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Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace

Mary Anne Franks

University of Miami School of Law

October 21, 2009

Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 20, p. 224, 2011

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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 22

Keywords: online harassment, sexual harassment, cyber harassment, cyberspace, free speech, feminism, discrimination

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Date posted: April 25, 2009 ; Last revised: March 17, 2016

Suggested Citation

Franks, Mary Anne, Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace (October 21, 2009). Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 20, p. 224, 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1374533

Contact Information

Mary Anne Franks (Contact Author)
University of Miami School of Law ( email )
P.O. Box 248087
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.miami.edu/faculty/mary-anne-franks

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