Sex and the cybergirl

When Mother Jones stepped out onto the electronic superhighway, so did a few cyberpigs.

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Using the handle MaryHJones, MoJo recently logged on to a “live chat” session to check out the on-line action. She told her newfound friends that she did union work and was fairly new on the “net.” “Are you married?” asked Jim. “How tall are you and what color hair do you have?” And later, “When was the last time you really enjoyed sex? Was it gooooooooddd?

Though the “information superhighway” has been heralded as a great equalizer, where race, class, gender, sexual preference, and physical appearance make no difference, many women are finding otherwise. Females who surf the Internet’s vast, male-dominated network of computer databases or join in public discussions are often subjected to sexism and harassment–occurring most frequently in live chat and via “talk” requests where people can send private messages to anyone on-line at the same time.

Things can turn ugly. After apparently offending someone in an Internet newsgroup discussion, Stephanie Brail received an untraceable e-mail “bomb” containing hundreds of sexual and violent messages–the mildest of which was “Shut up, bitch.” Brail is calling for action. “It’s against the law to harass people on the phone, in person, or in the mail,” she says. “Personally threatening e-mail messages should be against the law.”

Other women have reported similar incidents; some refused to identify themselves for fear of on-line retaliation. Though laws pertaining to phone threats likely extend to e-mail, they remain untested. But Howard Rheingold, author of “The Virtual Community,” believes the problem will diminish with time. “It will be regarded as uncool. There are people who do uncool things, [but] that’s not the medium, that’s a larger social issue.”

Meanwhile, several on-line groups have taken matters into their own hands. Women’s Wire penalizes repeat offenders by suspending their accounts. MIT-based Cyberion City (a “bar” of sorts in cyberspace) warns customers that “unwanted advances of a hostile or forward nature are unacceptable. If you think someone [wants] a closer personal relationship, make absolutely sure before saying or doing anything that would be considered inappropriate in real life.”

Will the promise of cyberspace fall to a few sexist cyberpigs? The only way to change the present course, as nearly everyone in cyberspace agrees, is to get more women on-line. In the meantime, it’s a sty out there.

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IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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