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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser