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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.