Why does it always come back to rape?

As the threats on Twitter to the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard and others has proved, rape is the popular choice when women become more visible than they apparently should be.

What do Jane Austen, a ten pound note, and sexual assault have in common? Apparently, more than you ever imagined. In case you’ve been hiding away in some sort of feminist utopia in the last few days, you’ll know that the powerhouse behind putting a female face back on a banknote, Caroline Criado-Perez, has been inundated with rape threats - to put a number on it, "50 abusive tweets an hour for 12 hours". For the crime of defending her against this onslaught, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy has also been subject to her own deluge of Twitter-based sexual threats. Both have, quite rightly, involved the police.

Now, online trolls have existed since we all leapt on the dial-up connection bandwagon and started abusing each other in anonymous chatrooms. Considering the amount of sheer idiocy a person can routinely witness every day - perversions of wartime poster "Keep Calm and Carry On" that manifest themselves in coffee mugs saying "Keep Calm and Eat a Bourbon", for instance, or people who have Linkin Park lyric tattoos - it should be no wonder that real, bonafide idiots exist on the internet. Idiots who, like @SamuelLBS, tweeted Creasy, Criado-Perez, and the Everyday Sexism project saying "Nice cleavage" for a bit of "light-hearted trolling before bed" last night (his words). Idiots who continue to tweet female politicians and campaigners begging them to, amongst other things, commit suicide, even while the police are monitoring such social media behaviour. Idiots who thought that one woman on one piece of currency was such an affront that it warranted the rape of those who supported it.

Yes, internet idiots come in many myriad, often very dark forms. But when women are concerned, those idiots suddenly start to come out with very similar jargon. Their ways of silencing their female peers are different to the ways in which they engage with men: for some sad reason, it always seems to come back to rape. Speaking out about feminist issues? She needs a good raping. Walking around in a skirt that’s above the ankle and sipping an alcohol beverage? She’s asking to be raped. Reviewing the latest product or movie or album that the passing troll quite happens to like? A violent rape will knock that opinion out of her.

Rape is the popular choice when women become more visible than they apparently should be, and that’s because it’s easy. As Tanya Gold has mentioned in the past, engaging with the vagina is much less bother than engaging with the brain: your argument is invalid because - oh fuck it, I can penetrate you. It’s a way of reminding people who thought they were campaigners or commentators or journalists or activists that actually, they’re just women. Their genitals mean that they’re actually receptacles getting ideas above their station. Whatever their opinion, however they conducted their arguments, however well-researched and nuanced their replies to criticism are, they’re women and male trolls could rape them and that’s what really matters. It’s the sinister sexual way of sticking your fingers in your ears while a woman is speaking and going: "La la la, I’m not listening!", perhaps with a crude gesture thrown in for comedic measure.

Unfortunately, it’s fairly standard for female public figures to be told by male trolls that they will be controlled or attacked sexually for their views; it basically comes with the job description. Mary Beard got called a "dirty old slut" with a "disgusting vagina" just as Stella Creasy was being tweeted "YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR BACK... I’M GONNA RAPE YOU AT 8PM AND PUT THE VIDEO ALL OVER THE INTERNET". Ten hours earlier, Creasy had received a the threat "I will rape you tomorrow at 9pm" by someone whose Twitter handle was @rapey1. The name is either a massive (and staggeringly weird) coincidence, or somebody actually took the time to set up an account specifically for rape threats. In a classic "eye for an eye" moment, someone else replied that "@rapey1 needs electrocuting and throwing on a bonfire. After being raped". But do we really need more of the rape-as-punishment trope? Really?

The message is that women’s vaginas are, literally, always up for grabs. If they’re young, the rape threats will come thick and fast; if they’re older, maybe the trolls will settle for insulting their vaginas and telling them that they were "sluts" in the past. And maybe the rape-threat-makers are sexually frustrated teens, sitting in a dank room somewhere and getting really wound up about other people being famous - especially women, who history has taught them shouldn’t ever get to be above them at all, except perhaps in the reverse cowgirl position. Maybe their violent sex chat is all about their real life romantic rejections and sexual inadequacies. But when they dedicate so much time to rooting out women who work in such un-sexual spheres as campaigning for a more feminist currency, it seems a bit more complicated than that. If it were only about sex, after all, the internet is a veritable goldmine of masturbatory aids on demand. 

Rape threats just have to be more political than a teenager’s blue balls; there is no freedom of speech when they get thrown into the arena. A rape threat says "shut up, because you’re a woman" to women who have spoken, and "don’t speak, because you’re a woman" to women who might want to speak in the future. It says that, by virtue of having a vagina, you should be less visible and less vocal. Which is why it’s so brilliant that Criado-Perez and Creasy have fought back, filed police reports, and refused to be shouted off Twitter: the only way to de-rape the internet is to show the trolls that their threats can’t produce the desired silencing effect any longer.

Mary Macleod MP, Govenor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, Stella Creasy MP and Caroline Criado Perez present the new ten pound note. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.