Could ;-) help men escape accountability for threatening women?


Emoticons have become an inescapable part of our communication. I resisted using them for a long time (I am that person who still spells out full words when writing a text), but it is too tempting to lean on emoticons and emoji to clarify tone in a medium where it can be easily misinterpreted. The ubiquity of emoticons now means that courts are being asked to interpret them in the context of cases, and Amanda Hess has a fascinating piece at Slate about how that is playing out. Unsurprisingly, a number of the examples Hess cites involve men trying to excuse their threatening and violent behavior toward women by citing emoticons:

Last spring, a U.S. District Court judge in Michigan was asked to rule on the meaning of “:-P.” The case concerned a University of Michigan law student who was investigated by local cops after a female classmate reported that he had been stalking and harassing her online. When prosecutors declined to press charges, the student sued the woman, his school, and the cops, claiming that the investigation had been launched without cause and executed unlawfully. In his defense, the student argued that several text messages he’d sent to a friend—in which he called himself a “petty bastard” who wanted to make his classmate “feel crappy” and experience “deep dark pits of depression”—should never have been taken seriously by police because he’d thrown a couple of wry emoticons in, including one indicating a stuck-out tongue. A proper understanding of the symbol, the man argued, would have led a reasonable officer to understand that he was not “sadistically bloodthirsty for revenge” against the woman, but rather just “deeply unhappy” about the status of their friendship. The judge disagreed, writing that the emoticon “does not materially alter the meaning of the text message.”

A major challenge is that there is no standard way to understand how emoticons are employed. Hess looks at their origins and the failure of studies to establish any kind of consistent interpretations.

So far, efforts to build a unified emotional context for hundreds of emojis used by millions of people around the world have failed. The Emoji Sentiment Ranking relies on a rudimentary emotional scale, and it doesn’t acknowledge that emojis are often used to soften or counter the emotion present in a written text, or are just casually appointed to a tweet like a non sequitur. In one 2013 Twitter defamation case, a British judge wrote that an emoticon is tantamount to a digital “stage direction” that instructs readers on how to imagine the writer’s facial expression as she formulated the statement. But he cautioned that even within that fairly literal interpretation of the emoji, parties could spar over whether the face had been presented as a “sincere” communication of emotion or an “ironic” prank. As Schnoebelen told me: “The Joker’s smile is not reassuring.”

It’s encouraging that in most of the examples Hess cites, judges were not persuaded by attempts to soften threatening behavior by pointing to emoticons. But given how our culture often responds to violence against women and the lack of a standard, it’s hard to imagine we won’t see some problematic interpretations. I am halfway through reading Kate Harding’s Asking For Ita thorough and engaging exploration of rape culture. It lays out clearly the disturbing pattern in our country of impugning women based on their behavior and excusing men for criminal acts. Are we likely to see a court case where a 🙂 in a text to a rapist a woman knows is presented as evidence that their relationship was friendly and not threatening? Or a man’s admission that he raped someone is dismissed because of a ;)?


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

3 thoughts on “Could ;-) help men escape accountability for threatening women?”

  1. Wow, I never really thought about the role that emoticons could have in these situations. I’ve definitely been in a situation where someone used an emoticon to try and lighten the tone, but the intention failed and I was uncomfortable — but the thought of emoticons being used in court is so interesting. I find that I myself try to use emoticons to indicate my tone, when the sentence I’ve typed comes off as too formal or serious. In something as serious as a rape case, I can see the issue… text with emoticons is not black and white. A smiley could be used to “lighten the tone” but it could just as easily be a way for the rapist to hide, while the person targeted can read between the lines and see the threat. Even social interactions can be that way. I’m not sure if emoticons would be used to show evidence of the type of relationship, but I can definitely see it used to dismiss a rapist’s actions… unfortunately. Thanks for the interesting read!


  2. It is a shame so many people lack literacy. It is even worse that so many people insist on doing business online yet their literacy levels wouldn’t even get them through a golden book. Will the media make us forget the government that we have just tipped out so quickly. If we are accountable we really must have a look at how that government got in to begin with. No need to burn books when the hatred is all done online. Same principles. Maybe if some of these ‘creative’ business people actually got drunk properly before they emailed me it might improve the quality of written communication? *sigh*


  3. As for technicalities and obscene hatred towards women (and one’s mother?)… when will being an asshole be called for what it simply is? It doesn’t take half a brain to put oneself in another’s shoes. If I had a sister it would be a no brainer that I would not condone certain behavior toward her. It really doesn’t take much imagination, or a sister, to work it out though. We live in a society where assholes are proud of getting away with anything, and money justifies it. The answer must be in decent role models at all levels. No one owes me anything. I do owe it to myself however to do my best. I willl never cease to be amazed at how lazy, gutless, and insensitive people can be. From aggression on the roads to the going through the motions for the old school tie… it is sad when the bully is a paper tiger.


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