Saturday, 27 July 2013

Online abuse and reporting the man who threatened me

This week, feminist activism saw a real success with the announcement that, after Elizabeth Fry departs from the £5 note, Jane Austen will soon grace the noble tenner. This was after a concerted, high profile campaign run by Caroline Criado-Perez highlighting the cultural femicide of women across our society – the invisibility of inspirational women in the public eye and the impact that has on wider inequality.

Whatever your thoughts on the bank notes campaign, and even within feminist circles there is a divergence of views, what we can surely all agree on is that the scale of abuse Caroline has received in the wake of the announcement is absolutely horrifying and appalling. Rape threats and other violent threats have abounded, along with grotesquely sexually violent language. These message from men – and they are all men – are another sad and horrific example of what happens when a woman speaks out about sexism and misogyny, and brings these issues into the public eye.

Last February, you may remember, I was in a similar situation. I had been involved in a campaign to try and prevent a Hooters restaurant opening in Bristol. The campaign did not prevent the opening, but not long afterwards the self-styled ‘breastuarant’ closed due to poor management, debts and a lack of custom. I don’t know if the lack of custom had anything to do with our highlighting how bloody sexist the establishment was. But I had no direct responsibility for the closure of Hooters.

Throughout the Hooters campaign I had been subject to some pretty vile abuse. A lot of the insults were mocking my perceived appearance and sexuality, general wishing of violence upon me and people finding ways to insult my family. But when Hooters closed, the abuse stepped up. On Facebook a man wrote that I was a cunt, that he was going to find out where I lived, post my address details online and ‘make me pay’. Other men ‘joked’ about how they hoped I got kicked in the vagina.

I probably wouldn’t have gone to the police but my mum gave me no choice. Like women everywhere, when I am harassed or assaulted offline, or abused online, it doesn’t even register as a crime. It is just something that happens, to you, as a woman, in public space. That space might be a pub or a club, a bus, or Twitter and Facebook. We are so used to the language that degrades us; we are so accustomed to having our aired opinions met with deeply sexist and misogynistic insults that to label it as a crime seems absurd. It’s too common, surely, to be a crime?

But it is a crime. It is. And going to the police to report the threat made online was a real triumph for me. The police were fantastic. They took it seriously – more seriously than I had in my ‘this is just what happens to women’ mode. They listened, and they reassured me that no one deserved to be threatened. They asked me if I wanted to go to court and they respected my decision not to do so. And they went to the guy’s house, gave him a caution which is now on his record and he is not allowed to contact me or the Bristol Feminist Network ever again.

When the police officer visited me after the man had accepted his caution, he told me how my online abuser had said he had never considered the fact that I was a real person. He had never thought that his words could or would hurt me.

I don’t believe this. I think this is what men who write vile abuse online tell themselves to excuse their behaviour. But he knew I was a real person. I exist. The men abusing Caroline know she is real. They just believe they can get away with it, because it’s online and because calling women bitches and slags and cunts and sluts is shrugged off. After all, it happens all the time, so it’s ok.

Well, it’s not ok. It’s against the law. You cannot write online that you want to rape a woman, you cannot write to that woman telling her you’re going to find out where she lives and ‘make her pay’ for being a ‘cunt’. It is a crime.

When I wrote about my experience in the Guardian, the local BBC news website and local paper picked up on the story, reporting how I had gone to the police.

I wasn’t surprised that so many of the comments under these articles ‘argued’ that the abuse was all my own fault. If I had shut up, stayed home, not raised my voice in the public sphere, then I wouldn’t have received these threats. According to many, it was my presence as a woman speaking out about inequality that had caused these men to act in the way they had. It wasn’t their fault for being sexist, potentially violent, misogynists. It was my fault for daring to have a voice.

It’s the same old story. Whenever a woman speaks out about the online abuse she has experienced, there is always a vocal group blaming the woman for that violence. Apparently going to the police showed that I couldn’t ‘take the heat’. Just as I should have shut up in the first place, I also should shut up about being a victim of a crime. I should just take it.

It was as if by being a woman speaking out against sexism, I had forfeited my rights. My daring to have a voice somehow meant in their eyes that I had no legal rights, that I had renounced my rights to live free from threats of violence. It was frightening how little they respected that the law applied to me, just as much as anyone else, no matter what I had said about how retro sexist Hooters is.

I believe misogynistic online abuse exists for one reason. And that is that some men are so threatened by women having a voice – by women having a role in the public sphere – that they will stop at nothing to shut her up. They will stop at nothing to deny her of her freedom of speech.

The men abusing Caroline Criado-Perez over the last few days don’t care about Austen, or bank notes. They care that a woman has spoken out about sexism and they want to stop her from doing it again.

The men who abused me didn’t care about job losses in Bristol. They were furious that I had spoken up about sexism and they wanted to stop me ever doing it again.

I called the police on my abuser. I believe doing so means he will now think twice before he threatens a woman online again.

