Harassment: Online & IRL

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For the past week or so, my face has been in the newspapers. No, I didn’t do anything terrible. I didn’t get arrested or hurt anyone – nor did I do anything amazing like save a baby’s life or stop a fire with my bare hands. Instead, I set up an online petition. A pantomime was announced as being performed in my city, one with the lovely title “Jack the Ripper the Pantomime”. As a feminist, and one who, in particular, specifically focuses on the media and our representations within this, I was annoyed. Here was yet another glorification of Jack the Ripper. Here was another iteration of him, this time redesigned and portrayed as the humorous protagonist of a comedic stage show. The description of the show on the production team’s official website read: “you can expect plenty of thigh slapping, lots of audience participation and a fair helping of prostitute evisceration!”

So I set up a petition against it. It was hastily put together in the space of about 15 minutes, in between phone calls at work. It was quick and clumsy and I didn’t expect anyone to sign it. But it blew up. At the time of writing this, it’s at over 600 signatures. And so, naturally, the local news wanted to cover it. And then some national newspapers caught wind, and wrote articles as well. And in each article was my name, occupation, and a photograph of me. I didn’t have any problems with this: I wanted the petition to be publicised, and for everybody to be as outraged as me. I didn’t mind being the face of the petition, the “angry feminist” for everyone to write comments about and mock.

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But then it came to tonight. The first showing of the pantomime is tonight, and I arranged with some local and London-based feminists to protest outside. As the hours leading up to it trickled away, I started to consider not attending. Why? Because of the things I mentioned above. My face was in every newspaper article about the petition. My name; my occupation – I was the “angry feminist” who didn’t believe in freedom of speech and who wanted to squash independent arts in our region.

Online harassment is something I don’t blink over. I have been called every name under the sun for my feminist articles, videos, and magazine. I’ve been insulted because of my appearance, my weight, my job, and the way that I talk. I’ve had sexually violent comments made, I’ve had threats, and I’ve had mocking remarks. I’ve also had to go through the horrible experience of seeing my mother go through the same thing, with actual hate sites made specifically for her which were filled with awful comments. And online harassment is something that pretty much any feminist on the internet has to deal with.

The internet is an amazing thing and has revolutionised communication. We no longer have to wait until newspaper headlines the next morning – usually you can follow any major news event via Twitter, with updates every single second. People can reach out and meet and network in a whole new way. But it has also opened up the doors to another part of society, one that is sordid and aggressive and that most people wish we could just block out – and that’s online sexism. You see, when you’re online it’s very easy to suddenly become over-confident. No one can see your face, you can use fake names, and it’s difficult to track people down. You can make an awful comment and then switch your computer off and forget about it. And whilst sexism is present and widespread in real life, it’s heightened on the internet. Suddenly that nerdy guy who usually keeps quiet is posting about his hatred for “fake gamer girls” and joining in with the whole Gamergate debacle (which, by the way, was not about fucking ethics in journalism. It was a witch hunt led by a emasculated man after his girlfriend broke up with him). Your neighbour who is always polite to you and makes small talk when you’re both outside for a cigarette is actually sat at his computer at night, searching the phrase “feminists” on YouTube so he can make rape and death threats. When people are anonymous, they are dangerous.

Internet sexism – or “cybersexism” – has been studied for years, with research as early as 1990 taking note of “women on the Internet being the targets of male intimidation, harassment and sexual deception” [x]. In 2006, the University of Maryland set up a study that involved fake accounts being set up and used in chatrooms. Fake accounts with women’s names received an average of 100 “sexually explicit or threatening” messages, whilst the men’s accounts received an average of just 3.7. And let’s not even get started on the wide variety of websites that will quench the thirst of any anti-feminist wanting to learn more about Alpha Males, the MRA movement, or join in with discussions about rape and violence. It is so easily accessible, sometimes hidden in body-building discussion forums, and other times right out there on one of the most popular sites on the internet. Reddit was under fire this year, when it reworded its harassment policy yet left subreddits such as “r/rapingwomen”, “r/chokeabitch”, “r/hotrapestories”, and “r/cutefemalecorpses”. And those subreddits contained material as literal as their titles, from why rape is a good thing, to people’s own self-congratulatory stories about it.

That there is anybody on the planet who will deny that we live in a rape culture is fantastical to me.

I’ve never been harassed to the extent of receiving rape threats, but the fact that material like this is available online is harassment in and of itself. What women would feel safe online, when they know they are in the midst of anonymous people who have been reading, and indoctrinated by, this type of language and these opinions about women? What woman would feel comfortable expressing her views when she knows that the person who commented on her video calling her a “whore” or a “slut” is 5 steps away from threatening to rape her?

Take, for example, Jessica Valenti. A columnist for The Guardian, she is the founder of the feminist site Feministing.com and frequently gives speeches and talks across the country. Yet, speaking recently to The Washington Post, she admitted that if she started over again, she’d prefer to stay anonymous. “It’s “not just the physical safety concerns but the emotional ramifications” of constant, round-the-clock abuse” [x]. And Caroline Criado-Perez, who last year ran a campaign to get a woman on the face of a UK banknote, dedicated several pages of her recent book “Do it Like a Woman (and Change the World)” to the harassment she had received as a result, including threats such as “women that talk too much need to get raped”, and “kiss your pussy goodbye as we break it irreparably”.

There are several accounts of well-known feminists having to move out of their houses, after they were doxxed and their personal information leaked. That meant that the people making threats online could very easily have moved their fight into real life, and caused actual physical harm.

Whilst the comments I have received have been nowhere near that level of violent or aggressive, it is still scary to know that there are people out there who have that opinion of who, and who know your face, and who know you’re probably going to be at the protest against the pantomime you’re so opposed to. But I didn’t stay at home because I was scared; I stayed at home because I couldn’t be bothered. Because pretending to ignore horrible comments about me has left me mentally and emotionally exhausted. Because I don’t think I would be able to act like I haven’t heard a nasty comment about me in real life, as I have done online.

So no, I didn’t go to the protest tonight. I’m 23 – I’m still figuring out how to handle online harassment and not let it seep into real life activism. But I’m not scared, and those people certainly haven’t succeeded in silencing me. For every jibe about my appearance I’ve read, I’ve had 3 people messaging me privately to say what a good idea the campaign was. For every person being aggressive, I’ve had many more people signing the petition and leaving their opinion underneath. There have been over 600 signatures, compared to maybe 100 cases of harassment. So I’m here. We’re here. We’re not scared, we’re not hiding. We may not be aggressive and violent in our attempts to make our opinions heard, but that does not make us any less valid. It does not make our anger any less real. It just means we aren’t pretending to be big strong tough scary men whilst secretly cowering behind our keyboards.

The online harassment carried out by men only validates the messages we are trying to put out in our feminist “rants”. Their violence, aggression, and threats are the literal definition of rape culture, sexism, and misogyny. I can only congratulate them for contradicting themselves in their attempts to silence us. And I thank them for proving our points for us.

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