When it comes to public shamings, men and women aren’t treated the same. As one of the book’s interviewees says, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them.” In 17th and 18th century America, women were subjected to public punishments just as brutal as the ones men faced—but now, in the contemporary era, it seems to Jon Ronson that women are even more heavily scrutinized than men online. Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive joke in 2013, lost her job and received threats of violence, rape, and murder. Lindsey Stone, who posted a tone-deaf photo on Facebook, was hounded so severely that she didn’t leave her house for nearly a year. Meanwhile, men who’ve been subjected to social media shamings, like the disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer, often bounce back from their failures and go on to continued success (Lehrer has continued to publish books and enjoy literary success since his 2012 shaming). So while a public shaming can ruin anyone’s life, women are more likely to face long-lasting societal prejudice, emotional damage, and stigma after being publicly shamed.
During online public shamings, women often face threats of rape and murder (in addition to personal consequences like being fired from their jobs), while men are more frequently able to find defenders online (and are generally able to move past the shaming and onto new jobs with fewer consequences). As an example of this, Ronson tells the story of a man named Hank and a woman named Adria Richards. At a tech conference in 2013, Hank and a friend were making silly, lewd jokes while sitting in the audience of a software presentation. The woman sitting in front of them, Adria Richards—who was Black and Jewish, and who felt threatened by their sexually-tinged comments—took a picture of them and posted it to her Twitter, sharing with her small group of followers what had happened. But when the story blew up online, many people began directing vitriol at Richards and defending Hank from what they perceived to be cancel culture in action. Hank lost his job over his actions, but he quickly found a new one. Richards lost her job, too, but she did not receive a new job offer in a timely manner, and she faced daily threats of violence, rape, and murder from users on platforms like 4chan. This illustrates that in contemporary public shamings, men—even when they’re the original perpetrators of an act that’s seen as shameworthy—often emerge relatively unscathed, while women are left to bear the shame and trauma of gendered harassment and verbal abuse.
The public shaming of Max Mosley—a British socialite who was shamed after a newspaper published photos of him attending a German-themed orgy—also reveals a lot about the gender dynamic of shamings both online and offline. After Mosley’s shaming—which targeted his sexual proclivities—Mosley was able to regain control of the narrative by refusing to give into his feelings of shame. Mosley’s scandal all but fizzled out—he wasn’t a victim of “the online misogynists who tear apart women who step out of line.” Mosley didn’t suffer any long-term consequences as a result of his shaming—and Ronson implies that he was able to emerge unscathed because he was a wealthy white man. Women—especially women of color—face uniquely terrible public shamings because of the misogynists who come out of the woodwork to attack them at the slightest provocation. But men are able to get off scot-free, avoiding the threatening specter of heavily gendered threats and violence.
Women’s outsized suffering is significant not just because misogyny is vile, but because gendered shamings deepen division. 4chan user Mercedes Haefer explains that online shamings often become so violently misogynistic because when men are being shamed, the online mob seeks to degrade their masculinity. Because men are traditionally seen as providers, taking away their masculinity means calling for them to lose their jobs and livelihoods. But when women are shamed, the mobs seeking to degrade their femininity do so by calling for rape. Haefer’s comments make an interesting point: when there’s a new public shaming, those participating in the pile-on change their approach based on the shamee’s gender. Shaming someone in a particular way based on whether they’re a man or a woman speaks to the vast social division—and indeed social prejudice—that still defines life on and off the internet for men and women alike. The meta-commentary on women’s gendered public shamings is yet another aspect of the shaming process that deepens social divisions between men and women. When men write about the public shamings women have endured, they claim—even in cases where “palpable misogyny” is driving the shaming—that only certain women are “sympathetic [enough] figures” to be defended from the online shame machine. Justine Sacco, who went viral after tweeting a badly worded joke that many took to be racist, faced criticism for positioning herself as an “archetypically vulnerable […] damsel” in the media. Sacco, who is white, was essentially seen as a whiner. Her shaming was intense, ongoing, and deeply misogynistic—she received repeated threats of sexual violence—but men who covered her story essentially stated that other women had it worse than she did. These men—and many others who observe gendered shamings online and off—deepen divisions between themselves and their female counterparts because they fail to take misogynistic words and actions seriously.
Shame and Gender ThemeTracker
Shame and Gender Quotes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame, and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.
As it happens, Max’s and Andrew’s sins would in Puritan times have been judged graver than Jonah’s. Jonah, “guilty of lying or publishing false news,” would have been “fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes,” according to Delaware law. Whereas Max and Andrew, having “defiled the marriage bed,” would have been publicly whipped (no maximum number was specified), imprisoned with hard labor for at least a year, and on a second offense, imprisoned for life.
But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals—if you’re a man—to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared.
“Literally, overnight everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey said.
And that's when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.
The criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners—young, black—have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time—bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.
I thought about Justine Sacco. How many of the people piling on her had been emotionally damaged by what they had read? As far as I could tell, only one person was damaged in that pile-on.
“Normal prison is punishment in the worst sense,” Jim told me. “It’s like a soul-bleeding. Day in, day out, people find themselves doing virtually nothing in a very negative environment.”
I thought of Lindsey Stone, just sitting at her kitchen table for almost a year, staring at the online shamings of people just like her.
“People move away from themselves,” Jim said. “Inmates tell me time and again that they feel themselves shutting down, building a wall.”
Six months later. Three people sat together in the council chamber at Newark City Hall: Jim, Raquel, and I.
Jim had intervened. The prosecutors were persuaded that Raquel was a victim of an “abuse cycle.” And so instead of twenty years she served four more months and then they let her go.
[Feedback loops are] turning social media into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”
We express our opinion that Justine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this […]. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it.
“The tech-utopians […] present this as a new kind of democracy,” [my friend wrote]. “It isn’t. It’s the opposite. It locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”
If anyone should change their behavior, I thought, it ought to be those doing the shaming. Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like “Don’t wear short skirts.” It felt like victim-blaming.
“The essay might be a turning-point,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Twitter-shaming allows people who complacently think of themselves as basically nice to indulge in the dark thrill of bullying—in a righteous cause. Perhaps Ronson’s article will cause a questioning of Twitter’s instant-Salem culture of shame.”
People were realizing […] that what happened to Justine wasn’t social justice. It was a “cathartic alternative.”
Using social media to distribute […] videos [of police brutality] was a world away from calling a woman who’d just been in a train crash a privileged bitch because she wanted her violin to be okay. One act was powerful and important—using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield. The other was a pointless and nasty cathartic alternative. Given that we are the ones with the power, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the difference.