Friday, 30 October 2015

What can we do about online abuse? In which I get personal...

On Sunday I was lucky enough to go to the fabulous Feminism in London conference. It was such an inspiring day – I was attending as I was shortlisted for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize. Sitting on the stage during the closing speeches with my sister nominees, grinning from ear to ear, was an unforgettable moment and I am so happy I got to be part of it. 

I’m not here to write about FIL at large though. I wanted to write a little bit about one of the workshops I attended, on online misogyny and specifically the discussions on what we can do, as feminists and sisters, to combat it. 

The event, chaired by Alison Boydell from End Online Misogyny invited Claire Heuchan, Connie St Louis and Dr Emily Grossman to discuss their experiences of online abuse and also to offer thoughts and suggestions on how we best combat it. This was great – what could have been a depressing and upsetting talk about the horrors men send to women online (which is a necessary conversation but can leave you feeling a bit beaten), instead became a positive and dynamic discussion on what we do to stop it. 

Dr Grossman discussed how when the misogyny started pouring in after a Sky News “debate” with Milo, family and friends advised her to turn off her phone, turn off Twitter, go under. This advice was offered to me, when I had my own particularly nasty experience of online abuse. The idea if I went away, it would go away. If I stopped talking, stopped speaking, shut myself up, then it would go away.  

But, of course, this is what they want. When men send abuse on the internet, they’re doing it because they want to force women out of public space. They are angry that women are claiming space, taking up space, refusing to remain quiet, refusing to make ourselves small. And so they threaten us with rape, with physical and sexual violence, to try and shut down our voices. They call us ugly, they say no man would want us, to prove that in being outspoken, to prove that in taking up space, we are unacceptable women. They speculate on your sex life and your sexuality – again, desperately trying to prove that there’s something unnatural and wrong about you. Desperately trying to shut you up, to silence your voice. 

Online abuse is designed to silence women. I wasn’t going to accept being silenced. I wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. I wasn’t going to let their abuse shut me up. So I kept tweeting, I kept blogging, and I kept campaigning in public. However, I did make some choices. I did modify my behaviour online. There are subjects I no longer raise. Discussions I don’t involve myself in. Times when I very consciously self-censor. After all, self-care matters too, and I never want to wake up again to another rape threat. 

It never really goes away, the fear, the sense of threat. When you see a comment has been left on your blog, and your heart starts pounding, as you click to read it. 

One of the things I found hardest during my particularly intense time of online abuse, and which links in to the ‘just turn it off’ narrative, is how I was made to feel that it was my fault. This started because the local paper – whose editors had stirred up and enflamed abuse against me – printed the story that I had gone to the police, complete with a picture of my face. Their comments board flooded with men telling me that it was my own fault, that I had attracted the abuse and then had run like a coward to the police. They crowed that if I couldn’t take the heat (the heat? Of men threatening to share my details online? Of men threatening my safety?) then I should stay in the kitchen (ha ha! Get me a sandwich, b**ch!)

Their comments left me feeling that I had brought this upset and pain on myself, because I had stood up and spoken out. Because I had used my voice. It left me feeling that it was my fault – if I had just shut up and kept quiet, then I wouldn’t be in this mess. If I had behaved differently, then I wouldn't have brought all this upset on to me and to those around me. 

I don’t think I’ve ever written that down before. Just how much comments like those made me feel, deep inside, that I had to take some responsibility for the way I was treated. 

The friendlier, well-meaning exhortations to get offline and lower my profile left me with a similar feeling. No one meant to blame me, with those comments. But it’s a similar thing. It’s saying:

this happened because YOU did X. If YOU don’t do X, then it won’t happen. So just stop doing it! It's easier that way!

Whose agency, whose presence, is erased in that sentence? 

I did nothing wrong. I spoke out on an issue I cared about. Men chose to send me abuse, to send me threats. It didn’t even matter what I was saying, it was the fact I was saying it. 

Anyway, that’s enough about me. 

I was triggered to write this post not just by Sunday’s discussion, but by seeing this tweet by Jess Phillips MP. 

I responded with a message of solidarity (as you can see). 

Because to me, that is something we can all do when we see online abuse happening around us. We can send solidarity. We can send a message of kindness, of sisterhood. We can make sure that when someone’s mentions are being flooded with rape threats and vile, sexually violent imagery, there are also messages of care. 

When it happened to me, that was what made the difference. I had hundreds – HUNDREDS – of messages from people I had never met, offering support. At a time when I felt really fucked up, with people victim blaming and threatening, I was also overwhelmed and over-awed by the love and care of people who wanted to check I was okay. Who wanted to know what they could do. Who wanted to let me know that they had my back. 

It doesn’t take much. It’s a tweet, a comment on a blog, on Facebook. It might feel like you’re intruding or being a bit cheesy. But you’re not. It was the main thing I remember, now, from that time. That sense that I wasn’t alone. That people cared. 

Sometimes I think I was ‘lucky’. The abuse I’ve had sent my way in the years I’ve been blogging and campaigning is no where near as frightening and threatening and relentless as that received by other women – by women I count as friends and by women I don't know but see online. But there’s no ‘lucky’ here. I’m not ‘lucky’ that my experience of online abuse is not as bad as it could have been. Because we shouldn’t believe we are ‘lucky’. Not being abused, that should just be normal. Basic. 

Because, no woman should have to endure male violence, on or offline. 
No woman should be told she attracted male violence, on or offline. 
And we all have a role to play to support our sisters when we witness male violence, on or offline. 

So. Next time you see a woman going through online abuse. Don’t tell her to turn it off. Don’t tell her to go offline. Tell her you’ve got her back. Tell her you care. Show her some solidarity. 

Ouf. That ended up being a lot more soul-bearing and personal than I expected when I started writing it. Still, good to express how if felt. How I was made to feel

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. 

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