When Elliot Rodger set out to kill what he described as “hot” sorority women, his actions set off a nationwide discussion about sexism. That Rodger had posted a YouTube video and an extensive manifesto stating his murderous intentions, and that he had frequented an online message board called PUAHate, where users employed extremely misogynistic language to rail against “pick-up artists,” focused attention on the possible role new media might play in facilitating sexist violence.
Feminists have also used new media to unite against Rodger’s actions by tweeting about their own experiences with sexual harassment and abuse under the hashtag #YesAllWomen. Such a feminist response is powerful, but the misogynistic language we see on anonymous message boards is a widespread problem that extends far beyond niche forums like PUAHate. Online anonymity facilitates the expression of extreme viewpoints, without the usual constraints provided by norms of civil discourse.
We have spent the last several years researching and studying the acute online sexism expressed via a campus anonymous confession board. This type of anonymous forum is common at many American colleges and universities. From 2011 to 2013, we studied posts on College ACB (a site that has changed names on numerous occasions but is colloquially called “ACB”) and, in focus groups, we spoke with 44 students directly; we also collected the responses of 379 others who answered an anonymous survey.
Our findings indicate that many men and women accept and contribute to the flagrantly sexist language they find on the board. While ACB is no longer as prominent today, having been replaced by apps like Yik Yak, the sexism is far from eradicated. ACB boards and apps feature comments such as “Anyone else ever drunkenly hooked up with a ‘4’ on the logic that a blowjob is a blowjob?” This inspired the following comments: “As long as the top of her head is a 6+,” “Ugly chicks are great at BJ.” So while Yik Yak slightly differs from ACB in that the app does not allow the names of the “4” or the “ugly chicks” to be directly revealed, it is not so far off from ACB’s lists of women’s names in conjunction with threads such as “Biggest Boobs,” “Hottest Sorority Girls,” or a call from one college student for all girls from an “ugly sorority” to get off his campus.
The sorority women we spoke with did not understand why we thought they might object to the above; “hot” lists and rankings helped their sororities gain status. Their members continue to use the boards and to overlook the objectifying language. While they might use the online forum in ways that some describe as empowering—for example, one user called out men for bad techniques in bed—there is relatively little objection to sexist commentary. Their responses might be due to a complicated phenomenon of considering these boards to be “extreme” or fringe, not representative of most viewpoints, which might prompt women to think it is unimportant to shun or object to the forums. It is clear that ACB and Yik Yak are integrally (but not exclusively) connected to the Greek system (Yik Yak was introduced specifically through fraternity users), which recent studies have shown supports and reproduces the class and race privilege that divides college students (indeed we found minority students to be the only group that entirely shunned ACB).
We’re not arguing that anonymous message boards are responsible for sexist culture—the problem is much larger than the boards—but anonymous boards have become an important part of a larger system that normalizes misogyny. For students who contribute to and frequent the boards, sexist language becomes commonplace, shaping group styles and mapping the contours of acceptable rhetoric. When “hot” lists appear, women desire to be on them; when sexist Yaks are “upvoted,” it creates a culture of acceptance.
While not all anonymous posts are sexist (some involve jokes about Netflix, and sandwich places are ranked alongside women), embedded within the boards are extensive discussions aimed at objectifying and demeaning women. The boards’ ubiquity virtually ensures that college women must deal on a daily basis with a steady stream of sexist, sexually objectifying language. Students—including women—overlook this mainstream sexism, despite the way new media formats have made it more ever-present, visible, replicable, and concrete.
Can campus administrators take steps to counter the impact of sexist language on anonymous confession boards? Certainly, but only if they are willing to acknowledge the wider problem—that many campus institutions normalize and even embrace sexism. Men outnumber women at higher levels of the professoriate, in administration, on boards, and at every “honorific” level bestowed on campuses. Most campuses deal inadequately with the threat of sexual violence college women face daily. Many campuses have yet to institutionalize a maternity-leave policy and incorporate this into their tenure processes or graduate-student funding packages. Few campuses provide affordable child care to faculty and students (as we write this, one of us is constantly improvising child-care arrangements because no spaces are available at the university child-care center—why not?). At least one college has recently banned students from joining fraternities and sororities, even those off campus, due to their association with sexual violence. (And with anonymous confession boards? Perhaps reason enough.) At the least, blatantly sexist or horrifically objectifying posts should count as honor violations where honor codes are present.
Anonymous posting sites and apps reflect but also heighten and invigorate the existence of broader cultural and institutional sexism on college campuses. Students may not be aware of these multiple dimensions of sexist institutional culture, but general educational efforts could solve this problem. While we have begun to educate students at the outset of college about, for example, the threat of sexual violence, we still frame it too often as the responsibility of the victim by instructing women to avoid dangerous situations. Current efforts do little to counter the perilous and unequal climate for women on today’s campuses that foster an environment where objectification has become the norm. This is unacceptable.
Author Bios: Andrea Press is a professor of media studies and sociology at the University of Virginia. Francesca Tripodi is a graduate student in sociology and an instructor of media studies, also at the University of Virginia. They are the authors of “Feminism in a Postfeminist World: Women Discuss Who’s Hot—and Why We Care—on the Collegiate ‘Anonymous Confession Board,’” which was published in the Routledge Companion to Media and Gender, and co-wrote a chapter in Press’s forthcoming book Feminism LOL: Media Culture and “Feminism on the Ground” in a Postfeminist Age.