Last week, after a brief campaign by feminist activists, Facebook announced a new commitment to better policing of anti-woman hate speech on its pages. Ironically, this quick victory undercuts a standard feminist claim: that American society tolerates pervasive virulent misogyny. Perhaps a new look at sexism and double standards is in order.
The material highlighted by the activists -- for instance, images of bruised, bloodied women with such captions as, "She didn't know when to shut up" -- was unquestionably vile. Just how prevalent a problem it has been is hard to tell. It's certainly possible to navigate Facebook for years, as I have, and not encounter anything of the sort.
Facebook's community standards have always prohibited gender-based hate speech, same as hate speech based on race, religion or ethnicity; its moderators evaluate user complaints to determine when a post violates those guidelines. On a social network with a billion members, moderator responses will sometimes be inconsistent or inadequate, but there is no real evidence that reports of misogynist content have ever been treated less seriously than other complaints. Indeed, by the time the feminist coalition released its open letter, all the images and pages it cited had been scrubbed.
When I appeared on a Huffington Post Live Web TV panel in late May with two of the campaigners, Jaclyn Friedman of Women, Action and the Media, and Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project, they asserted that women were being driven from Facebook by rampant misogyny. But evidence of this exodus is lacking: Last year, women made up 57 percent of Facebook users, same as three years earlier.
Nonetheless, the campaign found strong support, with some 60,000 posts on Twitter and more than 200,000 signatures on an online petition. Several companies, including Nissan, said they would withdraw their ads from Facebook until it addressed the issue. In response, Facebook pledged to improve its enforcement of standards and to work with the activist groups to achieve that goal.
This shows that in mainstream American culture, abuse of women is universally -- and rightly -- abhorred. On the HuffPost Live panel, Friedman asserted that misogyny is our society's last acceptable form of hate speech. But that applies far more accurately to male-bashing. A Facebook page titled "Beating up your boyfriend to keep him in line" had more than 16,000 "likes," while the pages targeted by the activists (such as "Kicking your girlfriend in the fanny because she won't make you a sandwich") had at most a dozen or two.
The issue goes beyond Facebook. Earlier this year, the satirical website The Onion ran a fake interview in which rapper Chris Brown lamented the breakup of his relationship with singer Rihanna (whom he had previously assaulted) by expressing regret that he would not get to kill her. Many feminists took offense -- even though the piece was clearly meant to condemn abuse. The same issue of The Onion ran a parody in which Jenny Sanford, ex-wife of South Carolina's former Gov. Mark Sanford, praised lax gun laws with the clear implication that she intended to shoot her adulterous ex-husband. No outcry ensued.
The issue also goes beyond humor. In 2009, after an Illinois politician's wife was accused of beating up her husband after catching him with two women who may have been prostitutes, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a piece by columnist Mary Mitchell under the headline, "If she hit him, he probably deserved it."
If the feminist victory in the Facebook campaign results in removal of misogynist garbage, good. But let's also turn the spotlight on speech that trivializes abuse of men or portrays the average guy as a potential rapist or abuser. The condemnation of gender-based hate speech should not be limited one gender.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.