Coalition for Women's Identities

A Feminist and Student-Affairs Imperative: Educating Responsible Online Citizens

Trigger Warning: The following post examines online harassment of women and includes graphic language.

I want to revisit the early October blog from the Standing Committee for Women and Heather Whedbee on Engaging Students in Feminist Dialogue Through Social Media . I appreciate Heather’s call to encourage student leaders to participate in hashtag campaigns to be positive examples for campus and engage their peers in important feminist conversations.  Heather suggested engaging with our students about feminism through social media. Heather’s application of social media as a place to encourage students in dialogues on feminism, encouraged me to reflect on how I could further my practice as a practitioner and feminist.

My thoughts resulted in a personal challenge that I would like to extend to my colleagues. I would like to challenge us as Student Affairs practitioners—and for those of us who identify as feminists, womanists, or allies to women—to move our practice further.  It is not only enough to encourage students to engage in feminism via social media. We need to develop responsible citizens of internet communities and challenge our institutions to extend creating safe inclusive environments to online communities.


Women disproportionally experience violent forms of harassment in online spaces. According to a PEW study published in October, 2014, 25% of 18-24 year old women have been sexually harassed online, 23% physically threatened, and 26% have been stalked. The PEW study also found African-American and Hispanic internet user receive higher proportions of online harassment than white people.

Women who identify as feminists in online spaces, such as twitter, YouTube, or Tumblr receive rape and death threats. Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of Feminist Frequency and a video game critic, had a planned speaking engagement at Utah State University.  Utah State University received an email threating that if Anita spoke, the writer would commit the “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” The author stated: “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge.”  Due to the open-carry laws in Utah, Utah State police could not prevent lecture attendees from bringing guns to the even. The lack of response from the Utah State police resulted in Anita canceling her speech. The woman featured in the viral video by the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! received rape threats in the YouTube comments section.

Our students who identify as women, visible in the feminist movement or not, may be victims of online gendered harassment.  Further, we should consider how our students of color and LGBTQ students may also be victims of online harassment and hate-language. As student affairs practitioners, we need to be cognizant of this likelihood for our students, prepare to support them in the case of online harassment, and develop prevention and response techniques.

What is our role as student affairs practitioners?

Student affairs practitioners need to advocate on behalf of students and remove institutional barriers preventing the creation of safe environments. We need to encourage our institutions to develop comprehensive student conduct policies which include social media harassment under hate-speech or biased language.  Recently, the University of Kansas received a court ruling determining their expulsion of a student for internet harassment was incorrect. The University of Kansas expelled Navid Yeasin, after he violated a no-contact and retaliation order.  The order prohibited physical, verbal, or electronic communication between Navid Yeasin and his ex-girlfriend. Navid ignored the order by tweeting about his ex-girlfriend and continued tweeting despite university warnings to stop. Tweets included: “If I could only say one thing to you it would probably be ‘Go fuck yourself you piece of shit.’ #butseriouslygofuckyourself #crazyassex.” I applaud the University of Kansas for pushing back against the ruling, and I hope we can all encourage our institutions to look at our student code of conduct and how we might write them to protect the educational environment of all our students.

We need to educate our students on online harassment and how violent harassment often disproportionately affects women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.  We need to provide our students with resources to report online harassment.  Twitter and Facebook have policies prohibiting harassment and reporting procedures.  Educating students on online harassment includes educating students on the reporting process.  As advocates of students, we might consider how we can support students through the reporting process. This may resemble helping students identify and validating harassment, assisting them in writing their report, and processing their experience.

Response, while incredibly important, cannot be our only tactic to handling online harassment.  In addressing rape culture, like any forms of harassment, we need to do prevention alongside response work. For me prevention work includes educating students on sexism outside and within online spaces. It also means equipping our students with the skills to be responsible online citizens.  Helping our students develop congruence between their digital content and their personal values is necessary to developing digital leaders.  Teaching our students organizing tactics and how the internet can facilitate these to respond to online harassment and sexism encourages agency.  Creating dialogue with students who identify as men about their role in feminism is crucial to creating ally behaviors. The increasing prevalence of social media necessitates reconceptualizing leadership and citizenship to include online spaces.

I by no means have the answers or even a well-established blueprint for how to create online digital citizens. I recommend looking at Josie Ahlquist’s blog for those interested in how to create dialogue or workshops about digital citizenship. Josie Ahlquist writes and creates phenomenal resources on the topics of digital student leadership, student affairs, and social media. I am challenging myself, however, to begin exploring how to create responsible online citizens and an institutional environment responsive to online harassment.

Creating responsible citizens in online spaces should be a feminist and student affairs imperative. It’s one of mine.  Is it yours?

Lauren Koppel

Michigan State University




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