academe, academic, feminism, gender, language, men, men's rights, sherlock, Victorians
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.
+ Yvonne Aburrow (@vogelbeere) said:
I must be doing this feminist blogging & tweeting thing wrong – I have not received any of the vile gendered abuse that you describe. I know that others have received it though, as I have seen it happening.
Whereas I have both received that kind of abuse and threats when presenting as a man, and had my ideas attacked when presenting as a woman.
It’s also rather odd that a man here has taken on the authority to talk about the experience of being a woman online, and has illustrated how he ‘knows’ what it’s like by his own male assessment of when people consider him female, rather than I don’t know, asking some women.
He does cite a lot of articles written by women. And I, for one, found it interesting that the abuse centered on his ideas when he was identified as a man and on his person when taken for a woman. It might explain why a lot of women on the Internet, particularly in gaming communities, choose to hide, obfuscate or just not mention their gender.
I’d like to post links to relevant resources:
– Your obligatory relevant XKCD : http://xkcd.com/385/
– http://www.fatuglyorslutty.com is a place were women can post the abuse they get sent on online game services (lots of Xbox Live, some Steam, some ingame chat for particular titles). As a man, I found it eye-opening.
– reddit.com/r/creepypms is a subreddit where woman can post, well, “creepy” private messages, usually received on dating websites (okcupid and plentyoffish seem to be the most popular choices).
A thoughtful piece, however the content note pretty much undoes the attempt to understand or explore privilege (as well as misunderstanding what they are fair)
Please don’t read if I find something upsetting…Erm thank you, i need a stranger on the internet to determine how I exercise self care, because obviously i am unable to do that.
TW/CN are so people can decide for themselves if they have the spoons to decide if they can deal with something they may be upset by. Sometimes they may choose to read, at other times step away. The addition here comes across as patronising and paternalistic.
Sorry, yes, that was badly thought through. I was trying to avoid just using the term ‘triggering’ after recent online discussions had suggested many people found that term appropriative. Would it be better if I amended the content note to simply refer to what’s in the piece?
I found this a very thought provoking and insightful piece. I have been threatened with gang rape, anal rape, forced oral sex and many other vile actions. I never cease to be horrified by how some elements of society can think this is ok?
I am not sure that women are victims of online abuse more than men, I think this may be a case of confirmation bias and that there are various campaigns to highlight abuse that women have received, It is difficult to gage any relative rates.
Why online abuse is so prevalent I think has to do with the ability to say something with an audience and no social consequences; but also the tendency of internet communities to from self reinforcing, harsh ingroup/outgroup dynamics where hyperbolic denunciations are rewarded and being reasonable gets you overlooked. Feminist online communities are not immune from this phenomenon, it can be seen quite clearly in sites like pendragon, feministe and r/SRS
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Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess said:
I have just spent hours after my bedtime enjoying your blog! I have a question for you which is somewhat tangential to this blog but you write your ideas very clearly so I am interested; Mr RDP and I have had a number of discussions over whether ‘mansplaining’ is a sexist term. What are your thoughts?
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