harassment is not a virtual issue


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 Screenshot from Twitter. Text reads: Clarkson's Law: The reaction of many Top Gear fans to Top Gear demonstrates the need for changes to be made to Top Gearbetting 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.

Because off the internet, women don’t ever get harassed  or assaulted for being women, right?

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 iImage: Quotation from Terry Pratchet reading "Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things."nternet 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.



  1. This is disgusting and so true. I feel horribly for those women who felt hounded from social media because people think it is okay to harrass and bully someone online. The laws definitely need to catch up with todays technology. My brother received death threats from someone on Facebook and reported it to the police, they went to the persons house and they claimed they never did it and their FB was always logged on so anyone living in the house or that picked up his phone could have done it as a joke. This was of course balderdash, but the cops could do nothing because there are not currently laws that state that a person is responsible for the content coming from their social media. This was a few years ago now so things have possibly improved a bit, well I hope they have.
    There was a case of an RMIT professor a couple of years ago who hounded a lady who commented on a celebrities twitter in a discussion about suicide. The professor was telling the celebrity to kill herself, this woman stuck up for the celebrity and confessed that her husband had committed suicide 2 years earlier. The professor then attacked this woman and called her all sorts of names and said that her husband killed himself to escape her. Horrid things this guy said, but on his profile he stated where he worked and due to this was fired over the incident. People NEED ramifications for their actions. As you say they need to realise that this is real life!

  2. Reblogged this on ifyouagreewithmeivefailed and commented:
    I’m working out the mechanics of reblogging, so I’ll risk putting my comment here as well as on the rockstardinosaurpirateprincess blog and see how it works
    If I may add a thought of my own, there is a natural, if unpleasant habit of most creatures to want to be strongest, thereby getting more food and better breeding rights, even when they already have enough. Unfortunately humans are so ‘intelligent’ that they will form rules, laws and societies to gang up on anything that looks like a weaker group, and if that group also thinks it is weaker then the first group will probably win. Until the second group realises it is an illusion, at which point you get an uprising. How else could the English, and a few others, run slave plantations of hundreds of individuals with a few lightly armed men. The Axis forces led thousands to slaughter who knew they would die at the work camps and prisons, yet even when they had nothing to lose they didn’t attack their oppressors. Fortunately the majority usually works out that it’s a con, eventually and we can only hope that it hasn’t learned too much from its bullies and replicates them. There is one kind of hero. She or he who immediately attacks the aggressor proportionate to the perceived threat, I wouldn’t recommend shooting the bum-grabber, in spite of the immediate appeal.

  3. I hate how people say the most appalling, hateful, atrocious things online and hide behind anonymity or ‘freedom of speech’ when really they are hateful,petty minded bullies.

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