The Abuse of Women on the Internet

There is often talk of the under-representation of women in certain fields, and a lot of discussion around why this happens. One of the reasons is the abuse they face whenever they speak out on the internet. For some reason women commenting on political issues brings out the worst in some people, mostly men. Negative comments about looks and odour are coupled with threats of rape and physical harm.

An example of the worst has been the attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez who began a campaign to have more women represented on British Banknotes. “If your friends survived rape they weren’t raped properly.” is just one comment out of five days of continual harassment. She is by no means alone.

Virtually every woman who publicly contributes to a political debate is subjected to virulent and largely anonymous online invective, or “trolling”. But it is far more than simply readers’ feedback. Trolling is intended to make women shut up – and to remind them their primary purpose is to be there for male sexual pleasure. Or not to be in public life at all.

It now seems to be an established fact: women who speak publicly get threatened with rape, physical violence, harming their relatives and murder. It is not just a bit of fun. Many are stalked and get their home addresses published. And it doesn’t really matter whether those threats will subsequently come true – they are already an act of violence.

The result has been that, in some cases, women have been chased out of public commentary.

The worst thing is that the strategy of harassing and intimidating female journalists, bloggers and other female public figures, was often sucessful. Some journalists, like Linda Grant, admits she stopped writing her regular column for the Guardian, because of violent threats. Some bloggers think twice before publishing a post. And even in their offline life, women are often afraid to speak up for themselves for fear of being insulted, belittled and harassed.

Death threats are not uncommon either.

Most recently, one man explained — with this actual photography and name in Facebook, “if you guys ever gain ground, we will take that ground back with guns. I will make sure there are roving squads in every community going from house to house looking for feminists to kill.”

The men who write these things often use “free speech” as an excuse, but this freedom can, and should, be limited when threats of violence are explicit. Given the anonymity of the internet, the person who is making the threats could be on the other side of the world, or right next door. They cannot be ignored. For example, Jennifer L. Pozner founder of Women In Media & News once found a letter at her door from one man  saying he’d “find you and your mom and rape you both.”

Men are more likely to be called gay or ‘pussy whipped’, or otherwise feminized (demonstrating the total misogyny of the attackers), the threats are not nearly as violent.

Ironically, when women call men out on our harassment, they are harassed even more. I (Ben Atherton-Zeman) wrote a Ms. blog about Tosh last year and it drew some criticism but mostly praise. But when feminist blogger Cristy Cardinal wrote about it she was threatened with rape and murder and her email and Twitter accounts were hacked.

I often write about the patriarchy of religion and the  harms to women’s rights, but the problem is much broader than just religion; it encompasses reproductive rights, employment opportunities and equal pay, slut shaming, body image shaming, and many other other examples of inequalities. Religions codify these behaviours and attitudes, but the actual abuse is prevalent across all sections of society.

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Speaking out against these attacks and taking threats seriously are the only tools we have.

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One Response to The Abuse of Women on the Internet

  1. Excellent post as usual. Thanks John.

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