Sex and the cybergirl

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

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.