Content note: The following post mentions misogynistic threats of violence.
The other day a fellow academic threatened to smash my face in. In response to a blog post I wrote about why “females” was not a synonym for “women”, a faculty member at a university where I used to work posted on the discussion board of a right-wing website, saying that he was going to cave my face in and advising people to watch the newspapers for news of his assault on me. Never has the term “impact agenda” worked on so many levels.
This isn’t a remotely credible threat: the person in question doesn’t know me, and most likely lives on the other side of the Atlantic. Though it’s unpleasant to follow a link which is directing people to my blog, and find someone has googled me and posted up threats of violence, I can’t take it particularly seriously. (The fact that his phrasing reminded me strongly of a scene from Hancock’s Half Hour may be contributing factor.) In fact the noteworthy point is how mild the threats were. Just a straightforward cranial crunch and a little media coverage. No leering fantasies about disembowelling me, or violating my dead body. Nothing sexual, no torture or genital references, and no violence to my mouth which would prevent me from speaking ever again.
I mention those possibilities because they’re the sort of abuse which is regularly directed towards some women who write or speak in public. Helen Hastley-Lewis asked a few bloggers about the kind of gendered abuse they’ve received, and published it in a piece entitled “You Should Have Your Tongue Ripped Out” Last year the gamer and writer Anita Sarkeesian started a project to investigate sexism in gaming: she instantly attracted a wave of threats, including pictures of her being raped and a videogame which involved beating her up When the classicist Mary Beard had the audacity to appear on the political TV show Question Time and express mildly controversial opinions, she was also subjected to a stream of demeaning abuse which involved fantasies of silencing her via sexual violence.
The blogger Stavvers used to keep a folder on her computer desktop of all the verbal violence sent her way as an inevitable result of being, as she puts it, “a woman with an opinion who is present on the internet.” She stopped, as it was taking up too much of her time, and the insults never really changed enough to make it interesting. Cath Elliott found herself wondering whether this kind of gendered abuse is “An Occupational Hazard” of writing online. These are just a handful of accounts I’ve seen over the last year or so, I’m sure a cursory search would turn up dozens more.
This isn’t just generalized nastiness, an effect of the anonymity of the internet where anything goes and all can benefit from equal opportunities offensiveness. It’s specific, highly gendered, and reveals an outrage that women should not only hold opinions, but express them in the public square. Silencing is both an effect of this abuse – several writers have admitted giving up or tackling less contentious topics in self-defence – and a recurring motif in the form the threats take. Women are threatened with rape to “shut them up”, or pictured having their mouths assaulted. The threat I got was nothing like this, because it didn’t stem from the assumption that I shouldn’t have been talking in the first place. The faculty member who threatened me was apparently disgusted by my opinion (never let anyone tell you people don’t take grammar seriously these days), but not offended by the fact that I should have one.
Of course I can’t claim to know exactly what he would have said about a woman who had written the same piece. But I can take a pretty shrewd guess, from previous experience. Being called “Jem” means that people online mistake my gender from time to time, and occasionally the results are revealing. I wrote a piece on the portrayal of Irene Adler in the TV show Sherlock some time ago, and received some pushback from other viewers and critics. Some of it was insightful, and made me change my mind slightly, some of it was Moffat enthusiasts telling me where to go, and some of it involved telling me to read a history book to discover that actually the Victorians thought actresses were filthy and just like prostitutes. Of the latter category, the two most dismissive and patronising by far were from people who assumed I was a woman. That could be a coincidence, but they had a different tone, one I’m not used to being addressed in. For a moment, I caught a whiff of mansplaining. They didn’t disagree with me, they explained why I didn’t have the tools to engage in cultural criticism.
Something similar happened when that same article on “women” vs “females” ended up being discussed on a men’s rights website called A Voice For Men (I must learn not to follow those links…) Assuming I was a woman, the commenters called me a broomstick-riding bitch, a FemiNazi c*** and decided I must have penis envy. The one of them read my bio and gave the others the gender news, also posting links to other pieces I’d written. All of a sudden I was a classic example of how postmodern ideas are destroying the academy, a moron who couldn’t think properly, an idiot whose own logic contradicted itself. I nearly got whiplash, the angle of attack altered so fast. Totally unselfconsciously, they switched from gendered abuse about me as a person to deriding the content of my ideas.
That’s just one example, but it underlined the privilege I experience every day as a male writer: the privilege of having my ideas attacked instead of my body. The luxury of expecting people to disagree with me without threatening to violate or mutilate me. Of simply speaking with an assumption that other people will recognize my right to do so, and may even listen to what I’m saying. The surprise I felt when someone threatened to smash my head in alerted me to how often that’s happened before: never. What a luxury that surprise is.