8 Never Wrestle a Pig

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"What is the first thing you notice about a person?"

"Whether the person is male or female"

--Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set

If America Online (AOL) users found that they inspired the invention of new prejudices, women were expected to find that they could function in cyberspace as unquestioned equals. In a world where there are no bodies and all that matters is the quality of your written thoughts, the ideal went, all those physical delineators like skin color, gender, or disability would vanish. The thing is, although physical objects don't accompany you into cyberspace, your personality and your experience of the real world do. By the mid-1990s, endless stories began appearing in the media about the predominantly male (and white) nature of Net users and their harassment of women.

There are several different questions tangled up here, of which the easiest is how many women use the Net and for what purpose. The more difficult issues are whether women really are discriminated against in a significant way in cyberspace and how that discrimination is going to be defined. If we're going to object to the U.S. (or any other) government's attempts to set standards for acceptable speech on the Net, should we then award moral guardianship to women (or any other group) instead?

There is no doubt that for a long time cyberspace was predominantly male, although to what degree depended on where you looked. A staff member at CIX estimated in late 1992 that perhaps only 2 percent of the system's users were women. CompuServe has estimated its female membership at 25 percent for the last several years,[1] AOL claims 38 to 40 percent, and best estimates are that women make up about one-third of Internet users (see chapter 13). The WELL's percentage is thought to be near parity.

But bearing in mind that all these systems are divided up by topic, it's logical that even across a single system women aren't going to be evenly distributed. CompuServe's now defunct Tennis forum had an almost all-female team of sysops and a very high percentage (at a guess, 70 percent) of participating female members. The much bigger Sports Illustrated forum, where the tennis topics moved after the Tennis forum's closure, is predominantly male, presumably reflecting the magazine's subscriber base. The media-related forum I co-manage is probably at least a third female.

A quote from Dee Brown's Wondrous Times on the Frontier about the lives of women as the American West was opened up offer a good analogy to the earliest days of the Net, when there were almost no women. "Shortages of women in the early days of gold-rush California," he writes, "naturally made them more desirable than in more normally apportioned areas. If a rumor spread that a woman had arrived in any mining camp, men would travel for miles just to take a look at a female form and hear a female voice." [2]

Compare this to Nancy Tamosaitis, in The Joy of Cybersex: "Women in the straight or bisexual adult bulletin board world wield an immensely high level of power. According to Boardwatch Magazine, only 10 percent of bulletin board callers are female. The other 90 percent who are males are eager, often desperate, to talk with female callers."[3]

Brown doesn't say whether, out of desperation or desire for attention, frontiersmen dressed up in drag. Online, of course, this is trivially easy, to the point where in the early days any lively, provocative female ID was suspected of being a gender- bending male.

Carol Atack, who was one of the first women on CIX because of her job writing computer news, recollected in 1992, "Four to five years ago, there was only a handful of women (or they may have been lurking). Women tended to be fantasy figures created by males to act out." Because of that, "I would get messages from the 'policemen' on CIX to check me out." Because she was lively and noticeable,


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