rape and the Conflation of Speech and Act

Julian Dibbell explored the intersection of sex, violence, and representation in his

cutting-edge discussion of virtual rape, the Bungle Affair, and LambdaMOO, a

multiplayer computer game program. 111 Living in a technological era where virtual

reality and real life are increasingly blurred, Dibbell pondered the real-world legal and

social ramifications of virtual sex offenses.112 The work depicts a virtual community in

which MOO crimes emerge and the aftermath of offenses are discussed through *social,

an online discussion board. In my analysis, I wish to explore how the Internet functions

as a powerful parallel between virtual realities and real space. Specifically, I will consider

how the Internet has facilitated community-based responses to sadistic human practices,

such as rape. I wish to use perceptions of sexual assault and other examples of online

exploitation to explore what Dibbell dubs the conflation of speech and act.113

First, I want to determine if online social discipline operates in the same way as in

the material world. In describing the computer age, Dibbell proposes a profound idea:

the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesnt so much

communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a

trigger does.114 In this way, online discourse, specifically chosen words, comparatively

speaking, elicit the same emotional response in online communities. Words also become

acts, comparable to behaviors exerted in real world spaces. This is not all surprising given

computer users are, after all, real people. But what incites online users to react to certain

acts of sexual assault or other exploitative behaviors? And what causes other users to

Julian Dibbell, A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards,
and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society (18 October 2005), online: The Village Voice
<> [Dibbell].
Ibid at 8.
Ibid at 13.
Matthew Ponsford 36 of 38

minimize or downplay horrific online conduct? Although online rape results in traumatic

consequences for victims, the dismissal of this offense may result from a commonly held

belief that virtual rape is not comparable to real rape, and therefore does not

constitute a crime.115 Despite this dichotomy, proponents of online reality regulation

emphasize that virtual rape is the centerpiece of discussion because of the severe impact

rape has on victims in the real world.

This conflicting view has left sexual assault and harassment in virtual

environments steeped in controversy, including First Amendment freedom of speech

rights in the U.S. It has been said that rape is assumed to be physical and geographical,

as in a crime scene,116 but many argue avatar rape in online communities, such as

Second Life, is comparable to acts committed in real space. This is because avatars are a

representation of self. 117 Richard MacKinnon confirms this notion, adding: rape

becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona.118

The serious implications of virtual rape may explain why online communities are

working together to hold offenders accountable, including Second Lifes community

standards initiatives and terms of service.119 Although Second Life typically receives

2,000 abuse reports each day,120 it also has been known to charge for online avatar rape

simulations;121 it is therefore not surprising users are taking control beyond the confines

of intolerance and abuse rhetoric dictated by online websites. From observation, the

Regina Lynn, Virtual Rape Is Traumatic, but Is It a Crime? (4 May 2007), online: Wired
< _0504>.
Michael Bugeja, Avatar Rape in Second Life (26 February 2010), online: National Sexual Violence
Resource Center <> [Bugeja].
Richard MacKinnon, Virtual Rape (1997) 2: 4 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 0.
Second Life, Community Standards, online: Second Life <>.
Bugeja, supra note 116.
Chris Mohney, Second Life: Rape for Sale (15 December 2006), online: Gawker
Matthew Ponsford 37 of 38

inaction of online sites such as Second Life seemingly condone virtual rape, placing the

companys net earnings above all moral and ethical considerations, even though the

websites community standards practices claim otherwise.

Another example of community-based action is in response to the suicide

promotion websites that glorify self-harm,122 where parents, schools, communities, and

law officials are working together to combat Internet forums prompting youth suicide.

Likewise, the conflation of speech and act is further exemplified through stories of

marital breakdown or dysfunction due to the interactions of online avatars. For instance,

a separation agreement surfaced unexpectedly when a woman filed for divorce after her

husbands avatar was affectionate toward another online avatar.123

The study of linking criminal law and virtual rape continues,124 but one aspect is

certain: virtual rape is not just a prankit has real mental and emotional consequences

for real online users. The assaults have been prolifically documented. In conducting

extensive research, and reading commentary from diverging viewpoints, I am of a similar

conclusion to Dibbell in his complementary piece to A Rape in Cyberspace.125 He states:

the more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take

the tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real that underlies the very notion

of freedom of speech.126 Dibbells work is another example of the impact technology

and law has on equality, particularly for women. I am confident our response to sadistic

Sam Marsden, Calls for suicide website ban after death of Tallulah Wilson, 15 (19 October 2012),
online: The Telegraph <
Michael Tennesen, Avatar Acts: Why Online Realities Need Regulation (23 June 2009), online:
Scientific AmericanTM <>.
Orin S Kerr, Criminal Law in Virtual Worlds, online: University of Chicago Legal Forum:
Dibbell, supra note 111.
Julian Dibbell, My Dinner with Catharine MacKinnon And Other Hazards of Theorizing Virtual Rape
(21 April 1996), online: Julian Dibbell <>.
Matthew Ponsford 38 of 38

human acts represented online through virtual realities is merging with our real space

interpretations of what constitutes harm, and even though online acts express themselves

in speech, words, or visual avatar, and not real space, the resulting effects are equally