Does Sexist Language Not Count As Hate Speech?

ByFaith McDonald

Last week, Humboldt State University published data from their study into hate speech on the internet. Doing research the old-fashioned way (with human eyes), they had analyzed tweets across America that were racist, homophobic, or albeist — but not sexist. Sexism was left off the agenda in this thought-provoking study. 

Anyone who’s read the comments section of a feminist-related Facebook page or blog entry can tell you: the internet is often a self-replicating android of misogyny — it’s everywhere. For every entry on the everyday sexism project, there’s yet another Facebook page or image that just won’t go away. If sexist, rape-culture-style language was reconsidered as "hate speech," perhaps by its inclusion in future academic studies (and therefore becoming legit, the argument would go), could that be a game changer in combating sexism? 

Looking at the FAQs the researchers at Humboldt compiled shortly after publication, the exclusion of sexist hate speech in this particular study could have been a problem of logistics. The research had to be done almost manually; tweets containing words like "homo" would be picked up, but then they had to actually be read to ensure it was a homophobic tweet, and so warranted inclusion on the chart. If someone tweeted along the lines of "people shouldn’t say homo because it’s naughty," it wouldn’t be included. What about the word "bitch" or "slut" or "rape"? How often are these words used in social media? Perhaps, coming from a world  where sexist language is utterly normalized, it might prove impractical to dissect the context of a throw-away "slut" here and there.

The FAQ also says they wanted to examine ‘how particular terminology used to degrade a given minority group is expressed geographically’. From this, perhaps another reason for sexism’s exclusion from this particular study is the term ‘minority group’. As women make up roughly half the population, it’s therefore understandable that they don’t belong in a study of minorities. But being in the minority isn’t a prerequisite for experiencing hatred and oppression — whites were "the minority" during Apartheid, though it was the non-white majority who suffered discriminatory violence within the gears of the regime.

While the Humboldt study on its own merits is interesting, and what it investigates it does so well and with sound results, it’s more of concern that sexism just isn’t considered — by common sense alone — to be harmful on the same magnitude as other forms of hate speech. Quick experiment: Google "studies on sexism in the internet," and then do it again, but replace the word "sexism" with "racism." Compare the sources that come up — at the time of writing, there haven’t really been any studies to the scale of Humboldt’s on sexist speech in social media. There should be: and for that to happen, words like "slut" and a misappropriated "bitch" would need to be reconsidered as on a par of harm with "homo" or "fag."

The source of the Humboldt study states above the funky graph of the "Geography of Hate": "The only question that remains is whether the views of U.S. Twitter users can be a reliable indication of the views of U.S. citizens." For those fighting against sexism, those striving to link sexist thinking, speaking and acting to other forms of hate, the only question that remains is whether exclusion from formal studies on oppression is something that should be analyzed.