While we often associate sexual harassment with physical spaces, like parks, schools, malls, offices, etc, there seems to be no limit to where it can occur. With the advent of social media, sexual harassment has embedded itself on the text and visual platforms. Like offline environments, the advances are usually unsolicited and uncollaborative, often leaning into the existing power dynamic between men and women. Nonetheless, we aren’t dismissing how women can also be perpetrators.
Emboldened by the option of anonymity, perpetrators can get away without immediate consequences. Inappropriate sexual jokes, sending nude pictures, requesting sexual favours are just some of the examples that can take place. The arrival of Clubhouse last year, the voice-chat platform that came with much frenzy, has allowed sexual harassment to digitally mutate with the times, taking on a sinister aspect.
Under Clubhouse’s veneer of networking and community building lies a floating world of misogynistic incels and Red Pillers, the latter inspired by anti-woman forums on Reddit.
They routinely have minimal followers, constantly change profile pictures from memes to images with encrypted meanings of their devising, and never attach corresponding social media accounts in their bios. When they debate individuals on certain topics, especially women, they are almost always temperamental and resort to sexist mudslinging when they realise they are losing.
But it doesn’t just stop there: some make jarring attempts to disguise antagonism with overt/covert sexual remarks. Sometimes, they baldly invoke their genitals to impose their manliness (You want this d**k?), implying that the reason the debate is happening in the first place is that the woman wants sex. Other forms of bigotry are thrown in the mix like fatphobia, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and so on. Clubhouse’s catchy feature, which is the voice function, makes concrete the nature of sexual harassment in the digital space. Only this time, it is sequestered as verbal.
Limiting this odious behaviour to disgruntled white young men can obscure how racial minorities and other marginalised groups can participate as well, to the detriment of their communities. In Clubhouse spaces curated for the lived experiences of black people, there have been cases of black women who have shared their experiences of being sexually harassed by black men on the app. It looks no different from the way white men act: verbal harassment tinged with misogyny.
It also occurs in subtle ways when black men refer to black women as “sweetheart,’’ “baby,’’ or “love.” These are women they have never met, strangers to them on the platform, and yet choose to use intimate verbiage which women can find disconcerting. Conversely, Black women aren’t exactly righteous. The way they perpetuate sexual harassment often goes invisible because of the patriarchal notion that women are vulnerable and need protection.
Even more, sexual harassment from women is rooted in the warped idea that a man has to accept sexual advances because he’s a man. On a virtual space like Clubhouse where accountability is a mirage, there was an incident where a black woman made an unsolicited inquiry about the penis size of a black man. Black men are also targeted with unwanted sexual jokes, sometimes couched in the violent language of homophobia.
While Clubhouse has rules informing against harassment or any kind of bullying, verbal sexual harassment continues to persist. This joins other public complaints of racism, Islamophobia, etc. This is not to say that the platform is doomed. Sexual harassment predates Clubhouse and would surely continue when the platform is gone, and what users have at their disposal is the block feature or make a report of the offending account. People sexually harass others on Clubhouse because they feel they can, and goes to show how they are yet to embrace consent education.
And for those who have, it’s still our responsibility to protect our communities from a culture of sexual harassment that undermines respect and dignity, even when Clubhouse fails to do so.