Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace
22 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2009 Last revised: 17 Mar 2016
Date Written: October 21, 2009
Cyberspace allows individuals to create representations of themselves that bear little or no similarity to their offline identities. Internet users can create a multitude of “avatars” for themselves, from video game identities to message board monikers. This creative capacity can be personally liberating in many ways, providing legitimate grounds for what could be termed “cyberspace idealism.” However, cyberspace also allows users to create online representations of others without their consent, and this practice has powerful discriminatory effects. Users who create false profiles on social networking sites, upload sexual images on “revenge porn” sites without consent, or launch graphic personalized attacks on message boards make their targets into unwilling avatars. This kind of online abuse has discriminatory consequences when, as is frequently the case, it is directed at groups already marginalized in offline society. This Article addresses the impact that this phenomenon has on women in particular. Online harassment and abuse directed at women undermines the creative and liberating possibilities of cyberspace for women, amplifies the sexual stereotyping and gender inequality of the offline world, and generally compromises women’s ability to share cyberspace on equal terms with men. Cyberspace idealism has served to obscure the realities of online discrimination and must be called to account for its shortcomings.
Keywords: online harassment, sexual harassment, cyber harassment, cyberspace, free speech, feminism, discrimination
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