I would never tell a woman to go to the police for online threats if she didn’t want to. But I do believe we need to ram the message home that what these men are doing is against the law. If we report their actions, they will receive a criminal record. The men who write they hope you get raped, the men who follow you online, jeering about all the horrific things they want to do to you, the men who call you cunts and bitches – every single time one of them is breaking the law. It is against the law to threaten someone online, just as it is offline.

I don’t know how we bring this message home. The problem I see is that these men don’t believe you when you tell them they’re breaking the law. As my own experience shows with the reaction I had after going to the police – the fact of you reporting it encourages more abuse, gives more men more leverage to abuse you. But reporting it did mean that this one man won’t be threatening women again. And it means, I hope, that I can write this post and prove that threatening women online is a crime. Perhaps that’s something.

Every woman who speaks out receives threats and abuse designed to silence her. Last February it was me, this weekend it’s Caroline Criado-Perez. It’s Bidisha, Laurie Penny, Cath Elliott, Nimko Ali. It doesn’t matter what we talk about – that’s not the concern. It’s the daring to talk in the first place.

But I have a voice. I will use it. Those men couldn’t silence me then and they won’t silence me now. The fact that they keep trying to isn’t good enough. This has to stop.

Petition to have report abuse button on Twitter 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Some thoughts on p0rn filters and criminalisation, young people and context

First up, let’s explain where I stand on this whole porn filter/criminalisation of rape and torture porn. I (slightly tongue in cheek) describe myself as a sex positive, anti porn feminist. Tongue in cheek because I think in many ways it’s disingenuous to try and define anything as ‘anti porn’. But I also want to reclaim the term ‘sex positive’ as I believe that saying a dislike for porn means you are ‘sex negative’ is to say that good sex is intrinsically linked with the sex industry. I don’t believe that. I believe that enjoying sex, being sexual and having a sexuality can happen without buying into a huge multi billion dollar industry based on the commercialisation of women’s bodies. I don't mind what other people do, I just resent how the term 'sex positive' excludes women and girls who don't watch porn. It's just a bit insulting, don't you think?

So, this week the two stories that have dominated the headlines both relate to public ownership or interest in women’s bodies. One – the royal baby. Two – the government’s plans to introduce porn filters on every internet connected computer and criminalise porn that depicts rape or torture of women (and men, I assume. Although this hasn't actually been mentioned in the media). 

As a feminist who sincerely believes porn is problematic and can have a harmful influence on how young people view women’s right to consent, desire, or pleasure, it would make sense for me to feel support for this move. As it happens, I don’t – particularly. 

Why? Well firstly because I am always wary of anything that is aimed at preserving ‘childhood innocence’. Not the same as child protection of course. I am concerned that the government frames the problem of depicting rape as something that should not be seen by children – not as something that may have an impact in glamorising or normalising the epidemic levels of violence against women. So much of the government's rhetoric on sexualisation seems to work on the assumption that treating women's bodies as commodified objects magically becomes ok when you hit a certain age. This isn't true. This is backed up by the way Cameron continually gives the thumbs up to Page 3 - his whole attitude towards the treatment of women as sex objects simply doesn't add up. 

Secondly, it’s all very well trying to hide this from children’s eyes, but unless this move is accompanied by comprehensive sex and relationships that focuses on respect and consent then it’s not going to have much impact on improving the disturbing levels of teen intimate partner violence. Seeing as the government is ideologically entrenched against sex education, this isn’t happening soon. Which confirms my suspicions that this is more about ‘won’t somebody think of the children!!’ than ‘how can we seriously combat disturbing levels of teen intimate partner violence.’ Remember, according to NSPCC and Bristol University research, 1 in 3 girls aged 16-19 have experienced intimate partner violence including coercion into sexual contact they do not want to have. One survey found 75% of girls reported emotional abuse, 33% of girls had suffered sexual abuse including rape, and 25% reported physical abuse from their boyfriends. The rate of physical abuse rose to 75% for girls with partners who are more than two years their senior. 

Thirdly – and this relates to the other two points – this idea seems unworkable in terms of web technology. The whole thing makes me think this was more about David Cameron having an easy win that panders to the Daily Mail. A paper who, with their constant ‘older than her years’ and ‘all grown up’ headlines are in no position to say anything about sexualisation. 

So, those are my reservations about this proposed legislation. 


Do I think we need to be talking about porn that depicts rape and torture? Well, yes. We need to talk about this - sensibly and in a grown up manner. And as well as talking, we need to listen to the voices of the girls and boys who this legislation is designed to "protect".  

As the debate has raged across Twitter, a couple of things have really stood out for me. One has been the concern (I’m being charitable) that people living with parents or in shared houses might not be able to watch free online porn any more. 

I think we need to step back and just think a bit harder about that statement, and it’s obvious rejoinder. 

No one has ever died from not watching porn. 

If you live in a shared house and your landlord has applied the filter to your internet connection, I’m sorry but so fucking what? You don’t have an inalienable right to watch porn online. It’s not a human right. I know some people may find it hard to believe, but everyone having internet in their homes is a fairly new thing. The last 13 years really. Before that, people didn't have instant access to porn depicting women being raped.

