More than four decades have elapsed since the enactment of Title IX — the landmark legislation that banned sex discrimination in federally funded activities and toppled robust barriers for female athletes. Plenty of women have leapt over gender-based hurdles in the subsequent years — the number of girls playing high school sports has increased every consecutive year for the last quarter century, a record number of viewers tuned in for the U.S. women’s finals at the 2015 World Cup and celebrity-status professionals such as Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey have shattered popular expectations of the female body’s limits. Vestiges of 20th century challenges for female athletes — lowered opportunities and expectations, funding deficiencies, racism and homophobia — endure, though purportedly to a lessened degree than in the past.
While the topography of restrictions for women entering athletics has certainly evolved since 1972, four decades of “progress” have not obliterated the materiality of discrimination against female athletes. Rather, obstacles tend to take a different character than they did forty years ago. The tech innovations of the late 20th century and the digitalization of sports media and athletic communities have unleashed a Pandora’s box of new obstructions for athletes, which manifest in the form of online harassment, cyber threats, doxing and indifference from authorities.
Since their inception, virtual forums have proven to be fertile cultures for sludgy caricatures of human conversations. The anonymity embedded in Internet spaces proffers an element of invisibility and lawlessness. You can fire off whatever acrid slur you wish from behind the protective facelessness of your username, knowing that most readers will be unable to associate your identity with the aspersion you’ve deposited. The lack of accountability, and the virtual distance between users, has prompted media scholars to analyze the scrapping of social courtesies in favor of slimy diatribes and violent one-liners in cyberspace.
Harassment in virtual reality wields a particularly gendered and racialized edge. Female athletes, spectators and sports broadcasters often find themselves the target of acerbic taunts, racist and misogynist stereotypes, and graphic fantasies of violence, which, at times, directly threaten them with rape and murder. A 2014 Pew Research Center study reveals that over one third of women have experienced threats and/or stalking online. Amanda Hess further cites that 72.5 percent of reports of online harassment from 2000 to 2012 have come from women.
Women who work in fields traditionally dominated by men, such as athletics, endure heightened levels of virtual persecution. Serena Williams has withstood a torrential onslaught of internet analysis—anonymous users (and credited journalists) attempt to undermine her credibility on the court by questioning her gender, body shape, sexuality and athletic ability, as well as threatening her with violence. The barrage of insults takes the form of racist stereotyping (her body transcends a Eurocentric feminine standard and that irks people) and misogynist complaints about strong women (her prowess transgresses expectations about what women can do, and again, that irks people).
Mo’ne Davis, the record-shattering 14-year-old baseball player, already knows the same online abuse. When Disney announced plans to create a movie based on Davis’ athletic success, a male baseball player tweeted his disgust, calling Davis a “slut.” The connection to sexuality, operating as an insult, exposes the use of gendered and racialized tropes to undercut her power. Davis became privy to the bombardment of insults, racial stereotyping, and gender questioning that female athletes stomach.
And of course, this type of online vitriol is not reserved for athletes. Julie DiCaro, an anchor for a Chicago-based sports radio program, published Tweets from listeners calling her a “cunt,” “whore,” and a “musty old fuck” who should “go raise [her] kids and get off Twitter.” She cites colleagues who have been called a “fucking pussy bitch,” and a “stupid ignorant cunt,” as well as the numerous well-wishers sending their hopes that she ends up in prison, endures sexual violence, and ultimately becomes prey to a righteous murderer. DiCaro describes the translation of pre-Title IX sentiments (that women belong in grocery stores and PTA meetings, not at football games) into the Twitter-sphere. Because much of sports commentary takes place online, harassers who try to push women out of Twitter discussions effectually attempt to exclude women from sports spaces and athletic careers.
Jemele Hill and Adena Andrews, prominent columnist and a social media editor, respectively, for ESPN, share repertoires of similarly nauseating slurs that Twitter users have hurled at them, including a verbose racist tirade and daily anti-woman memos. Hill asserts, “When it comes to sports, women are big targets for abuse … because we are supposedly infiltrating a space that has been decidedly male.” As people of all genders join men in athletics, yellow-bellied MRAs spew hateful comments online in hopes that threatening women will scare them off “men’s turf” (and fend off the emasculation that gender justice ostensibly inflicts).
The molestation of women online is facilitated and upheld by the passivity with which authorities respond to cyber threats. Written off as hysterical, irrational and prone to fabrication, women often encounter dead ends when reporting harassment to site owners and moderators. Reporting harassment becomes synonymous with a stunted sense of humor and/or censorship. In recent years, many media sites have begun to revise their policies to protect against online violence — in 2015, Twitter leaked a memo in which CEO Dick Costolo admitted, “We suck at dealing with abuse.” The calls for upheaval are uplifting, though the overwhelming whiteness and male-dominated nature of tech development calls into question how impactful and comprehensive the promised changes will be.
The terror that women in sports confront online can be costly, and we know that virtually transmitted threats can, and do, transform into real-life violence. Yet police officers rarely take seriously reports of online abuse, even when directed at specific persons. Hess illustrates the repercussions of law enforcement’s inactivity; women have had to leave their homes, change their phone numbers and go into hiding, and some have endured physical violence. Many victims of online abuse opt not to report—the risk of re-traumatization, disbelief and stigmatization within the adjudication process is high, and the probability of justice frequently feels out of reach. Authorities often dismiss online harassment as a “joke” or inconsequential noise in an ocean of rancorous online comments. In the most unjust of paradoxes, victims of online abuse are sometimes blamed for provoking threats and harassment. This attitude suggests that if abuse is built into modes of virtual exchanges then women should simply remove themselves from unwelcoming spaces and expunge authorities of the obligation to reenvision spaces so that people of all genders can participate.
If individuals will not give up their online rampages, if Twitter and other tech giants will not react sufficiently, if the police will not take women seriously, who will prevent online violence against women in athletics? We cannot pretend 40-year-old laws will extend sufficient protections for athletes in a vastly altered society. As a nation whose social fabric is becoming increasingly imbricated in cyber-communication, we need to adapt our legal frameworks to fit a new age. Violence has many incarnations. U.S. athletics have outgrown existing legal protections; if federal law purports to defend against discrimination in sports, legislators need to reconfigure legal structures to prevent harassment in all athletic communities — on and offline.
Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.