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.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times