Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Silent no more and 'manning up' on online abuse

Today the media reported how, since her appearance on Question Time, all-round amazing woman Mary Beard had been subjected to some horrific online abuse. The reason? She’s a woman who happened to have an opinion and expressed that opinion in a public forum.

Of course, the abuse did not relate to what she actually said on Question Time. It all related to her being a woman. For those of us who know the drill when it comes to online abuse, we know what that means. All the usual offenders were there. Nasty comments on her appearance, sadistic sexual threats and even obscene Photoshopped images. I say all the usual because all of those things have happened to me. And a hell of a lot of other women I know.

The Women’s Room UK account responded to the news story by setting up a hashtag #silentnomore – encouraging women to speak out about their experiences of online abuse.

I joined in, of course. As a woman writing online, having a voice, I have had my fair share of online abuse. It has ranged from being called ugly, a dyke, speculation about my sex life, nasty insults about my family, rape threats and threats to post my details online so that men could find me and ‘make me pay’. That last one triggered a call to the police. For me it has meant being called a ‘fucking baby killer’ for writing about Dorries’ attacks on abortion rights. Being called a ‘fucking thick bitch’ for saying that perhaps F4J deserved to find themselves on the wrong side of the ASA. People wishing I’d get kicked in the vagina. Being told ‘I hope some cunt rapes you’. Those are just the ones I remember. Particularly last February when it really took off with the abuse from Hooters supporters, there were just so many I simply can’t remember them all. It’s just a blur of cunts and bitches and jealous and uglies.

I have always believed in the power of speaking out about online abuse, just as I believe in the power of speaking out about street harassment and all forms of violence against women and girls. This does not mean pressuring any woman to disclose what has happened to her. It isn’t an expectation on women to speak out. It’s more that I feel able to speak out and therefore I believe I can add my voice to help raise awareness of the reality of online abuse. And once we know the reality we can start to stop it.

I talk about the reality because often people think when you talk about online abuse you’re talking about someone disagreeing with you. The shock in their faces when you actually show them the words on the screen that are directed at you reveals how people don’t actually realise what online misogyny looks like. It’s not ‘girls’ being ‘hysterical’. It is women and girls being threatened with rape. It is men, in the case of Mary Beard, saying ‘they plan to plant a d*** in my mouth’.

Of course it didn’t take long for men – and it was mainly men – to turn up on the hash tag, a tag where women were sharing really awful experiences, painful, verbally violent experiences, to tell us, as one guy put it ‘to man up’.

There were plenty of men showing solidarity and listening too. But I can’t help but feel furious with those men who dared to tell us to stop moaning and ‘man up’. Speaking out is a hard thing to do. The very fact online abuse exists is proof how hard it is for women to safely speak out, to safely disclose. Already when we raise our voices so many people – again mainly men – are doing their upmost to silence us with abuse and threats of sexual violence. There’s something terribly ironic then that when we raise our voices to protest that silencing, so many people rush to try and silence us again.

What is so frightening about women speaking out? Why does that threaten some men so much that they respond by telling us to ‘man up’? What is so frightening about women speaking out on their experiences that some men respond by telling us they hope we get raped?

Online abuse is always the same. It always starts with telling you how ugly you are. The reason men who want to abuse women online do this is because they believe that calling a woman ugly is the perfect insult. They think this 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. This is really, really important. This is what AA Gill famously did to Mary Beard.

It then moves on to speculation on your sex life or calling you various names that mean gay – as if gay is an insult. 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. Speculation on your sex life for me has also meant quite frank discussions between commenters on what kind of sex I might be having.

And then the threats arrive. All of these aspects of online abuse are dedicated to one thing – to shutting you up. To taking your voice away. For chasing you out of the conversation.

It’s not good enough.

One of the wonderful things about #silentnomore is that it is a moment where women can come together and expose the shit that we put up with every day. It’s not acceptable for men to come along and try and silence that. Again, massive big up to the guys that showed solidarity. Perhaps Mr. ‘Man Up’ can learn something from them. Sometimes it’s time to listen to women and what women are telling you. And if we’re telling you that we are sick of being silenced by online abuse, it’s probably best not to try and silence us. 

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