That's just a personal gripe. It seems a bit silly to focus on 'my right to watch free online porn' when surely the debate we want to be having is about sex education, impact on violence against women and, of course, what it all means for censorship.

Fiona Elvines, from Rape Crisis South London, makes many interesting points in her head-to-head article with Anna Arrowsmith in the Guardian on 24 July. In it, she explains one of the key misconceptions - that the proposals are trying to state a causal relationship between rape and rape depicted in porn.

Of course this causal relationship doesn't exist. To say rape is caused by porn would be to remove the agency of the perpetrator. It would also mean - as per my point above - that 13 years ago we had fewer problems with sexual violence. However, porn depicting rape exists in a context of high - extremely high - levels of sexual violence against women. Where there are nearly half a million sexual assaults every year in the UK alone. I agree with Fiona that porn depicting rape:

'contributes to a conducive context for violence against women through eroticising men's violence and women's non-consent.'

Rape Crisis Centres are well placed to understand the role porn depicting rape often takes in grooming victims and legitimising perpetrators' actions. From my own conversations with Rape Crisis workers, I've heard over and over again how violent porn has been used within cases of abuse. These scenes, this footage - none of it exists in a vacuum. They exist in a patriarchal, capitalist society where there are up to 90,000 rapes every year and a conviction rate of 6.5%.

This is not to suggest that every one who watches porn depicting rape is an undiscovered rapist. It frustrates me that feminists who question rape porn are immediately accused of this strawman argument. That argument is clearly, obviously, ridiculous. Instead, I believe we need to understand how we live in an unequal society with high levels of sexual violence, and so we need to ask questions about how different media portrays rape and violence against women. We need to recognise that porn doesn't exist outside our patriarchal society and therefore discuss how it fits into our culture.

The other argument has been around how these proposals seek to control women's own fantasies around submission, or stigmatise BDSM. I think the important distinction here is that fantasies are just that - fantasy. Women may fantasise about being dominated etc. and that's ok. A huge part of feminism has always been about empowering women's sexuality and that means respecting and celebrating how women want to express that sexuality. My point is however that the very fact of fantasy means consent is present. It's not a rape fantasy - it's a fantasy of controlled submission. Similarly, BDSM is consensual. Rape is not consensual - that's the point. There's a world of difference between women consenting, negotiating and agreeing how they want to have sex with their partner, and the videos targeted by these proposals. Most of the videos under discussion are those where consent is unimportant, disregarded. They are from the rapist perspective. It's a rapist fantasy – not a controlled submission fantasy. They don't celebrate women's sexual autonomy, they elevate male domination and eroticise male violence.

A further argument against these proposals is the question of why the government is picking on porn when film and TV have rape scenes in them all the time. Well, firstly I for one wish there were less rape scenes in film and TV. They're upsetting, many women and girls find them triggering and they're always, always glamorised or unnecessary. Sometimes they are added in for no reason at all - see The Other Boleyn Girl. It often feels that it's a tickbox to add to the script - everything needs a rape scene.

So if there was a campaign to reduce the number of explicit and distressing rape scenes in movies, sign me up.

However, whenever this argument is made that if it's ok on film, why is porn different, I think we need to remember why porn is, in its very nature, different. The sole purpose of porn is to aid masturbation or sex. Films and TV aren't. Porn depicting rape is inviting the viewer to experience one of the most intense and pleasurable feelings any human can have whilst watching a woman experience a horrific, traumatic and violent assault acted upon her.

I know it's not a popular, fashionable opinion but I do find this troubling. I find it particularly troubling that with the dearth of sex education, young people are seeking out porn, finding porn that depicts rape, and associating those images of violence and non-consent with sex, or with what women want. With no context, with no education about consent and respect, the videos shape an understanding of sex and sexuality that eroticises violence and lack of consent. We need to understand the impact this has on young people's approach to consent and sex.

So we need to have this conversation. We need to talk about what an eroticisation of violence means in a culture where violence against women is endemic. We need to discuss what porn depicting rape teaches young men who have no other context to talk about sex and consent. We need to ask why so much porn is based on non consensual violence and non consensual degradation. And we need to listen to how this is impacting on girls.

To me, none of this is about kink, BDSM or any consensual sexual practise. The issues feel very separate and they should be kept separate. This isn't about saying all men who watch violent porn are potential rapists or all women who enjoy violent porn are oppressed. None of those arguments stand up - they're disrespectful and unscientific. It is frustrating that a lot of mainstream media are deliberately blurring the lines on this debate.

This is about the what place porn that depicts rape has within an unequal society with high levels of sexual violence, and what that means in a society that lacks comprehensive sex education.

Do I agree with this proposed legislation? I think it's a moot point. I don't believe it's workable, it doesn't come from a feminist place, it's not about women and it's all about the Mail. Without sex education it's meaningless and will likely have a negative impact on any teenager trying to google 'am i bisexual?'

But do we need to talk about this issue. Yes.