Aphrodite Refused

“I would calmly ask, is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded,” wrote Judith Sargent Murray in her landmark 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Judith Sargent Murray, as painted by John Singleton Copley
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

One might also calmly ask to what extent our digital culture has become reliant upon a landscape of degradation, albeit one in which immortality is defined as the distance between an immediate impression and a regrettable decision. For women who deign to utilize the Internet as a social tool, that threshold has long been surpassed.

Such was the experience of Kristen Parisi, an unmarried, socially active woman who happens to have a disability. She joined Tinder with much the same expectations as any other user: a low-commitment method of exploring potential dating partners, quickly, without making a significant emotional investment. Ms. Parisi consciously chose to conceal her wheelchair in her profile photos, mostly to protect herself from hurtful comments made by users with whom she had no intention of connecting.

Since Ms. Parisi understood that she would not be able to keep her wheelchair a secret indefinitely to potential suitors, she typically disclosed her disability sometime within the first few minutes of messaging. What she did not anticipate was how quickly the perception of her would change upon discovery:

Even if I had great messaging chemistry with a guy, I would instantly go from being the “sexy redhead” he’s planning to go out with to the “girl in a wheelchair” — and that chair would define me … One guy I told responded, “So why are you on here? Shouldn’t you be dating someone in a wheelchair?” The men on Tinder apparently thought this was an okay thing to say to a woman.

Although the comments Ms. Parisi received only worsened over time (one user responded with an insensitive remark about her imagined sexual habits; another simply called her “gross” and deleted her profile from his list of matches), this story has a relatively happy ending. Eventually, Ms. Parisi pursued a short-term dating relationship and reaffirmed her faith in the male species.

Venu de MiloWhat is of interest here, though, is the steep slide into self-doubt that results from a handful of unfortunate encounters. Ms. Parisi acknowledges the blow she took to her self-esteem, to the point where she questioned whether her disability should disqualify her from the joys of modern sexuality to which she is rightfully entitled.

It’s not only the digital realm where this unhealthy form of self-reflection occurs; according to a study conducted at the University of Chicago, it’s actually a part of our psychological makeup. Researchers at the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that the lonelier we become, the more our attention is drawn toward negative social information. As a result, lonely people tend to be hypersenstive to threatening behavior—a scientific tidbit that explains but does not excuse perpetrators of abuse upon those they target.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford, Australian writer who fought back against a man who called her a “slut” on her public Facebook page.

Some of those targets are fighting back. Australian writer Clementine Ford discovered that vigilance comes with a price, even if the outcome is conducted in the spirit of support. When a male commenter called Ms. Ford a “slut” on her public Facebook, she openly wondered what the gentleman’s employers would think of his behavior. After being alerted, the company (a hotel chain called Meriton Apartments) promptly fired the commenter and offered Ms. Ford a public apology.

This should have been the end of it, but the tsunami of vitriol that followed led some to accuse Ms. Ford of overreacting to “mean words on the Internet” and “trawling the Internet looking to be offended.” The reaction was severe enough that Ms. Ford felt compelled to explain what freedom of speech really means in terms of personal responsibility, especially within a digital landscape where it’s not always possible to identify one’s attackers:

[Freedom of speech] is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free. It has mainly served to support abusive trolls who, despite the frequency with which they appear to be pictured with families, seem to have nothing better to do than stalk women online to try and scare them into shutting up.

Despite the tendency to attribute these case studies as simply two more examples of why the Internet hates women, the reality is that de-identifying behavior regarding female roles in society has manifested since the inception of modern civilization. Whether worshipped spiritually as divine bringers of life or castigated as second-class citizens, women have traditionally been co-opted to an idealized, largely masculine-influenced archetype of domination, exultation and (ultimately) control.

Lizzie Velasquez as a child
Lizzie Velasquez as a child. “Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments on a YouTube video about her; “kill it with fire” said another. One commenter said people would go blind if they saw her on the street.

Humankind has always had an uneasy relationship with customs of etiquette, especially with regard to women’s place in the ecosystem. What makes Internet unique is how rapidly this decoupling takes place. We see it today in the form of cyberbullying against a woman with Marfan syndrom and a professional violinist who posts messages she receives from anonymous fetishists on Instagram. Perhaps the most appropriate response, such as in the case of Ms. Ford, is to simply fight fire with fire and accept that someone, somewhere is going to bring a bigger torch.

