People love tweeting "slut": Study shows online misogyny runs rampant, and women often are just as bad as men

Women are just as likely to use accusations of promiscuity to insult women — but the problem's bigger than that

By Amanda Marcotte

Published May 26, 2016 7:26PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>David Molina G</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(David Molina G via Shutterstock)

"Half of Misogyny on Twitter Comes From Women" the headline at the European Newsweek website reads. One can already hear the crowing from the chorus of sexist blowhards online, the neeener-neener-do-it-too brigade that loves to 'splain how it can't be sexism if it's coming from women, too.

But if you dig into the actual details of the study, conducted by the British think tank Demos, it quickly becomes apparent that this study is far too limited to be a stand-in for all online misogyny. The researchers limited themselves to tracking tweets that contained the words "slut" and "whore". Misogynistic tweets that didn't include slur words were not measured. Nor did they examine words like "bitch", "cunt", or "bimbo."

So what the study actually shows is that women are just as likely as men to insult women online by claiming they are sexually promiscuous.

This isn't too surprising. Despite what the neener-neener people might say, feminists have never denied that women can harbor sexist attitudes about other women. On the contrary, as anyone who's taken even an entry level women's studies course can tell you, women are often some of the most aggressive enforcers of sexist standards on women, policing and judging other women for not adhering to society's expectations that women be demure, submissive, domestic, and modest. You don't even need to take a women's studies course to see with your own eyes how some women delight in calling other women fat or ugly, in an effort to make themselves look better by comparison.

This problem only intensifies when it comes to female sexuality. Some women out there are the most ardent self-appointed judges of whether or not women are behaving chastely enough, from tsking at someone else's hemlines in public to showing up at abortion clinics to pray at the women. There's a reason that the anti-choice movement has a huge number of female leaders. Judging other women and sneering at them for supposedly being slutty makes these women feel good and self-righteous, and they don't really care if it's sexist.

Because of this, it follows that women are just as likely as men to resort to accusations of promiscuity to insult women online. Women swim in the same sexist sea as men and absorb the same messages about how it's supposedly bad for women to like sex too much. So of course they will be tempted to fling the word "slut" around, not just to insult women they don't like, but also to prop up their own self-image as somehow better at being women.

While it's true that women are just as likely as men to engage in this very narrow sexist practice of policing women's sexual expression, it's important to remember there's a whole wonderland of other gross, misogynist behavior happening online.

Just a few examples: Condescending lectures. Diminutive language, like "honey" or "dear", to show the target that you think she's stupid. (A lot of sexist trolls like to call me "Mandy,"  even though I go by "Amanda.") Telling a woman to go make you a sandwich. Employing sexist stereotypes about women without using slur words. Making up fake quotes and attributing them to women. Spreading false rumors about women. Unsolicited dick pics, a behavior that's nearly entirely male driven. Rounding up a virtual posse to dogpile the target, hoping to overwhelm her with abuse. Calling women "fat" or "ugly." Telling women you're going to rape them. Taunting women about how they're being watched. One could go on forever.

This matters, because the sad fact of the matter is that a lot of sexist harassment online is hard to objectively measure. On the contrary, a lot of harassers know exactly how to act in ways that seem creepy and terrifying to the target but won't necessarily be read that way by outsiders, especially men.

Seeing a man tweet "you're beautiful and I wish I could know you" at a strange woman online might not raise a red flag for a man who sees it, but the woman who is targeted knows all too well that kind of over-familiarity often turns ugly and aggressive if the man who says that doesn't get the attention he wants. For men, watching a man speak condescendingly to a woman might seem jerky but not sexist, but for a woman, knowing that it's almost exclusively men who speak to you this way makes that interaction feel very different.

Plus, harassers go out of their way to deny they are harassing. Take, for instance, the whole miserable situation known as "Gamergate." It was a loosely defined coalition, mostly male but with some women, who claimed they were trying to organize for "ethics in journalism." In fact, they were just interested in ganging up on women who they hated for being outspoken feminists. The fact that it all started with a guy trying to punish a woman for not wanting to date him says it all. But since few harassers are dumb enough to say, "Hi, I hate women and want to hound them until they shut up," it took months before some journalists (mostly male) finally admitted that this crowd of dudes was targeting feminists and dogpiling them with nasty tweets and pornographic pictures not because of legitimate criticism, but because they hate women and like screaming at them.

Women can be sexist, of course. All the time. But just because it's coming from women doesn't mean it's not the direct result of a male-dominated society. Take this tweet from Ann Coulter:


The main thing to remember is that Coulter's public persona is largely a performance for men. She wrote this with an obvious intention of getting the middle-aged conservative men that make up the majority of her audience to cackle in delight. Coulter's gender ends up validating her male audience's ugly attitudes towards women, while reinforcing the stereotype that women are catty.

There's simply no reliable way to comprehensively study online misogyny. Human language is so complex and context-dependent to begin with. Add to it that sexist harassers often try to be as ambiguous as possible, so they can deny they are harassing when called out.

Still, the Demos study is useful. Even taking a snapshot of this tiny microcosm of the vast web of sexist abuse online can drive home how serious the problem is. In just three weeks of studying Twitter users in the UK alone, they found 10,000 tweets sent to 6,500 individuals calling them "slut" or "whore". Consider that those words are just a tiny sliver of the problem and one begins to realize that the problem of online misogyny is vast and seemingly unending indeed.

Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Anne Coulter Harassment Study Misogyny Online Harassment Online Misogyny Slut Shaming Twitter