Why do elite female athletes suffer online abuse? Analysis of hate speech based on misogynistic culture

Concerns about gender-based online abuse

In a survey released by Deakin University in February 2024, 9 out of 10 Australian elite female athletes have experienced online gender-based harm; 71% of Australian elite female athletes have jointly witnessed gender-based online abuse, and 49% of Australian elite female athletes are the target of online gender-based abuse (Toffoletti et al., 2024).

The survey once again highlights to the world that online harm in Australian women’s sport is a widespread issue. From personal insults to threats of harassment, women in sports face countless malice and hurt in cyberspace.

96% of Australian female athletes say their individual wellbeing, athletic performance and economic opportunities have been affected by online harm, with 1 in 10 elite female athletes opting to close an online account because of hate speech (Toffoletti et al., 2024).

Figure 1: Overview of survey results (Addressing Online Harm in Australian Women’s Sport)

The current situation reflected in these data is really shocking.

As female athletes fighting for the honour of sports organizations and even countries, as elite female athletes who have excellent performance on the field, why do they suffer from hate speech and online harm?

Why has this become such a common problem? Has anyone taken any measures? If so, have these measures had any positive effects?

I will combine academic literature and relevant information to further examine the causes of online violence against female athletes in Australia. I will also explore why online violence should be combated and the rationales and shortcomings of specific measures taken by Australian sports organizations, social media platforms and the Australian government.

Why do female athletes suffer online abuse?

While all those involved in online platforms are at risk of abuse, women are considered to be the main victims of online oppression, violence and abuse (Moloney et al., 2018). At the same time, survey research shows that it is sportswomen from team sports historically played by men (like Australian rules football, rugby league) who are the main targets of online abuse (Toffoletti et al., 2024).

This reflects the wider culture of misogyny and sexism in society that underlies it.

Manne (2017) defines misogyny primarily as a feature of an entire social system or environment in which women tend to face all kinds of hostility because they are women in a man’s world (i.e. a patriarchy) and are deemed unable to live up to men’s expectation and standards (i.e. the tenets of patriarchal ideology that have some persuasiveness in this environment).

Third-wave-feminist inquiry suggests that women are empowered and oppressed at the same time in the online world (Bruce, 2016). Compared to traditional media (such as official media interviews), the social media space gives female athletes the opportunity to present themselves more freely. Most professional athletes use social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to engage with their fans (Toffoletti et al., 2024). The purpose of their use of these social media platforms is to allow fans to keep abreast of relevant sports news, and to interact directly with athletes and gain insight into their training lives and personal lives. At the same time, it can also play a positive role in promoting sports and related sports brands as well as athletes’ self-promotion. Nonetheless, virtual environments have been recognized as the space that pose a significant threat to women, with increasing misogyny and violence against women in cyberspace (Litchfield et al., 2018; Moloney et al., 2018).

Figure 2: Harms suffered by Australian female athletes (Addressing Online Harm in Australian Women’s Sport)

Most online violence against women has a similar structure, relying on profanity-laced verbal abuse and exaggerated, often sexualized images of violence (Jane, 2012). Abuse and harassment of women online often involves sexually explicit abuse, exaggerated rape and death threats, and persistent, unwanted sexual advances from the sender (Jane, 2018).

Figure 3: Some hate speech against female athletes found on the Internet

At the same time, the online environment can lead to abuse, and social media platforms lack the ability to prevent it.

Social media platforms suffer from unclear rules, chains of liability, and an arbitrary enforcement of rules (Matamoros-Fernandez, 2017). Social media platforms provide users with different technical mechanisms to censor and complain about controversial content, but these mechanisms themselves are limited as they provide little transparency and public discussion of why something is considered offensive (Crawford & Grillespie, 2016).

Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all encourage people to express their opinions freely. Although these platforms have community guidelines that prohibit hate speech, there are still omissions.

For example, in Facebook’s community standards, “humour” is excluded from prohibited language types and content (Facebook, n.d.). However, the social media platform gave no further explanation as to what is “humour.”

Figure 4: Facebook Community Standards (Facebook)

In fact, sexist humour is considered a tool employed to normalize or downplay gender-based discrimination (Lockyer & Savigny, 2020). Some “subtle” hate speech and online violence against female athletes are hidden behind this “humour”, thereby reducing the possibility of being identified as online violence content. These actions and speech are often not captured by the technology of social media platforms and therefore are not controlled online.

