I was going to write something about drinking this week, because it’s been a while, and last week’s post was kinda feministy and I like to usually mix things up a bit in between the being Really Angry About Things but something, well, two somethings but really the same something, happened this week which made me, well, Really Angry about Things.
Thing 1 – Sue Perkins – cake botherer, national treasure and all round amazing person – was hounded off Twitter due to some baseless rumours that she could be in the running to present Top Gear. For non UK people, Top Gear is ostensibly a program about cars, but for many years has basically been a vehicle (oh, lol) for the champion of the sort of people that say things like “I’m not a bigot but I should be allowed to say these things it’s political correctness gone mad MAD I TELL YOU.” The completely fabricated rumour that she was in the running, prompted by some betting activity, led to death threats so severe she left twitter. No doubt to a celebration of the Top Gear fans and any other people who just like sending women on Twitter death threats.
Thing 2 – Just a few days later, Jack Monroe – austerity chef, anti-poverty campaigner and down to earth ‘accidentally famous‘ blogger – was also hounded off Twitter. In her case she hadn’t done anything as egregious as be at the centre of rumours so much as simply being a lesbian, or a ‘militant queer’ in the words of one of the messages.
These aren’t the first women to be literally harassed off the internet. There is much writing already out there about how women with opinions are often the recipients of horrific (and very much gendered) internet harassment and threats. Occasionally the perpetrators are caught and face punishment, but more often they slip through the net (oh, lol) in the face of internet harassment being such a ‘new’ phenomenon that the courts and police aren’t really equipped to fully deal with it.
When they spoke of this harassment publicly many – if not all – of these women were advised (either well meaningly or otherwise) to ‘just get off the internet if you don’t like it’.
Just get off the internet.
There’s this strange idea, which has been around for a really super long time, that the internet isn’t a ‘real’ place. Back when I first started using the internet it was mainly newsgroups, and later LiveJournal. The idea there that the internet was somehow a separate world to the ‘real’ one was super pervasive back then, and the acronym IRL which you don’t see often these days – meant ‘In Real Life’. Even I bought into this idea that the internet was literally not real life and therefore somehow behaviour could be held to different standards. It was one of my closest and oldest friends that took me to task on this, years before Facebook was pivotal in transforming the internet from a niche interest to a normal part of most people’s lives.
The thing is, she pointed out, the internet IS a real place. Ok, it’s a virtual space, but it’s inhabited by real people, who make up real communities. She pointed out that if people kept thinking of the internet as ‘not real’ then they’d start thinking of other people on the internet as ‘not real’. And once you start thinking of real people as not actually real, with real feelings, then you stop treating them like people.
So let’s stop pretending the internet isn’t real life. It is. It’s as much a public place as a town square; with people meeting up, chatting on benches, buying things from the market and the shops, hanging out in a cafe, or in the library, or just watching life pass by. Just because it’s virtual, doesn’t make it ‘not real’.
And let’s stop pretending that by ‘leaving the internet’ a woman’s harassment will stop. I have been harassed by men I don’t know in public ever since I hit puberty. What should I do? Never walk on the street? Never leave my house? For some of the women harassed online they can’t even feel safe in their own house.
The harassment of women is not limited to the internet. The harassment of some of the women that started on the internet didn’t remain on the internet. The harassment of some women in real life followed them to the internet. Women can’t stop being harassed by leaving the internet any more than they can stop harassment by, say, moving to a different city, no matter what some people might say. Because harassment isn’t limited to one internet site, to one city, to one country. It is a global problem.
When I was sexually assaulted in January by a stranger, he probably wasn’t expecting me to react with anger, fury and loud shouting. He probably wasn’t expecting me to call the police. I knew the police could probably do little but I wanted to make sure my voice was heard, my incident was recorded, that I didn’t brush this off as just something that happens all the time that I should just put up with and change my behaviour to avoid. I didn’t stop going out with my friends or getting public transport or crossing the road.
When that man groped me, I am quite sure he wasn’t consciously thinking “If I grab that girls bum she’ll know her place. I am going to demonstrate my power over her by grabbing her bum. This bum grabbing will let her know that as a man I am entitled to her body in a public space”. He was possibly drunk, saw a girl with her back to him minding her own business and saw nothing wrong in touching her. Maybe he even thought it was funny.
When people harass women on the internet, it’s quite likely that they aren’t consciously thinking “I will put this woman in her place. I am more entitled to this space than she is. Her opinions aren’t welcome and I will demonstrate my greater importance by making her feel small and scared”. Maybe they see nothing wrong in making these threats. Maybe they even think it’s funny.
Part of me wasn’t even sure whether I should write this. I feared writing about the harassment of women, and linking to stories of harassed women, could potentially lead to attracting levels of harassment against me too. But then, isn’t that partly what these people that threaten and bully women online want, after all? They want the voices that are saying things they don’t like to stop. They want them to shut up. If I don’t speak up about this then I am letting those voices win and leaving the internet to them, to shout and bully unopposed; and I can’t do that. If I do get harassed online for writing this, perhaps it demonstrates a variation of Lewis’ Law. Maybe “the comments on any online article by a woman about online harassment are evidence of the problem of online harassment of women”?
We have a culture which allows and normalises the harassment of women in public spaces – both real and virtual – and the solution to preventing the harassment of women is NOT telling them to leave or stay away from public spaces, or to suggest that they are somehow responsible for their own harassment simply by being in those public spaces. The only people that are responsible for harassment are the harassers. And the way to stop them is for harassment to be taken seriously, whether online or off.