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The Lasting Damage of Online Sexual Abuse

The Lasting Damage of Online Sexual Harassment

New research discovers that while many women gamers can shrug off most of the general abuse they receive while playing online video games, sexual harassment is not so easily compartmentalized.

A survey of 293 women who played video games online showed that, while they didn’t like general abuse such as swearing and insults about their game-playing skills, they could dismiss these types of comments from their mind pretty easily.

But not the same can be said about erasing sexual comments. Ohio State University researchers found that even after the game was over, women continued to think about the sexist comments that they received while playing with men. Often the comments included rape jokes and threats as well as other sexually related insults.

“Most women players understand trash talking and having their playing skill insulted, even if they don’t like it,” said Dr. Jesse Fox, lead author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“But what disturbs them is being targeted simply for being a woman. They don’t easily forget those comments and continue to think about them when they’re done playing.”

And while the results suggested women didn’t think it was the responsibility of gaming companies to stop general harassment, they did seem to blame the companies for not doing more to end sexual harassment.

“The moment that abuse stops being about them as players and becomes about them as women, that’s when gaming companies are seen as part of the problem,” she said.

Fox conducted the research with Wai Yen Tang, a graduate student in communication at Ohio State. Their results appear online in the journal New Media & Society and will appear in a future print edition.

The researchers recruited women from online forums, blogs, and social media sites for an online survey on experiences with trash talking and harassment in video games.

The average age of the women who participated was 26, with participants averaging about 13 hours of online video game play each week. Some of the games they played most frequently were World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, and Defense of the Ancients.

The women were asked about whether they experienced general harassment or sexual harassment while playing online games, how much they thought about the abuse offline, how game administrators or game companies responded to harassment, and how they coped with abuse.

Results showed women didn’t spend much time thinking about general abuse when they were offline, although it did make them more likely to quit playing the games.

Women also reported that the responses by gaming companies to general harassment didn’t play a role in whether they quit or not.

“Most women don’t blame the companies for not stopping trash talking about things like player skills, even if it does cause them to quit,” Fox said.

Nevertheless, sexual harassment was a very different issue for women players. For one, sexual harassment seemed to bother them more than general harassment.

“They don’t forget about sexual harassment. The abuse that women experience online stays with them and has a real-world impact. They withdraw from the game and continue to think about what happened.”

The perception of excessive sexual harassment can lead to “game over”.

That is, women who perceived that gaming companies didn’t do enough to stop sexual harassment were more likely to withdraw from playing.

“Gaming companies do drive women away when they don’t take an active stance against online sexual harassment,” Fox said.

Researchers discovered that women coped with sexual harassment online in some of the same ways they deal with abuse in real life: avoidance, denial that it’s a problem, seeking help, and blaming themselves.

But they also use a coping strategy that is not often available in real life: gender masking. They make sure their avatars are not female. Some players reported choosing masculine or neutral user names.

“Instead of calling themselves ‘Miss Kitty Princess’ they choose ‘User 42’ for their online screen name. It just makes it easier for them and they don’t have to deal with the sexual harassment,” she said.

But there are costs to that, according to Fox.

“It makes women invisible in the gaming community. Gaming companies assume that there aren’t many female players or that women aren’t interested in online games when they’re really just hiding their identity,” she said.

“Women shouldn’t have to do that.”

Source: Ohio State University

The Lasting Damage of Online Sexual Harassment

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). The Lasting Damage of Online Sexual Harassment. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.