Or maybe, to again quote Judith Sargent Murray, it’s best to just hide away from it all. Once wonders if Ms. Murray were alive to see what today’s Internet subculture has wrought from “the low manners of an injurious multitude,” as she wrote in 1793, she might be compelled to further revisit a desire to “shield [her]self in the fair asylum of conscious innocence” in order to escape it. And who could blame her?

Hidden In Plain Sight

Scene from the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise's character being questioned by the Red Cloak upon discovery that he has invaded the secret gathering

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, step forwards. May I have the password?
Dr. Bill Harford: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s right, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password… for the house?
Dr. Bill Harford: The password for the house?
Red Cloak: Yes?
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry… I seem to… have forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference… whether you have forgotten it… or if you never knew it. Kindly remove your mask.

This famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut portrays Tom Cruise as a self-assured and curious young doctor who, upon stumbling into a bacchanalian orgy attended by costumed aristocrats, very quickly realizes that he is out of his depth. It’s not Kubrick’s best film, but it’s arguably his creepiest.

For 37 million users of the online dating site Ashley Madison, the request to “remove their masks” was neither kind nor open to negotiation. The website, which allows married individuals a way to secretly cheat on their spouses, was recently the target of anonymous hackers who stole sensitive customer data and threatened to post it online. Suddenly, a number of very nervous Ashley Madison customers were at risk for having their data compromised, including 15,000 .mil or .gov email addresses.

Avid Life Media (ALM), the parent company that runs Ashley Madison (along with Cougar Life and Established Men), acknowledged the breach in a public statement. That was not enough to prevent The Impact Team, the group behind the attack, from dumping 9.7 gigabytes of account details to the dark web. Within hours, everything related to a user’s profile was available to the public: credit card transactions, email addresses, phone numbers, even full descriptions of the sexual fantasies users were looking to fulfill with their extramarital affairs.

image

Digital Schadenfreude

It didn’t take long for observers on social media to express their amusement at what appeared to be poetic justice for thousands of cheating spouses. Several media pundits, in fact, mentioned the public shaming that took place at the expense of those whose data was hacked. In any event, Twitter was alive with commentary on the subject:

A number of journalists questioned the accuracy of the data exposed as a result of the breach. Computer security expert Graham Cluley wrote in a blog post that the appearance of an email address did not automatically incriminate the owner of that account as an adulterer — especially since the site administrators never bothered to verify email addresses:

For one thing, being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner. You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh or even to find out if someone else was on the site … if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing.

Another outcome has been the number of research firms who have used data pulled from the breach and created graphical charts depicting the cheating habits of Ashley Madison users. We can find out which cities appear to have the highest ratio of adultery, how many Australian government officials have Ashley Madison accounts, the ratio of male to female users worldwide, and how many Ashley Madison users work at IBM.

Whisper photo with caption: Yes, we all laughed it off. Turns out my gf was also cheating ... with the same girl.More importantly, though, are the effects of the breach on those whose data was exposed. The secret sharing app Whisper, for example, offers users an anonymous platform for posting lessons learned from being caught having an affair. In some ways, the Ashley Madison case study represents a perfect storm of all the ingredients necessary to bring out life ruination: casual sex, random infidelity, wanton bullying, technostress paranoia. Even in these digitally-permeant times, we continue to have an uneasy relationship with technology when it comes to our private lives.

Why We Can’t Trust Computers

Humans operate under the condition of short-term memory, also called working memory, on a daily basis. The brain tries to make sense of the sensations it receives by using what it already understands from experience, forming patterns based on previous behavior. This is the connective tissue that links key functions involving reason and comprehension.

The problem is that our brains have limited capacity. We can only process small packets of data in roughly 20-second bursts, unless the information is repeated on an endless loop. Our brains are also affected by impulses in judgment, which are influenced differently from one person to another, reflecting wide nuances in maturity and social development.

