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Content note: this piece refers to misogynistic threats of violence

Recently the media has been full of stories about women in the public eye being subjected to sexist abuse online.  I’ve written in the past about the way women are singled out for vitriol which men simply do not have to face, and the tendency for the attacks to focus on their bodies rather than their ideas.  Just this week, Caroline Criado-Perez has spoken out about the way she was the target of a spate of hateful messages in the aftermath of her campaign to convince the Bank of England to keep a woman amongst the national luminaries pictured on banknotes.  Over the last year the academic Mary Beard, the critic Anita Sarkeezian and the journalist Helen Lewis have all faced appalling victimization simply for having opinions whilst being a woman.  And these are simply the most famous cases, which I happen to know about because the mainstream media has picked up on them.

When anyone points out that it is intolerable for women to be expected to put up with threats of rape and murder simply for being in public, the cry goes up of “free speech!”  This is a free speech issue, we are told.  We cannot trespass on the sacred right of anyone to express their Great Thoughts on the subject of a famous classicist’s vagina, or speculate about the sound a notable journalist would make as she choked to death.  Free speech is such an unalienable right, and such an absolute value, that it cannot be infringed, even to the extent to enforcing current laws against hateful and threatening language.  This situation, is it endlessly repeated, is a free speech issue.

As it happens, I agree.  Rape threats are a free speech issue.  They pose a deliberate and carefully calculated threat to women’s freedom of speech.  The relentless barrage of obscenity is designed to shut women up, to force them out of the public square and to keep them from contributing to our shared culture.  Men who send rape threats to female writers and broadcasters are attempting to put a price on speech.  They’re taxing women who won’t be quiet and submissive, trying to impose a toll on entrance to the public sphere.  They don’t need to have a better argument, or discredit a woman’s views.  They just need to make it too costly to be part of the discussion.  One threat might not have that effect, but twenty or fifty might, and publishing her address might tip the balance.

They tacitly admit this in the threats they choose to make.  Amidst all the general violence and obscenity, there’s a particular obsession with speech and mouths.  They harp on forced oral sex, on choking, on how they’d like to hear their victim scream, on the many things they would use to fill or shut a woman’s mouth.  Violent speech which can’t shut up about violence to speech.  The form, the purpose and the imagery of these threats all revolve around silencing women, this obsessive dream of ending women’s ability to speak.

I’m not an advocate for censorship, and there are various discussions to be had about the most effective way of tackling abuse online.  But can we please recognise that women detailing their experiences of harassment are not part of a cabal trying to make sure that “you can’t say anything these days”?  Mary Beard, Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez and their fellow women are reacting against a sustained and vicious attempt to rob them of the right to express their views in public.  Free speech is an immensely valuable and fragile element of our civil society, which we should guard tenaciously.  And we could start that task by recognising that rape threats are indeed a free speech issue.  They’re an attempt to destroy it.

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