At the same time, online misogyny is deeply entangled with racism, homophobia, and transphobia, and requires intersectional feminist analysis (Sundén & Paasonen, 2018). This has led to the phenomenon of female athletes receiving abuse on the internet gradually developing into a serious social problem.

It can be seen that the reasons behind the online abuse of female athletes are very complex and require multi-faceted measures to solve.

Australian sports organizations

According to the above survey results, more than half of elite female athletes who experienced online gender-based abuse did not seek help, and of those who did, they more often sought support from friends, family, or fellow athletes. In addition, 80% of them don’t feel safer after asking for help. Meanwhile, about a quarter of athlete respondents did not know where to complain or how to complain. In addition, some female athletes said they were excluded from certain sports teams and factions, resulting in them not being invited to certain competitions (Toffoletti et al., 2024).

It can be seen that for the problem of online gender abuse of elite female athletes, sports organizations have shortcomings in various aspects such as early avoidance, how to mitigate the harm when it occurs, and how to deal with it afterwards.

Therefore, sports organizations should implement comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and have clear ways to address online violence.

First, sports organizations should provide resources and support to athletes who experience online abuse (Toffoletti et al., 2024). This includes education and training, counselling services, mental-health professional guidance and legal assistance if necessary.

At the same time, sports organizations should use platforms and channels to promote positive messages to counteract negative depictions of female athletes online. Social media platforms as contemporary media spaces provide new opportunities to analyse the performance of female athletes, such that women in cyberspace can be described as powerful and strong (Bruce, 2016). Therefore, sports organizations should actively promote the achievements and contributions of female athletes and challenge stereotypes and sexism.

In addition, sports organizations also need to continually review and update anti-harassment policies and procedures to adapt to evolving online threats and technologies to ensure policies remain relevant and effective.

Overall, sports organizations should try to involve everyone in the organization and facilitate the development of multiple solutions, rather than placing the responsibility for their own protection solely on the athletes themselves (Toffoletti et al., 2024).

Social media platforms

In recent years, social media platforms have not been completely inactive in response to the prevalence of online hate speech on them. They are actively taking measures.

For example, in recent years, Facebook has been looking to improve its proactive machine learning detection filters, expand its human moderation operations, and improve its content moderation policies and accountability measures (Murphy, 2020, as cited in Sinpeng et al., 2021). Facebook has begun hiring market experts to strengthen its ability to respond to the situation at the national and local levels, while also increasing stakeholder engagement to help improve hate speech charges (Sinpeng et al., 2021).

However, based on the issues mentioned above about unclear rules, chains of liability, and an arbitrary enforcement of rules on social media platforms, social media platforms should establish clearer and more comprehensive community guidelines. They should explicitly prohibit misogyny, sexism and any form of gender-based harassment or discrimination and ensure consistent enforcement of the guidelines.

Social media platforms need more mandatory page moderation training to identify and moderate hate speech, as well as more engagement with protected groups to support their needs and research into better platform tools and technologies to police such speech (Sinpeng et al., 2021).

Furthermore, platforms need to increase transparency, such as notifications of deleted messages and reasons for deletion, to act as a deterrent to those who engage in defamatory behaviour on the internet (Pasquale, 2015). Therefore, social media platforms should be transparent about their content moderation practices, including how decisions are made, the criteria used to determine violations, and the consequences of reporting content.

The Australian Government

The Australian Government is committed to implementing The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2031. The plan outlines a range of actions to prevent and respond to violence against women, including initiatives to address the underlying attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate misogyny and sexism (Australian Government Department of Social Services, n.d.).

However, in response to the above measures that sports organizations and social media platforms should improve, the government should not only provide legislative support but also provide certain financial and resource support. For example, the government should fund and support sports organizations in providing education, consultation, mental health counselling and other services to athletes. At the same time, the government should also monitor and address issues such as social media platforms’ compliance with content moderation standards.

At the same time, in addition to sports organizations, social media platforms and governments should take measures, every one of us should pay attention to this social problem and actively cooperate with all parties to find solutions to this problem.

Why should we pay attention to this social problem?

Hate speech actually violates human rights principles.

