This is my first blog post as a 2017-2019 HASTAC Scholar, and I’m honored to be part of this interdisciplinary group doing such important work at the intersection of humanities, the arts, science, and technology. My particular interests include how the humanities, especially literary studies, inform our understanding of internet culture and specifically how digital spaces both challenge and recirculate long-standing ideas about gender and race. Nowhere is this more apparent now than in the #metoo campaign and rash of sexual harassment and assault allegations against prominent men, including Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., and Charlie Rose (among others).
The most remarkable aspect of these recent allegations -- and more importantly, their consequences for the men accused -- is our apparently newfound ability to “believe the women,” as Mitch McConnell asserts that he, too, does. Has the feminist tide finally turned? Has the ability of internet culture to surveil and correct abhorrent behaviors that previously flourished in secret accomplished, at long last, a victory over misogyny?
In their brilliant investigation into promiscuity, gender, and online culture, “Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards,” Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Sarah Friedland remind us how digital interaction constructs users as female subjects according to a logic of virtue and bodily integrity. Our network cards, they argue, are “promiscuous” (this is a technical term), and the ability of online culture to blur the boundaries between public and private, audience and spectacle creates the illusion that users can and should control the circulation of our digital selves, just as a “discourse of ruin” has always characterized the understanding of the female body. We, internet subjects of all genders, are always already leaking, yet the misogyny and anxiety surrounding leaks was readily apparent in rhetoric circulating throughout the 2016 election. Donald Trump referred to Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a debate as “too disgusting” to talk about, and to then-Fox anchor Megyn Kelly as having “blood coming out of her wherever.” His insinuations perpetuated the idea that women, unable to adequately contain the boundaries of their own bodies, are equally unable to govern the boundaries of state.
What is perhaps different and new about this moment is that the men are suddenly the leaking ones. Whereas online phenomena like revenge porn and slut-shaming typically involve the digital violation and non-consensual circulation of women’s bodies, here we are seeing women in community making public male behaviors that previously circulated under an illusion of privacy, with men suffering the bulk of consequences for such disclosures. For once, “promiscuous” networks seem to work in women’s favor, and yet the need to disclose the histories of our bodies, to declare #metoo, requires us to make visible our perpetual state of leaking, the vulnerability of our physical bodies and digital selves.
But Chun and Friedland also remind us that this is nothing new. This logic of revenge and protection for women’s violation has long been part of online gaming and hacking culture, and American culture at large. Terms like “pwned” (domination by another player) and “frape” (hacking into another user’s Facebook account) frame the vulnerability of the online subject as inherently female and especially susceptible to digital penetration. Women’s bodies, especially white women’s bodies, they argue, are understood as especially in need of male protection. As much as this impulse to protect women -- and yes, importantly, to believe them -- bears consequences for high-profile men who commit sexual assault, we must also be aware not only that the highest profile man in the country, Trump, has not been held responsible for his own violations, but also that we continue to circulate a discourse of female vulnerability that is more a threat to women than it has ever been a protection. As Masha Gessen argues in The New Yorker, we are in the midst of a moral panic, and when moral panic becomes sex panic, it becomes a tool of oppression against those whom it ostensibly seeks to defend.
Interdisciplinary, digital scholarship does important knowledge work in this space. Chun and Friedland bring their backgrounds in film and media studies, systems engineering, and English literature to bear in articulating how our ideas of gender, sexuality, and information circulation are structured in both technical and discursive ways. This broader view of our current moment, placing it within the context of internet culture at large, gives us some perspective on what otherwise appears to be a simple victory on behalf of women and sexual assault survivors everywhere. I am glad that men are being held accountable for destructive, violent, and deplorable behavior. I also think we must look beyond individual acts of harassment and assault to the deeper ways our digital interactions participate in an online rape culture even as we celebrate the milestones along the way to its demise.