Sunday, 6 November 2011

My guide to online abuse and the excuses given to pretend it doesn't happen

Trigger warning - because i quote some of the insults I've received.

Ooh i hear you say. A 'jumping on the bandwagon' style post about online misogynistic abuse, the latest thing being talked about on the feminist blogosphere and even in broadsheet left-leaning newspapers!

Well yes, in some ways you would be correct in making this assumption but also this is something i have written about before (here: here: and here: and is something many, many feminist bloggers have written about many, many times before. Now that the issue is getting a bit more attention, well, seems time to join that campaign and write about it again. I make this point because I feel like the papers have suddenly 'discovered' it when actually the debate is as old as the blogosphere.

So, here you have it. The Sian and Crooked Rib guide to sexist online abuse, and the excuses that are made to silence it and pretend it doesn't exist.

Part One: Types of sexist online abuse.

1. Mansplaining

Have you ever seen that episode of QI, when Reginald D Hunter tells the story about how he likes to tell white people that he doesn't know what corduroy is,  to see them explain to him painstakingly and carefully what it is? Mansplaining is a bit like that. It's when a man reads something by a woman, often relating to her personal experience of a feminist issue, and carefully explains why they are wrong. Never mind the fact that they might be talking about a personal experience. Never mind the fact that they might be talking about their doctoral thesis. Never mind the fact that they actually do know what they are talking about, or are making sensible suggestions or don't really care whether you think they are right or not. It's that very specific gendered patronizing that aims to silence or undermine a woman's opinion with no real cause, back-up or strong argument.

Mansplaining is not the same as disagreeing with a woman writer. People disagree with each other on the internet and can do so politely, carefully, in an informed way and have a great debate. Mansplaining is different because it involves being patronized and silenced. No-one has a problem with lively online debate (even if sometimes in a perfect world we would all like everyone to agree with us and write comments going 'yeah! great! well said!') - mansplaining is when a woman's opinion or experience is undermined, ignored and said to be 'wrong' because it contradicts the mansplainer's own idea or comfort zone.

As my friend Marina S says, mansplaining is the result of some men being so wedded to the idea that women are stupid, they simply cannot understand a woman being able to form their own opinions without a little help from the guys. See here:

2. U.G.L.Y you ain't got no alibi!

Calling a woman ugly is the misogynist's go-to card when it comes to online abuse. A misogynist thinks calling a woman ugly or fat or old or hairy or hairless-on-their-head is the nadir of insults. I like to imagine them, typing away and puffed up with rage, desperately trying to put their finger on the best ever put down and then going 'hah! i'll tell the bitch she's ugly! that'll shut her up!'.

My absolute all time favourite online insult was on the Evening Post website, when I was quoted criticising Hooters in one of the many 'EP loves Hooters' articles. It went something like this:

'I imagine that you're so fat you could jumpstart a jumbo jet. I imagine you sitting in your house on your own with a shaved head eating lentils out of a bowl.'

(not that it matters, but none of these things are actually accurate although i do quite like lentils)

The reason men who don't like women much think that calling a woman ugly is the perfect insult is because of the cultural value we place on female beauty. We equate being able to conform to the current culturally defined beauty standard as THE measure of success for a woman. So calling a woman ugly is the misogynist's way to call a woman a failure. It is a way to undermine, and to point out that nothing a woman says has any worth because she has failed in the most important aspect of being a woman - being attractive to men.

I mean, I have been quite flippant above but in all seriousness being told you're ugly over and over again does hurt. Because no matter how far our "consciousness is raised" as feminists, we still live in this patriarchal capitalist system and therefore the values of that system are still within us. During the Hooters debacle someone posted a horrible photo of what they imagined I looked like, along with some unfriendly remarks, and I cried. It is why it is even more important that we fight and act against a society that tells us that being beautiful is a woman's ultimate achievement, that we support each other and fight against negative messages about women's bodies, and that we constantly challenge the idea that fat, old, hairy etc. are insults. They're not and they shouldn't be.

3. Huh. Women. Hysterical! Emotional!

On International Woman's Day, I wrote an article on Liberal Conspiracy about international violence against women and girls. It was pretty much a list of stats from various sources, including WHO, the UN, the Home Office and British Crime Statistics. I deliberately chose the statistical route so as not to be called emotional. But that didn't stop one of the first commenters deciding to accuse me of writing a 'hysterical rant'. When Sunny, the editor, pulled him up on his use of sexist language, he went on and on and on about how hysterical isn't sexist.

Well, it is.

Hysterical is a word used to silence women. Again, it is a word that undermines a woman's argument. It says don't pay attention to her, she's hysterical, over the top, over emotional. It's historic meaning is sexist and gendered. And frankly, have you ever heard anyone call a man hysterical? No, me neither.

Emotional is the other one. It gets forgotten on the bloke-osphere that the opposite of 'emotional' is not 'rational'. You can write something that is emotional and still be rational, fair, factual and evidenced. But again, saying a woman's writing is emotional is silencing. Oh don't listen to her, she's being all over emotional again, letting her feelings get in the way.

Emotional is seen as something feminine, and in an unequal society, feminine is seen as lesser, as petty, as not important. The fact that there is nothing wrong with being emotional about a subject like violence against women and girls is lost in the effort to shut up and undermine the facts and figures of the issue.

Men are passionate. Women are hysterical. Men are assertive. Women are emotional. Men are rational. Women are letting their feelings get in the way.

These sexist double-standards infiltrate all aspects of life but online they are used to dismiss, undermine and mock a woman writer's argument.

4. Sex

Online misogynists love calling women writing online 'lesbians'. Just like saying we're ugly, they think that calling someone a lesbian is the worst insult of all. Of course, lesbian is not an insult. The only people who think calling someone a lesbian is an insult is the kind of dumb-ass teenage boy minded misogynist who delights in bullying women online. There are a lot of parallels between trying to insult a woman by calling her a lesbian as there are to calling her ugly. The idea that 'lesbian' is an insult is based on the idea that a woman's success in our society is based on her being in a straight relationship.

One of the most upsetting insults I had online was during the Hooters Evening Post nightmare. One man had obviously googled my name, seen the Guardian article where I wrote about growing up in a gay household and proceeded to use this information to abuse me and my family. I am never sure what I found more horrible; the fact that he wrote nasty things about my family, or that he felt the need to google me to discover more info to use against me as childish but hurtful insults.

The other form of abuse that I am categorising under Number 4 is the childish, spiteful and frankly pathetic 'speculation' about the woman writer's sex life. This can be speculating about whether the woman is a lesbian or not, but in my case it has involved taking my anti-porn stance to make suggestions about how they imagine my sex life to be. This is really unpleasant. It's really really fucking rude for a start. And also, it's trying to undermine an argument by making out that you think I must be 'uncool' and 'uptight' and 'prudish' and 'no good in bed' because I think there are perhaps other ways to enjoy myself that don't involve taking part in the commercial sexual exploitation of women and men. I know, I'm the freak here.

This has also taken the form of asking me inappropriate and intimate questions about my sex life, my sexual history and suggesting I try out different things sexually (even though the bully has no knowledge of my sex life). Mocking someone for their perceived (or known) sexuality and sexual preference is again a great way to silence women writers by trying to suggest that they aren't as 'cool' or as 'liberated' as the online bully, whilst again using patriarchal society's measure of success (women being sexually attractive/available to men) to make out that the woman writing is a failure.

5. Violence, rape threats and hate language

Of course, this is the most extreme form of online abuse. It is also the scariest and the one that most succeeds in silencing women, leading as it does and has done to women shutting down their blogs, turning down writing work and worse besides. Although I haven't had this happen to me as badly as some writers (see Cath Elliott's blog here for how extreme this can be: when it did happen it made me want to turn off my blog, refuse any more writing offers and hide away, silenced and thoroughly 'shut up'.