Based on the findings, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights stated that gender-based violence is a widespread violation of human rights that cannot be ignored or underestimated (European Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014).

UNESCO states that millions of women and girls around the world suffer systematic violence because of their gender; violence against women and girls cuts across borders, races, cultures and income groups, profoundly harming the victims and those around them, as well as society as a whole (UNESCO, 2015).

Therefore, paying attention to the issue of online abuse of female athletes is not only to protect women’s human rights, but also to curb negative phenomena in society.

As Flew says, if our tolerance for such speech is reduced, or the limits of this tolerance are not heeded, then hatred will be expressed and distrust and hostility in society will be fostered (Flew, 2021).


Online abuse of female athletes is not just a social phenomenon, it has developed into a widespread and serious social problem. The prevalence of misogynistic culture and sexism, the failure of sports organizations to develop comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, and the incomplete regulatory technology of social media platforms have all contributed to the exacerbation of this social problem.

In order to prevent this problem from having greater and more serious consequences for more and more female athletes and even women, all of us should be closely connected to deeply understand the causes and effects of the problem, and actively cooperate with each other to implement strategies to solve the problem, work together to create a safer, fairer, and more inclusive online environment.


Australian Government Department of Social Services. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dss.gov.au/ending-violence

Bruce, T. (2016). New Rules for New Times: Sportswomen and Media Representation in the Third Wave. Sex Roles74(7–8), 361–376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0497-6

Crawford, K., & Gillespie, T. (2016). What is a flag for? Social media reporting tools and the vocabulary of complaint. New Media & Society18(3), 410–428. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814543163

European Agenct for Fundamental Rights [FRA]. (2014). Violence against women: An EU-wide survey. Main results. Vienna, Austria: European Agency for Fundamental Rights. https://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/violence-against-women-eu-wide-survey-main-results-report

Facebook Community Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://transparency.fb.com/zh-cn/policies/community-standards/sexual-solicitation/

Flew, Terry (2021) Hate Speech and Online Abuse. In Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 91-96 (pp. 115-118 in some digital versions)

Jane, E. A. (2014). “Your a Ugly, Whorish, Slut”: Understanding E-bile. Feminist Media Studies14(4), 531–546. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2012.741073

Jane, E. A. (2018). Gendered cyberhate as workplace harassment and economic vandalism. Feminist Media Studies18(4), 575–591. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1447344

Litchfield, C., Kavanagh, E., Osborne, J., & Jones, I. (2018). Social media and the politics of gender, race and identity: the case of Serena Williams. European Journal for Sport and Society15(2), 154–170. https://doi.org/10.1080/16138171.2018.1452870

Lockyer, S., & Savigny, H. (2020). Rape jokes aren’t funny: the mainstreaming of rape jokes in contemporary newspaper discourse. Feminist Media Studies20(3), 434–449. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2019.1577285

Manne, K. (2017). Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190604981.001.0001

Matamoros-Fernández, A. (2017). Platformed racism: the mediation and circulation of an Australian race-based controversy on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Information, Communication & Society20(6), 930–946. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1293130

Moloney, M. E., & Love, T. P. (2018). Assessing online misogyny: Perspectives from sociology and feminist media studies. Sociology Compass12(5). https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12577

Murphy, Laura.W. 2020. Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit-Final Report. July 8, 2020. https://about.fb.com/ wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Civil-Rights-Audit-Final-Report.pdf

Pasquale, F. (2015). The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (1st ed.). Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674736061

Sinpeng, A., Martin, F. R., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021). Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific. Department of Media and Communications, The University of Sydney. https://hdl.handle.net/2123/25116.3

Sundén, J., & Paasonen, S. (2018). Shameless hags and tolerance whores: feminist resistance and the affective circuits of online hate. Feminist Media Studies18(4), 643–656. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1447427

Toffoletti, K., McGrane, C., & Reddan, S. (2024). Addressing Online Harm in Australian Women’s Sport. https://dro.deakin.edu.au/articles/report/Addressing_Online_Harm_in_Australian_Women_s_Sport/25107086/1

UNESCO. (2015). Cyber-violence against women and girls: A world-wide wake up call. http://www.unwomen.org/~/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2015/cyber_violence_gender%20report.pdf?d=20150924T154259&v=1

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply