On rape threats and internet trolls

What I've learned about the sexism directed at female bloggers.

On Thursday, I posted a blog about the sexist abuse that female bloggers routinely face online. I'd seen my fellow NS blogger Laurie Penny retweeting some of worst insults and threats that she gets, and remembered that I'd seen other women describe similar experiences.

What I didn't realise was quite how many people weren't aware of the problem. Large news sites filter out the worst abuse, and as one of our contributors pointed out, she doesn't publish insulting comments on her blog because they make it feel "squalid, unsafe and invaded".

The other thing I learned was that it isn't just the rape, death and other threats which affect those writing online. There is also a low-level sledging, based around gender, which wears down many female bloggers. Being described in loaded terms such as "shrill" contributes to the idea that your opinions aren't worth hearing.

Some people didn't want to hear it, of course: regular complaints were that we should "grow a pair" and accept that all internet commenters get abused. I dealt with this in the original piece, but it's worth restating here: the right to free speech is not the same as the right to make threats against another person. Nor does a mainstream news site or personal blog have any "duty" to publish a comment which unnecessarily attacks a writer on personal grounds. You have the right to hold your opinion, no matter how outrageous I find it: you don't have the right to have others pay (which they do, through hosting or advertising) for you to express it.

Others were just flat-out trolling: feminists inflicted far worse abuse on people, they claimed, without offering evidence of widespread rape and death threats to support that assertion. Of course, women are not immune from being nasty: I have no doubt that there are many female commenters posting unpleasantly. But what the bloggers who took part in the post were describing was a particular type of abuse, a combination of belittling comments based around gender, and threats of sexual violence. Jane Fae, a transwoman, observed that she had noticed a distinct difference between the comments she received posting as a woman from what she heard as a man.

Then there was the suggestion that feminists, in fact, liked this kind of abuse because they enjoyed feeling victimised, as it made them feel justified. That's one straight out of the "she was asking for it" playbook.

There were better critiques, though. I had a friendly disagreement with the Guardian's James Ball, who noted that internet commenters will find any perceived weak spot and attack it ruthlessly. "When netizens want to get personal, they hone in on any easy target: race, age, class or -- of course -- gender, that might get them a rise," he says. "Even middle-aged white men (debatably the least persecuted minority out there) are susceptible to abuse -- 'What do you know about anything, in your ivory tower?'"

When I'd finished drying my tears for the plight of middle-aged white men in our society, I considered what he'd said. I do think that the abuse dished out to all internet writers is something we should talk about: all websites like to have traffic, and engaged audiences. Have they been too ready to publish comments which don't add anything to the debate -- and may discourage writers from returning -- in the pursuit of hits?

Following the post, I was contacted by dozens of women, through Twitter and email, saying they'd had very much the same experiences. Some said it had made them reconsider writing; others that it had made them more determined. I've created a Storify of some of the most interesting early reactions, but first I want to share (with permission) two women's stories.

Petra Davis, a music and sex writer, told me [warning: graphic content ahead]:

I haven't written much for the last year or so (nothing sinister, just busy new day job) but when I was a regular sex blogger, most of my work was pseudonymous, some male, some female, some genderless pseudonyms, and I wrote from a variety of different gender perspectives.

I can state confidently that the abuse and threats, mostly of sexual violence of varying levels of inventiveness and sadism, that I received when writing under a female pseudonym, were misogynist -- it was only when writing as a woman that I was ever threatened that way. The abuse got more intense over time, with some commenters taking a particular interest in finding me on social networking sites and posting details under pieces I'd written.

When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material. Eventually, I was sent an email directing me to a website advertising my services as a sex worker, with my address on the front page under the legend 'fuck her till she screams, filth whore, rape me all night cut me open', and some images of sexually mutilated women. It was very strange, sitting quietly in front of my screen looking at those images, knowing that the violence done to these other women was intended as a lesson. . .

Of course, it didn't take long to take the site down, but by then I was thoroughly sick of the idea and more or less stopped writing about sex from any perspective.

Nina Power, an academic researcher, was subjected to similar abuse on a blog popular with serving police officers after writing a piece about police violence. One commenter, called "PC Lightyear", opined: "Nina seems quite pretty. After we disband the Police, let's see pretty Nina walk through a sh1tty estate in say Elephant n Castle, Camberwell, Tottenham, Brixton, Lewisham, Wembley . . . and see how well her idea works out when the Gangstas decide they deserve to have her as a toy." [screengrab here]

Another chipped in: "She won't need to go for a walk -- once the Slag realised we weren't coming out of the nick, they'd go looking for her." A third: "Without a big, tough man to protect her, all her idiotic blatherings and demands to be treated as an equal will be for nothing when she is getting used as a ganstas 'toy'."

When one commenter says that such comments are unpleasant, a pious reply is forthcoming: "Lightyear isn't wishing it on her -- simply pointing out the harsh realities of the real world, away from the ivory towers of academia."

Power says: "Note not only the insane misogyny but also the racial/class stereotyping and the fantasy that rape is something that will necessarily happen in a world without police -- and especially, apparently, to women who criticise the police."

I thought Nina's and Petra's experiences were two of the most shocking I've heard, although they do speak to something that came up again and again: the threat of rape. It's made me feel distinctly less ready to shrug off the alleged hilarity of using "rape" to mean anything other than rape. I play computer games online and it's quite regular to hear "Oh, I raped you in that game", often said without any particular venom. Does such casualness lead us to forget how genuinely frightening invoking rape is?

PS. Laurie and I are both quoted in the Observer's news story on the subject today. Laurie also wrote on the subject in Friday's Independent. If you've blogged on this subject, do get in touch: I'm @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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Tory arguments about public sector pay are misguided and divisive

The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else.

Is Philip Hammond right? Are public sector workers better paid than workers in the private sector who hold equivalent qualifications? Yes, if we believe the Office for National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Yet the calculations do not take into account the private sector’s bonuses (though most private sector workers never have bonuses) or the public sector’s considerably better pension rights. And if you try to take account of the burdens imposed by staffing cuts (probably greater in the public sector), you will get a headache.

The calculations are further complicated by the increasingly blurred lines between the sectors. The main point of privatisation and outsourcing, regardless of waffle about “efficiencies”, is to cut wages for ordinary workers while boosting them for the boss class. It would be surprising if this project hadn’t achieved some success, though train drivers, reportedly singled out by Hammond as “ludicrously overpaid”, are unambiguously in the private sector.

The Tories contrive such arguments to divide those who are justly aggrieved by low wages. Public v private, migrants v true-born Britons, women v men, graduates v non-graduates, train drivers v less skilled workers. The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else. Hammond cannot expect nurses and teachers to accept stagnant wages just because wages for office workers and delivery people have stagnated at a lower level.

First class

For years, everyone complained that young people didn’t bother to vote. Now, they are accused of voting too much. The Electoral Commission’s report on last month’s general election, while noting “lack of evidence of widespread abuse”, says it takes “very seriously” boasts by people on social media that they voted twice. Tory MPs and defeated candidates are also taking this seriously, with students the alleged culprits.

Electoral law allows people to register in two locations if they have two residences. Students, therefore, can register at their family home and their term-time abode. In local elections, they can vote in both locations, provided different councils are involved. In general elections, they can vote only once. It is all very confusing and, theoretically, wide open to abuse. But think of the practicalities. To influence results significantly, a voter needs to have residences in two marginal constituencies and to have time, energy, money and organisation to travel from one to the other in a day. Does that sound like any student you know?

Austerity blues

Several weeks ago, I drew attention to falling life expectancy in the US and France. Now the leading epidemiologist Michael Marmot finds that increases in British life expectancy – uninterrupted since the Second World War – are “pretty close to having ground to a halt” since 2010. Marmot says it is “entirely possible” that austerity has played a role. He offers no analysis of which sections of the population are most affected but you need only read the Times’s death notices to know that top people rarely die before their nineties. I hope Labour will use this open goal.

Sex degrees of separation

Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor, may have other things on his mind, however. To the excitement of the tabloid press, he was recently photographed embracing a young blonde lawyer not his wife. Hacks unearthed the woman’s “links” to Julian Assange, whom she once represented (no impropriety alleged), and to her close friend Amal Clooney (ditto), the human rights lawyer married to George Clooney.

In London, where the political, media, arts and legal establishments are closely entwined, it is always possible to find such “links”. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I entertained my boss David Montgomery, the Mirror Group’s chief executive, by drawing circles of relationships between leading upmarket media figures. These showed that, if you started with A, who had slept with B, who had slept with C, and so on, you could usually get back to A in about six steps. Montgomery was so thrilled that he summoned the editors of Mirror Group tabloids to admire this product of a broadsheet editor’s intellect.

Mail pattern weirdness

The Daily Mail is outraged that the new Doctor Who will be female. Male heroes, it screams, are “disappearing from the box”. Its TV critic complains that, “in almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings”. Doctor Who has been ruined by lesbianism and “transgender politics”. BBC executives are “wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay to demonstrate how right-on they are”.

I worry about the Mail. Since Theresa May’s disastrous election performance – the Mail backed her more emphatically than it backed even Margaret Thatcher – it has become increasingly deranged. A few weeks ago, it blamed her failure to woo voters on the influence of “headmasters”. Paul Dacre, the editor, celebrates 25 years in the chair this year. Is it time for the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to suggest that Dacre retires to his 17,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where there is excellent shooting and deerstalking to be had?

Over the top

The England cricket coach Trevor Bayliss said earlier this year: “This is an entertainment business. If you are not entertaining, people don’t turn up.” Indeed. Under him, the team has developed the habit of losing a Test match by a large margin immediately after winning one. It has just done it once more against South Africa at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. And nobody can deny that, with two matches to play, a Test series squared at 1-1 promises more entertainment and more spectators than would a series in which England led 2-0. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder