The threat of rape: why Tosh and Sarkeesian’s trolls mustn’t silence women

Violence against women is never funny.

So there I was, absent-mindedly flicking my way through Twitter, on what was meant to be my promised day off from blogging – maybe tomorrow – when I caught sight of a tweet from Jessica Luther that read as follows:

I think most cis men would be shocked to learn how much time in each woman’s life she spends worrying about being raped.

I imagine that she wrote that tweet in response to the huge media storm over the past week that has arisen in response to the Daniel Tosh story.

Short précis for those who’ve missed it. Tosh made a rape joke at a comedy club. A woman objected. He then mused that it would be terribly funny if said woman were to right then and there be gang-raped – hilarious. Following on from this, women who have held up the woman’s complaint have been subjected to a similar type of abuse, with Karen Elson being told pretty much the same thing on her Twitter account.

This comes only weeks after – or really, since it’s on-going, at the same times as – the tidal wave of misogynistic bile hitting Anita Sarkeesian, which includes a charming game in which if one wishes – and apparently lots of us do – we can beat her to a bloody bruised pulp. All for setting up a Kickstarter account to raise money for a series of videos investigating female stereotypes in video-games. Clearly, she was asking for it.

Now, what these two things have in common is of course clear – the idea that violence against women is acceptable – or even funny.

And together with Jessica Luther’s tweet, it reminded me of an unpleasant experience of my own, that I now want to share with you.

I was walking along the streets of Walthamstow, to my boyfriend’s house. I became aware that a man on a bike was cycling along near me – too near. It was getting dark, the streets were deserted, and I felt uncomfortable. Like the English woman I am, I was immediately faced with the perennial dilemma: do I try to avoid him and potentially insult someone who has no idea of hurting me, or do I take no evasive action and end up getting assaulted or even raped?

I decided not to look at him and slowed down. So did he. Whatever pace I set, he matched it, and clearly enjoying the game, he came closer and closer to me, staring at me relentlessly.

Inside I was furious – how dare this man do this to me? – and determined not to let him know I was scared. But I was terrified. Even now, writing this, I can feel the blood rise to my face and my heart pumping with the adrenaline. And this was five years ago.

I stopped faux-casually, and looked in my handbag, as if I had suddenly remembered something. And my tail stopped too. I didn’t want to take my phone out and call anyone, because I thought that was probably asking to be mugged, and in any case, as I mentioned before, I was embarrassed that this was happening to me. Me, a "strong, independent woman". I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

I turned around and started walking towards the main street – needless to say, he followed me.

Losing all sense of pride, I started to run, and ran as fast as I could, managing to reach a shop before he managed to catch me, where I burst into tears, told the shop owner what had happened and asked if I could stay till the man, who was now hovering around outside the shop, had gone. I waited for about an hour – in which time the man rode over to his friends and got them to all hang out with him, waiting for me to emerge, clearly enjoying their power, and the terror they were able to inflict on me.

So the outcome is clear – nothing happened to me. And really, in retrospect, I doubt that it would have – although of course I can’t be sure, so I’m glad I ran.

But what I feel this story has in common with the Daniel Tosh and Anita Sarkeesian episodes is the idea that any of this was funny. I am almost totally sure, that what this man, and later his friends, were doing, was showing me that they had power over me. That they could scare me. And that they found this highly amusing and entertaining.

Nearly half of young women in London were sexually harassed in public last year. Some of this is "serious" – groping, indecent exposure (as happened to a friend of mine on the tube) – and some of it is "not so serious" – cat-calls, wolf-whistles etc.

But what those who defend the right for men to publicly treat women as sex-objects in the street forget, is that women don’t just live with lewd comments, which can perhaps be shrugged off, they live with the real threat of sexual violence. Every day. And sometimes it really is hard to tell the difference between the two.

Another story: I was in Walthamstow (again) and I walked passed a group of young men, who started wolf-whistling, cat-calling and suggesting I take off my jacket and do a twirl for them. When I failed to respond they started shouting out at me "Hey", "Hello?". I quickened my pace and luckily they didn’t pursue me. But how was I meant to respond in that situation? I really didn’t know. Ignoring makes them feel they’ve won. But responding dismissively increases the chance that they’ll attack you.

So like so many other women, I walked away in silence, feeling just that little bit more defeated.

And this is why Tosh’s rape jokes and the Sarkeesian trolling really need addressing. Because it’s not fair that women who stand up to this kind of sexual abuse should be silenced. It’s not funny. And it must stop.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman.


Anita Sarkeesian has experienced a tidal wave of misogynistic bile.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.