In his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which explores the consequences of being attacked on social media, journalist Jon Ronson sits down with one of the perpetrators of online shaming, a real-life “troll” named Mercedes. Her hobby is calling attention to, and launching campaigns against, people whose online activity she or her friends at a chatroom on the website “4chan” deem out-of-line. Ronson asked her why, when the targets of shaming are women, they are so often “breathtakingly misogynistic”–replete with calls for rape and sexual violence. “4chan aims to degrade the target,” Mercedes explained. “One of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape.”
Ronson calls this misogyny “one of the great mysteries of modern shamings”– but it’s really one the least surprising aspects of our contemporary shaming culture. He doesn’t dwell on the relationship between gender and shame, but gender, sex and shame have always been interconnected. In the cases Ronson revisits, the men seem to recover faster from public shamings than women–especially when their offenses are sexual. The association between sex and shame is widespread and longstanding. Anthropologists like John Peristiany and John Davis, who worked in the Mediterranean 50 years ago, noticed that in small-scale societies governed by a moral code, men were judged on their ability to accrue honor whereas women were evaluated based on their ability to avoid shame–largely by upholding standards of chastity and modesty in dress and behavior.
But while men may be less easily damaged by public shamings–and tend to be subjected to less vitriolic attacks–there are ways in which social media has actually begun to shake up the relationship between gender and shame. Women–like Mercedes–can dish it out now. And making sexist jokes or comments is a reliable way for a man to provoke a shaming campaign. Just this week, Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” successor, Trevor Noah, was criticized for a series of sexist tweets that raise real questions about how suitable he is to take over as the show’s host. He’s been forced to account for them. While Ronson convincingly shows that the consequences of social media shaming for private citizens are often way out of proportion, in a case like this, shaming can still serve a purpose.
But even if social media has helped us rethink the old habit of apportioning shame only to women, we’re still quicker to forgive men. Ronson catches up with one man who recovered spectacularly well from what should have been a humiliating scandal. In 2008, News of the World caught Formula One boss Max Mosley engaging in a sadomasochistic orgy. Murdoch’s paper claimed the orgy was not only kinky but Nazi-themed. The allegations stung particularly sharply for Mosley, whose parents had ties to Hitler and Mussolini.
Mosley fought back, challenging the allegations that the orgy incorporated any Nazi symbolism, and ended up winning a lawsuit against News of the World. He emerged from the scandal with his reputation intact and even, arguably, improved. He came to be seen as a champion of the right to privacy, a victim who stood up to a bully. Ronson thinks he knows why. “Of all the public scandals, being a man in a consensual sex scandal is probably the one to hope for.”
It’s not as easy for a woman to escape a sex scandal. Ronson recounts a scandal that befell a small town in Maine in 2012, when police revealed that a local Zumba teacher, Alexis Wright, was running a prostitution ring out of her fitness studio.
The local paper published a list of 69 people–68 men and one woman–who had paid a visit to the brothel. Ronson tracked down one client, a local pastor. He’d lost his job, and his marriage–already failing–had fallen apart, but for the most part, people in his community didn’t really care that he’d visited a prostitute. His relationship with his daughters was stronger than ever, he said.
But the one woman probably didn’t get off so easily. The pastor recalled meeting a group of Wright’s male clients; the conversation turned to her one female patron. “Everyone was laughing about her,” the pastor told Ronson. “She was looked at differently by the men and, yes, with her it was considered more shameful.”
Then there’s the case of “Hank” (a pseudonym) and Adria. At a tech conference in 2013, Adria–who was sitting behind Hank–overheard him whispering a joke about “dongles.” She tweeted a photo of him along with a caption suggesting she’d been offended by his sexist comment.
Hank was swiftly fired. Before long, men’s rights activists on social media caught wind of what Adria had done. Then she was fired, too, and became the subject of vicious verbal attacks online–rape threats and calls to “cut out her uterus.” When Ronson caught up with the two a year later, Hank had found a new job as a developer. Adria was still unemployed. No one is winning in this shaming culture, but women are definitely losing.