Forward Thinking

Forward Thinking about Chapter 2

   Whether intentionally or not, this chapterís Mike Luckovich cartoon in the paper version of Composing Cyberspace (p. 66) offers a male-centered, sexist perspective on gender relations in cyberspace. This perspective may be doubly disturbing to the extent that it both accurately and inaccurately represents those relations. The cartoonís decidedly male viewpoint does reflect the history of the Internet, insofar as the majority of participants have been men -- although recent surveys show that women may compose as much as 40 percent of Net users, a proportion thought to be increasing in the late 1990s. The fact that most people with Net access are affluent and white is also reflected in the balding, button-shirted, baby-boomer man in the left panel; perhaps he looks slightly nerdy, too, conforming to a stereotype about computer-industry workers who have participated heavily on the Internet.
   "Monique," however, grossly misrepresents the female online population, which tends to be young or middle-aged and professional. Although the exaggerated portrayal of "Monique" as a witch is obviously intended as a joke, this caricature understandably might disturb people who feel that women have already been marginalized with regard to high technology (for example, several studies have shown that girls in school are not offered the same encouragement to use computers as boys). A woman successfully using a computer, we might conclude from this representation, must not be "normal." Perhaps more disturbing, the ugly witch has misled and manipulated the man, here portrayed as the naive victim of her deviousness or desperation. Is the presumably single "Monique" desperate for a man, or is she rather an embittered, man-hating crone? Either way, the reality of gender relations in cyberspace is much more complicated and interesting, and this chapter explores that complexity.
Contrary to Luckovichís portrayal of a hapless male, it is women who are far more likely to be victimized on computer networks, where they have routinely been the target of sexual harassment, come-ons, put-downs, and bullying. To avoid such mistreatment, some women online pose as men or use anonymous, gender-neutral names or character descriptions -- the so-called gender-bending that Dale Spender examines in the first selection. A relatively new phenomenon is male gender-bending: Partly because so many women online may be using male names, itís been estimated that a high percentage of the "Moniques" in chat rooms, MUDs (text-based "virtual reality" spaces), and other electronic meeting places are actually men posing as women. Writer Jesse Kornbluth narrates his experience posing as "MsTerious" in an America Online chat room in "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Virtual Woman." Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, in another America Online chat room, encounters the aggressively seductive "Demonboy" and finds the potential of cyberspace to overcome gender barriers unfulfilled.
   Harassment of women online becomes most controversial in cases of alleged "virtual rape," which raise complex issues about the power of language, physicality, and emotions in electronic media. In a widely publicized article in the Village Voice about a virtual rape in a well-established MOO (another kind of MUD), Julian Dibbell thoughtfully explores these complexities. Finally, Laura Miller critically examines the language used by Dibbell and other writers to describe these rough-and-tumble virtual worlds, specifically the "Western frontier" metaphor for cyberspace: Is the rush to "protect the women and children" online, Miller asks, really just an excuse for increasing social controls and decreasing freedom for all participants?
   Before reading these selections, you might consider other questions based on your own experience with gender roles and technology, such as
   1. Have you ever not known the gender of a person you were talking with on the phone? How did you react? How did you determine if the other person was male or female? Have you been in another situation where you were uncertain of, or mistaken about, a personís gender? Share your experiences with classmates or fellow readers.
   2. Itís been observed that, in our society, itís more acceptable for women to dress like men than for men to dress like women. Why do you think thatís the case? In separate groups of women and men, discuss experiences when youíve dressed up as or role-played the opposite sex, for example for Halloween, a costume party, or a drama performance. How did it feel to act as a member of the other sex? In what ways were you treated differently by others? Appoint a reporter to take notes, or record a transcript if you hold this discussion electronically. Then compare notes or share transcripts. What patterns, similarities, and differences can you observe in womenís and menís experiences with this real-life "gender bending"?
   3. Locate and study your schoolís or companyís policy about sexual harassment, if it has one. Does the definition of harassment explicitly or implicitly include verbal or written forms? If youíre familiar with a sexual harassment case, think about the different forms the alleged harassment took or the different media in which it was expressed. Do you think that one medium is more "harassing" than another?
   4. Locate and study your schoolís or organizationís "acceptable use policy," if it has one, for the institutionís computer network. What uses of the computer network are forbidden at your institution? How reasonable does the policy seem to you? Have there been any cases of e-mail harassment at your institution?
   5. If you have access to a computer lab, classroom, or networked computers equipped with electronic discussion software, hold a discussion in which everyone logs on anonymously with gender-neutral names. Before you begin, make sure you agree on some ground rules about netiquette or online politeness. Discuss one of the issues raised previously or another topic suggested by your peers or teacher. Afterward, talk face-to-face about the experience. Did you try to figure out who was who? To what extent could you determine who was male and who was female, and on what basis did you make these judgments? Did anyone consciously try to disguise his or her true gender? How successful was any such effort, and why?

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