The story about the law student who was denied employment because a forum for pseudonymous sexists objectified her, discussing her sexually without her knowledge and consent, is making its rounds through the blogosphere. The best take comes from Jill, who documents how the forum’s members cyberstalked her to the point that she had to skip classes for fear of being targeted for harassment or worse.
The objectification in question revolves mostly around a contest run on the forum, “Hottest girls at top 14 law schools.” The contest featured photos of the women, taken by the women or by sex-obsessed forum members; Jill reports how forum members openly talked about masturbating to her picture, photographing her with camera phones, and sexually assaulting her. All of this are beyond objectification; they’re actually hurtful, as the law student who was denied employment will attest.
The first ground rule is that if objectification involves cyberstalking, threatening to rape, or any similar form of harassment, it’s sufficiently wrong that there’s grounds to crack down on it (not to mention illegal). But even when it doesn’t, the power relation involved matters. This very blog features anonymous or pseudonymous commenters who say very unsavory things about politicians and political parties they don’t like. So it’s useful to start exploring the disanalogies between entering Jill into an online beauty contest involuntarily and bashing politicians.
A good standard to apply in many cases is libel law. In the US, there are a lot of exceptions to libel, based on a variety of grounds. It’s always acceptable to say anything about public figures, because they’re assumed to have exposed themselves to valid and invalid criticism, and because they have the power to contradict most statements said about them. If I refer to George W. Bush as a dictator, he can choose to inundate the airwaves with “I am not a dictator because ___” messages; Jill can’t do anything of that sort.
And more importantly, if I refer to George Bush as a dictator, or even to Ann Coulter as a male, then s/he will not be really affected even if my points go unaddressed. Ann Coulter is a public figure whose persona is familiar to many people on her own terms. Even in the unlikely case my slander became the top result on Google, she’s sufficiently public not to be affected. As Elizabeth Edwards noted, when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a faggot she was hurting gays more than she was John Edwards.
In contrast, talking about Jill sexually behind her back has an immediate effect on her, because of the different power situation. She will have to answer to potential employers, who will likely Google her name and find the libelous statements written about her on the forum. The forum is big enough that a thread about her that many people will hold against her through no fault of her own is sixth on Google when one searches for “Jill Filipovic.”
The same goes to the idiots who declared publicly they wanted more pictures of Jill, preferably taken without her knowledge, to masturbate to. Masturbating to a scene involving no person in particular of course doesn’t objectify anyone. Masturbating to a person who consents is not problematic; masturbating to porn falls under consent, since porn stars are assumed to know that the photos or films of them will be used for masturbatory purposes. In contrast, masturbating to someone who doesn’t consent is in the same category as masturbating to the picture of a nine-year-old. It’s not in itself illegal, but once you start discussing it, you should expect people to consider you at best a deviant and at worst a criminal.
I don’t wish to condone vicious attacks on Ann Coulter’s looks or shallow fat jokes about Dick Cheney. But they’re merely idiotic, exposing the shrillness and juvenility of those who make them. Starting a non-consensual beauty contest that gives potential employers the impression the women depicted consented to anything of that sort hurts people by severely defaming their character.
The reaction of the forum’s owners is far from encouraging. In response to a Washington Post article exposing the forum’s misdeeds, the owners thought slander was their right.
Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site — with links posted on AutoAdmit chats — to select the “hottest” female law student at “Top 14″ law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.
“I felt completely objectified,” that woman said. It was, she said, “as if they’re stealing part of my character from me.” The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.
Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the “Top 14″ for privacy concerns, Cohen said. “I think we deserve a golden star for what we did,” Cohen said.
I’m not sure whether admin Jarret Cohen (yes, I’m Googlebombing) was serious when he said that. The phrase “Golden star” is used sarcastically lately, to indicate that someone performed a trivial act but is asking for special dispensations for it, as in, “Bush thinks he deserves a golden star for finally submitting to the law.” What kind of idiot not only thinks he deserves a golden star for not letting his own site be a hornet’s nest of hurtful objectification but also mocks himself by using that specific phrase?
That is sexism, plain and simple. I’m not aware that being female lessens one’s right to privacy. Such contests violate that right in ways that the most vicious attacks on public figures can’t. I realize that there are a lot of people who believe rights only apply to men – hence, pro-life politics – but these are best kept as far away as possible from where they might actually cause damage.
Bean’s Blog Against Sexism Day gender equality checklist specifically calls for shutting down the forum in question. But the problem is not the forum specifically; it’s with a general system that accepts, nay, encourages men to go out and objectify women, preferably in the most hurtful ways possible, on pain of being branded effeminate. The forum is just one nasty example of that general principle, just as lynching was one nasty example of segregation.