In recent days the media’s gaze has been firmly fixed on Twitter following the online abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaigner behind putting women back on banknotes, which has added new momentum to debates about misogyny that still haunts the web. However, I would argue that the internet itself is not a breeding ground for sexism, it merely offers sexists a podium therefore granting misogyny greater visibility, but with this transparency comes possibility. The challenge now is not to censor or to silence, but to reclaim the internet and exorcise it of the lingering presence of prejudice.
Take for example The Everyday Sexism project that gives women a platform to voice their frustration, to express their anxiety and most importantly to “shout back”. When scrolling through examples addressed on the project’s twitter page, one has the unsettling feeling of familiarity: the jibes, the condescension and unwarranted attention. Often the tweets mirror personal experiences and serve as an uncomfortable reminder of times we have felt silenced, belittled and unwilling to speak out.
For many women, jeering in the street, wolf-whistling and groping has become so normalised and so mundane that it is merely the background music to everyday life and is as inevitable as a winter rain shower; as familiar and expected as it is grating. The project confronts sexism so ingrained that we have become desensitised, and defiantly offers women a chance to reclaim their bodies from the leering glances of colleagues and passers-by, whilst decrying perpetrators.
The recent harassment of Laura Bates and Caroline Criado-Perez has revealed even darker depths to sexism; showing it to be much more than the Carry On-style permissiveness of the 1960s or misguided attempts at humour. The deluge of taunts, teasing and threats has merged into the murkier waters of assault, threats to rape and harassment, which despite their undeniable severity, emerges from the same stem, upholds the same disrespect and provokes the very same anxiety for the recipient of unwanted attention.
The tsunami wave of shared experiences has inundated Twitter following Criado-Perez’ fight against threats, and support for her has saturated newsfeeds, leaving the previously unknowing baffled in its thunderous wake. Stories such as young men threatening a girl of 13 with rape on Facebook have emerged with concerned parents claiming that “this wasn’t bullying; it was abuse but no one took my complaint seriously.”
When debating the issue of online harassment faced by women, we are often presented with a dichotomy between feminism and freedom of speech which often misses the point: it is the female victims whose free-speech is under threat when perpetrators try to suppress their voices with promises of rape and violence. Furthermore, it was Criado-Perez who was silenced when Twitter moderators ignored her pleas for help following hours of threats and abuse; one moderator even went as far as to block her.
As argued by Criado-Perez, women face abuse online “because they’re women who are speaking out”. Laurie Penny, a journalist who has also had to face threats and hate-sites, claims that “having an opinion has become the miniskirt of the internet”: it is often assumed that women are “asking for it [abuse]” when they express their views online.
Another common misconception is that death and rape threats, sharing of home addresses and hate-sites is simply the work of “trolls” and is par for the course. Such concerted efforts to terrify and intimidate is not light-hearted trolling that we should rise above, but criminal activity. Shouting back and demanding consequences, which luckily we have seen following two arrests of men aged 21 and 25, is not simply a feminist issue but a human rights issue. Nobody should be made to feel under threat of physical violence if they continue to campaign.
It is now expected that Twitter bosses will be questioned by MPs about complaints that they have failed to do enough to protect women from users posting violent and abusive threats. There have also been calls for Twitter to take immediate action; Andy Trotter, a senior police chief, argues that social media companies should “take steps to stop this happening” and “accept responsibility for what’s happening on their platforms.”
Hopefully, events of recent weeks have awoken the public to the pressing need to address realities of online abuse women face by sexists protected by the blanket of anonymity, and alerted us to the very real threats of the virtual world.