The rape threats, the threats of physical violence, online stalking - these things have become the reality for women feminist bloggers and women bloggers in general. They're so commonplace as to almost seem normal. But it is not normal and it is not acceptable. No-one should have to feel that fear that we all get as we check the unmoderated comments tab, to breathe that sigh of relief as we avoid the abuse...for now.

These threats are real, they are scary, they leave you shaken and they leave you feeling threatened. They need to stop and the culture that excuses it, brushes it off or reduces it needs to be stopped too. Which leads me to part two...

Part two: Excuses given to brush off sexist online abuse

1. Women! Women are mean too!

Yes, I know! Imagine. Women. Being mean.

I do take big umbrage with feminists being sexist and abusive to one another. We have enough to deal with with anti-feminists treating us like shit without starting on one another. Sisterhood is an important tenet of feminism and although we can and should disagree or challenge one another, lets not do that in abusive and sexist ways. Or, for that matter, in 'one-up woman ship' ways.

And yes, women can be abusive too. To other women and to other men. This isn't right. Sexism, whoever is saying it, needs to stop. In my experience however, and it is important to point this out, I have never been sexually or physically threatened by a woman, or a feminist. Although at least two of the examples I gave in Number 4 were from an anti-feminist woman.

2. If you're on the internet, you need to deal with people disagreeing with you

This one is sexist in itself! As it implies that we women bloggers are delicate flowers who can't cope with people disagreeing with us, or who aren't able to manage the manly nature of debate. This argument is BS. Look at any of my blogposts with more than 5 comments and you'll see people disagreeing with me and arguing with me until the cows have gone home, been milked and fallen asleep. Debate and disagreement will happen and we can deal with that.

The difference is explaining why you disagree with my argument that, for example, I believe we need to end the commercial sexual exploitation of women and men in our society; and physically threatening me in order to show me why I shouldn't even be daring to make the argument in the first place.

If you can't understand that difference, then I will give you another example. There's a difference between disagreeing with my stance on abortion; and calling me a 'fucking baby killer' for making an argument that supports a woman's right to bodily autonomy.

It's fine to disagree (even if I think you are wrong). It isn't fine to use misogynistic abuse to try and make me stop writing.

3. Ungh. You are making out that women are victims! Stop victimising yourself!

Speaking out against violence is not victimising yourself. Breaking the silence around the abuse women regularly receive is not taking a victim stance. It's being honest about a serious issue and trying to challenge why it happens to ensure it doesn't happen any more.

I think that people who try and say that women being honest about their experiences are behaving like victims feel uncomfortable with hearing the reality of misogyny. That's their problem. I don't see myself as a victim. I see myself as trying to write honestly about my experience of sexist online bullying, in order to join in a wider conversation with other women, who together are speaking out against something that is ignored and brushed under the carpet.

Trying to silence us by saying we are behaving like victims is pretty pathetic reaction IMO. It's like a desperate last resort to make out that we're the ones behaving badly.

4. But men get online abuse too!

I'm going to leave it to a male blogger who gets abuse on his blog to explain this one:

'never seen any of my male blogger acquaintances get similar kinds of abuse. Certainly not anything like as frequently.'

Just like street harassment, men get abuse too. But the nature of the abuse and the types of threats and the reasons behind it are different.

5. It's freedom of speech man!

Expecting people to not partake in any of the abuse example mentioned above is not about restricting people's freedom of speech. It is about recognising that no-one should use that right to freedom of speech to harm other people and threaten them with violence.

Using vile misogynistic insults and threatening women to intimidate them in to leaving an online space? Who's denying people freedom of speech in that scenario ey?

But I won't shut up on my blog. I won't have my freedom of speech, my freedom to write and my freedom to express my views taken from me because some people think they have a right to abuse me online. I won't be silenced.

And that, my friends, is the very special Sian and Crooked Rib Guide to Online Abuse and the excuses given to pretend it isn't a problem and doesn't exist!

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