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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No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left

This is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality.

In these troubled times, it's good to know that moderate conservatives, anxious liberals and even your neighbourhood Trotskyist uncle can come together against the common enemy: students. Prissy, stuck-up students, with their trigger warnings and political correctness and highfalutin ideas about racial justice. It must be their fault. Forget the gurning neo-fascists goose-stepping into power across the globe, it's the students who are the real enemy. If they hadn't been so hung-up on identity politics, we wouldn't be staring into this abyss. You know I'm right.

That was me being sarcastic. The reason I need to point that out is that on or around 9 November 2016, the age of irony gave way to a new one of deadpan sincerity. It happened at some point between the election of an orange billionaire tycoon to the White House and authorities condemning Native American protesters at Standing Rock under the outgoing administration. So, unfortunately, I must be clear: no, I don't think that “identity politics” is the greatest threat to western civilisation. Some people, however, really do, and are at pains to point out that this geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people. Real people meaning, of course, people who aren't female, or queer, or brown, or from another country. You know, the people who really matter.

In the wake of successive victories for the venal far-right, commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming “identity politics” for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is “politics that matter to people who aren't white men in rural towns”. I have always thought of that simply as politics, but according to Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, I was mistaken. Diversity, Lilla writes, is:

“A splendid principle of moral pedagogy  but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

This is an idea that has remarkable staying power across a fractious and divided left: the idea that issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics, and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution. The logic is that by focusing on issues of social justice, the political class has abandoned “real” working people to economic hardship.

This notion is horribly wrong, and the worst thing is that it's wrong in the right direction, a train of thought that stays safely on track right until it slams into the hoardings next to the station. The political class has indeed rolled over and let kamikaze capitalism wreck the lives of working people around the world. Identity politics, however, has little to do with that cowardice. That the two are now yoked together in the popular imagination is something the left must answer for.

All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicised than others. The notion that the politics of identity and belonging have been allowed to overwhelm seemingly intractable issues of class, power and poverty is, in fact, entirely correct  but this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries, pitting white workers against black and brown workers, men against women, native-born citizens against foreigners in a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme.

As journalist Michelle Garcia noted, responding to Lilla in the New York Times:

 “The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr Trump's victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism.”

It's a shell-game. A con. It did not start with Donald Trump, but the real-estate mogul and social media tantrum-artist has taken it to its logical conclusion. The president-elect and his fellow travellers and sugar daddies have committed political fraud against the entire western world. They have compounded it – as all good fraudsters do – by making us believe that it was our fault for being so naive in the first place.

It is, to some extent, reassuring to believe that it’s all our fault. If it’s all our fault for being too politically-correct, too committed to “diversity”  if it were liberals and leftists who messed up by listening to these whining hippies with their patchouli-scented ideals of fairness and tolerance and police not shooting young black men dead for no reason  we might have to face the much scarier notion that what’s happening is, in fact, beyond our control. Instead, those who should know better are encouraging the most vulnerable to throw themselves under the bus for the greater good. This is not just offensive. It is also stupid.

The truth is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. Those who would sacrifice one for the other will end up with neither, which is of course what the unscrupulous narcissists manspreading at the gates of power are counting on. The mainstream political left has, for generations, been unable to answer the core economic issues that  shocking, I know, but hear me out  affect the lives of all human beings, of every race, gender and background. For generations, in the face of late capitalist hegemony, all it could realistically achieve was to tweak the system incrementally, making things a little fairer for individual groups, without challenging the structural inequalities that created the injustice in the first place. This must change, and soon. Not just because of “fine moral principles”. Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided  it is intellectually bankrupt.

Race, gender and identity are not side issues in the current crisis. On the contrary. Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don't start burning our looms  far safer for us to set fire to one other. All politics are identity politics, and this is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality. This is when we double down. The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.

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