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.