Why Facebook's rape jokes are no laughing matter

Abuse based on gender is not simply offensive but a hate crime like anything else.

Abuse based on gender is not simply offensive but a hate crime like anything else.

Have you heard the one about the struggling woman and the rapist trying to pin her down? Rape is funny. It's quite the joke, and Facebook apparently doesn't mind if you spend your time swapping fantasised tales of abuse.

In between talk of Greys Anatomy and the annoying ones from X Factor, the global social networking site is home to pages dedicated to discussing rape in a positive light. "You know she's playing hard to get when your (sic) chasing her down an alleyway","Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you don't want to wake her up" and other delights have been on the site for for months, places where fans can discuss strategies of forcing women into sex in a so-called "comic" way. That this is, according to Facebook, acceptable, is the truly sick joke.

In response to calls to take the pages down, the site released a statement declaring that "groups that express an opinion on a state, institution, or set of beliefs -- even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some -- do not by themselves violate our policies." A quick read of the site's own terms and conditions confirms this is very much not the case. It is there in black and white with, "You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence". According to Facebook, talking about raping your friend's girlfriend to see "if she can put up a fight" is neither violent nor hateful, and advocating such a scenario is a "belief". Not for the first time, we are told rape is something to be trivialised -- the special crime that can be actively promoted with the confidence that few will bat an eye.

It's not a newsflash that the internet is home to some deranged, offensive language -- in many ways, it is the place where good taste comes to die. A distasteful liberation comes from the anonymity, as the author is comforted by the knowledge that they cannot be seen behind the screen. It's a sense of security that is often misleading, it being illegal to stir up hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. When it comes to hatred on the grounds of gender, however, there is no such legislation, with anyone free to whip up misogyny.

Be it Facebook policy or our own laws, abuse against women is treated differently; separated and viewed as lesser than that leveled at other marginalised groups. The rules that would rightly apply if the victim were black, Muslim or gay are deemed irrelevant if the victim is female. The hate spouted based on this factor is not a type that counts. Women, it seems, do not count.

We exist in a culture that views the abuse of women as something less than serious. Rape can be encouraged on global networking sites, just as t-shirts and hair products can be sold based on the concept of coming home to your boyfriend and being smacked round the face. Facebook says it with confidence -- if directed at women, violence is a joke. But abuse is abuse. That which is based on gender should be seen not simply as offensive, but a hate crime like anything else.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham. She blogs at Different Principles and tweets @frances_ryan

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.