Science has officially confirmed what women have been saying for years: the men who harass them are losers.
A recent study published in the journal PLOS One observed the way male players treated female players within the online video game Halo 3. Researchers found that guys who were good at the game were typically polite to fellow players regardless of gender, whereas less-skilled men were far more likely to sexually harass or threaten female gamers.
Michael Kasumovic of the University of South Wales, who co-authored the study with Jeffrey Kuznekoff of Miami University, says this behavior may be a variation on simple bullying.
Harassment occurs, he says, when men toward the bottom of the food chain feel threatened by skilled women entering a traditionally male space and disrupting a pre-existing hierarchy.
Viewed in that light, misogyny could be "a form of inter-sexual bullying that arises when women compete against men," Dr. Kasumovic writes. "Men who are afraid of losing their position in a hierarchy to a woman may be lashing out, leaning on the most stereotypical traits because they have the effect of reducing a woman’s power."
Sexism in the gaming industry is not a new issue; it’s been an point of contention for as long as video games have existed. Despite the fact that 44 percent of gamers today are female, many female gamers still lament the lack of female characters and the frequency of threats of rape and violence from male players.
Misogynistic insults are so commonplace that several women have started websites to document their experiences. One such site, Fat, Ugly or Slutty, posts examples of harassment submitted by female players. Another site, Not In The Kitchen Anymore, contains audio clips recorded by gamer Jenny Haniver while playing online. (Note: Readers may find the language used in these examples offensive.)
"The vast majority of the community is kind and welcoming," Ms. Haniver told BBC. "It's the absolute minority of people who are jerks – they're just a really loud minority."
This harassment isn’t limited to the gaming community, Kasumovic says. He argues that social behavior within video games such as Halo 3 is highly reflective of other online spaces, particularly male-dominated websites such as Reddit.
A recent Pew report on online harassment confirms that men and women receive about equal amounts of name-calling and public shaming, but women are disproportionately likely to experience the most severe forms of online abuse, such as sexual harassment and stalking.
How seriously should online threats be taken?
Tales of harassment "often give the impression that this is some kind of shocking event for which we should pity the ‘victims,’ but anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless," writes Jim Pagels for Slate. He asserts that it’s easy to sling a threat or insult at a passing stranger online, but very few people take the energy or effort to actually locate and harm the person in real life.
But as the lines between real life and the internet grow blurrier in an increasingly online world, others argue that this kind of harassment could become truly dangerous.
In an article titled "Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet," journalist Amanda Hess writes, "As the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them – all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day."