Computers, on the other hand, are the masters of long-term memory. Server farms for websites like Ashley Madison stay in business precisely because they are able to store large amounts of information for extended periods of time. Computers have no moral compass when it comes to data, whether it’s to protect a social security number or a clandestine encounter; however, we expect the same degree of discretion from our digital services as we do from humans. The efforts we take to conceal our identities in the course of scandalous behavior must be shared by everyone who participates, especially the system designed to shield us from being discovered.

The Ashley Madison hacking is more than a case study about infidelity. It’s about the inherent suspicion that no one can be trusted, either man or machine. Our fear of being unmasked is buffered solely by our faith in a reliable and discrete service provider. We expect technology to be neutral, much like a therapist who understands our reasons for having an affair and yet refuses to judge us. When a breach happens, it’s horrific because we’ve essentially enabled a computer to demonstrate the moral compass of a human, and both have let us down.

Frank Zappa

In the end, it comes down to whether we are ever truly able to be comfortable with ourselves. We play right into the hands of those who know they hold all the leverage, because what we’ve really done is come face-to-face with our own guilt. It’s not the sort of thing that can be protected with a password named after an opera. When Frank Zappa asked What’s the ugliest part of your body? in 1968, he had the right idea when he answered his own question with, “I think it’s your mind.”

I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “

The Words Bounce Back

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Portrait of William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare’s famous lines from The Merchant of Venice are a reminder that our emotional response to trauma is a natural part of being human. Our nervous systems use feelings of regret and despair as learning signals, helping the prefrontal cortex of our brains frame the best solutions to problems from multiple options.

We like to think in terms of everyone following a moral compass: the inherent understanding that the world around us operates according to a general sense of fairness and doing what is right. As a result, we delicately balance our levels of trust according to the social situation before us. A conversation we have with a longtime friend will have a different weighting than one with our employer, for example, and we expect a certain degree of reciprocity in return.

Rollo MayThe problem is that compasses break. In his book Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May wrote that “the person who feels weak becomes a bully, the inferior person the braggart; a flexing of muscles [and] cockiness are the symptoms of covert anxiety.” We can take this a step further by stating that bullying is a compensatory exercise, often committed in isolation from the accepted standards of right and wrong in which we believe to reside.

Cyberbullies operate in a sort of anonymous netherworld, whereby they feel unaccountable for the consequence of their actions. Perpetrators of online harassment see themselves from a distance, almost as benign observers psychologically shrouding themselves from personal repercussion: I’m just someone on a computer. Usually, the only way to bring any sense of fairness to the cyberbullying equation is to expose instigators on a public or legal platform.

The good news is that victims of cyberbullying are taking strong steps to reclaim their lost dignity in the digital ecosystem. Consider the case of Cassey Ho, a physical trainer who this week released a video in which she edits her body according to nasty recommendations she received online about her physique:

Or this revealing segment produced by the Canadian Safe Schools Network, showing students reading messages criticizing their weight, appearance, ethnic background and more:

The Canadian example above is indicative of the creative ways in which schools are removing the veneer around cyberbullying. In North Sydney, Australia, a group of touring high school students performed a musical called Connected, which has already been staged at ten schools across New South Wales. Lana Nesnas, a vocal coach and director of the program, reinforced Rollo May’s assertion that insecurity is the root cause of all forms of harassment:

“A cyberbully will pick on everything you don’t like about yourself. They are cowards who think they are anonymous and won’t be held accountable, and while you stay afraid in your room and don’t tell anyone, the bully has the power. You can tell the students that have been dealing with it by the way they react to the show.”

Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph
Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph.

Of course, there are more traditional methods of dealing with cyberbullies: lock them up. This week, Robert Campbell received a six-year prison sentence for creating fake social media profiles of people he believed had slighted him in the past. Campbell also sent emails of a crude sexual nature to his victims, sometimes twisting personal details of their lives to portray them as racist. “He studied his victims to find their vulnerabilities,” said Judge Ann Alder during sentencing. “He made it very personal and very real.”

Lest we applaud the use of revenge to get back at cyberbullies, we should remind ourselves that personal vengeance is often the inspiration that drive this behavior from the start. “Revenge porn” cyberbully Kevin Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running a website featuring explicit photographs of his victims, which he removed only after extorting money from their accounts. Bollaert’s primary targets were ex-lovers who had rejected him; the website was his way of getting back at them. As with all matters related to the heart, there is a deliciously Shakespearean theme to be unearthed:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit.