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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

State v. Dharun Ravi: Invading the Sexual Privacy of LGBTQ Persons

*This post is based on a contribution to the Boston University Law Review symposium on Danielle Citron's Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.

Invading the sexual privacy of LGBTQ persons is particularly devastating. In a world characterized by homophobia, exposing someone as gay, publicizing his or her sexual activities to others, and transforming him or her into a sexual object means that LGBTQ victims of sexual privacy invasions face stigma and discrimination.

Cyberharassment devastates its victims. Anxiety, panic attacks, and fear are common effects; post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia and bulimia, and clinical depression are common diagnoses. Targets of online hate and abuse have gone into hiding, changed schools, and quit jobs to prevent further abuse. Some lives are devastated in adolescence and are never able to recover. Some lives come to tragic, premature ends. According to one study, almost three-quarters of cyberharassment reports come from women. Nearly half of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth experience cyberharassment each year, and LGBT teens are three times more likely than heterosexual teens to be harassed online and twice as likely to receive threatening or harassing text messages. As a gendered and sexualized phenomenon, cyberharassment plays a role in the continued subjugation of women and members of the LGBT community.

For sexual minorities, institutional discrimination amplifies cyberharassment’s horrors. This is not to say that heterosexual victims are crying wolf; to the contrary, cyberabuse is an equal opportunity offender. But LGBTQ victims face three additional hurdles. First, the personal psychological effects of cyberharassment are likely worse when victims live in jurisdictions with laws that discriminate against them. And despite some notable advances, anti-gay discrimination is still more the norm than exception. Second, when patterns of cyberharassment also involve “outing” the victim as gay, rampant discrimination and lost opportunity can follow. And third, for those LGBT and questioning youth who, by virtue of their families’ geographic and cultural isolation, lack local LGBT friends and role models, cyberharassment transforms the internet, ostensibly a door to a wider digital world of opportunity, into a danger zone. This enhances a no-where-to-turn sense of hopelessness that, although experienced by many victims of cyberharassment, is felt by none more acutely than LGBT youth.

Institutional discrimination faced by LGBT victims of cyberharassment metastasizes psychological effects because, as Mark Hatzenbuehler has shown, institutional discrimination enhances all mood, anxiety, and psychological disorders. In a 2010 study, Hatzenbuehler found that institutional discrimination can have a statistically significant negative effect on the mental health of LGB persons: lesbians, gay men, and bisexual individuals who lived in states that banned gay couples from marrying experienced mood, anxiety, and psychiatric disorders at higher rates than LGB persons living in equality states. It makes sense, then, that LGBT victims of bullying and harassment rival only homeless LGBT youth in the frequency and severity of psychological injury in the community.

As a means of “outing” gay persons, cyberharassment also triggers an onslaught of potential discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of health care. “Outing,” or the revelation of another’s identity, is a frequent element of cyberharassment targeting members of the LGBT community. It is a central reason why antigay cyberharassment is an invasion of an LGBT person’s privacy. Though emotionally harmful, the closet may be a necessary evil in a discriminatory world: in 29 states, you can be fired, denied a home, and denied public accommodation just for being gay. Consider the story of Mark C., one of the many LGBT victims of cyberharassment with whom I have spoken in the course of my research.

Many LGBT youth, in particular, also experience acute effects of cyberharassment because of their unique dependence on online social networks. Often faced with geographic isolation from fellow LGBT individuals, gay youth rely on online social networks to replace non-existent face-to-face communities because they allow roughly anonymous virtual interaction with like-minded individuals. Therefore, these adolescents are not only frequent internet users, but also completely reliant on the virtual community they create for social support, information about their sexuality, and answers to any questions they have about being gay. Empirical data bears this out. As early as 2001, more than eighty-five percent of LGB adolescents reported that the internet had been the most “important resource for them to connect with LGB peers.” Destruction of that online social support network through cyberharassment is, therefore, particularly harmful because it turns what might have been a gay student’s safe space into a danger zone. Gay and lesbian adolescents’ dependence on online media makes them more susceptible to those who would use it as a sword against them.

None of this is to say that cyberharassment does not devastate all its victims. But while it is clear that cyberharassment is a modern weapon used to subjugate sexual minorities, it also makes institutional discrimination worse. Cyberharassment turns second-class citizens into third-class denizens by ballooning psychological harms and triggering discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of benefits. And it takes away a virtual world of great opportunity from those who need it most.

Tyler Clementi may not have been a victim of cyberharassment. But he was "outed" by his roommate's invasion of his privacy. That Mr. Ravi acted with such disregard for Tyler's humanity makes this story reek of injustice. The criminal law, as written by New Jersey's legislature, may not have been the best tool for addressing the problem. In my next post, I will discuss a few options--beyond the criminal law--for making the internet safer for us all.

 

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 21, 2016 at 09:00 AM in Criminal Law, Culture, Current Affairs, Information and Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink

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