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.

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Which companies are making driverless cars, and what are their competing visions for the future?

An increasing number of tech giants are populating the driverless car market. Where do each of them stand on ambition, innovation, and safety?

The driverless car has metamorphosed from a superfluous autonomous machine to the vehicle of choice for tech giants hoping to boast their technical prowess and visionary thinking.

The name of the Silicon Valley game has always been innovation, and the chance to merge quadruped hardware with self-regulating software has offered companies a new way to reinvent themselves and their visions. A new means by which to edge each other out in a race to the top of a Fritz Lang-style global metropolis, whose technocratic ruler would be the company capable of aligning their driverless transportation dreams with those of the public.

Racing quite literally out of the blocks in this race to showcase its driverless vehicles has been Uber. Having already expanded its operations as a taxi service from the streets of San Francisco to more than 300 countries worldwide, Uber went and pushed out its sample line of driverless cars in Pittsburgh last week.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has previously stated that the need for the company to delve into driverless cars is “basically existential”, which explains why Uber seems to be so keen to come out with a working model first. It’s a vision that seeks to cut the cost of ride-hailing by slashing the cost of human drivers, and hopes to offer a safer alternative for passengers who must place an unwarranted trust in a driver they’ve never met to shuttle them safely to their destinations.

Uber’s driverless cars are designed with Volvo, and currently require technicians at hand for potential intervention, but aims to phase these out. It has had the distinct advantage of analysing data from all the road miles made by Uber drivers so far. If Uber has its way, car ownership could be a thing of the past. Speaking to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson confirmed this, saying: “Our goal is to replace private car ownership.”

There are a number of issues at hand with Uber’s approach. The fleet of cars displayed in Pittsburgh was in fact not a fleet – there was a grand total of four for viewing, making it impossible to visualise how a fully-fledged system would work.

A more pressing issue is Uber’s timeframe: in comparison to other companies in the market, Uber is aiming for mass-market spread within a few years – far too soon according to experts who think that safety measures will be compromised, and adherence to future regulations avoided, as a result. Uber currently lacks an ethics committee, creating a grey area in determining what happens if one of these cars is involved in an accident.

Perhaps demonstrating even greater ambition, given its sheer dominance over the market, is Google. Taking on the challenge of autonomy and safety on busy city streets, Google seems to be well-equipped given its unrivalled mapping data.

First revealed in 2010, Google’s self-driving car project is expected to come into service sometime in the 2020s. Accidents and traffic could be a thing of the past, they say. Chris Urmson, who headed the project until recently, believes that these cars will work based on a positive feedback system, one which allows them to improve the more they are put into practice. As one car learns, every car will learn. Shared data means the rate of improvement for Google’s driverless cars will be exponential.

Showing no sign of a slow-up in its ambitions, Apple, a company which has found a way into the psyche of its acolytes, is thought to be getting involved in the cars of the future too. Links have been made between Apple and McLaren, with a £1.2bn acquisition rumoured. It would come as no surprise if Apple did this; its greatest successes came in convincing consumers that they needed their products, and a possible iCar could do the same.

A tamer approach to driverless cars is coming from the companies who identify themselves as automotive ones as opposed to tech ones. Tesla has led the pack with its driver-assist technology. Its Model S is “designed to get better over time”, using a “unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic”.

Following the first death of a person in an autopilot mode Tesla Model S car in May this year, the media and consumers were quick to issue warnings over the safety of the Tesla autopilot mode. Though Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his condolences to the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who crashed in the vehicle in Florida, he was firm in his insistence that Tesla was not to blame. Musk explained that this was the first documented death of a person in a Tesla on autopilot mode after an accumulative total of 130 million miles driven by its customers, whereas “among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles”.

When put into perspective, it’s clear to see how a paranoid hysteria surrounds the rolling out of driverless vehicles. Safety has always been one of the key proponents for their use; by removing the risk of human error, we are able to create a safer road environment, as highlighted by Musk.

Earlier this year, Ford launched Ford Smart Mobility – its start-up-styled initiative designed to encourage ride sharing. By creating a small subset team to work on the technology, Ford is safeguarding itself from unforeseeable failures with driverless cars by maintaining its production of normal ones. Its cars have had elements of automation introduced incrementally, such as implanted sensors that enable these cars to park themselves. Ford hopes to have some sort of ride-sharing service in action by 2021.

BMW, Volvo and Audi are taking the cautious road too. BMW is making use of GPS to chart safe routes for its cars. In comparison to Google’s mapping, BMW’s system seems much more primitive, suggesting that the pace of development is dictated by accessibility to technology beyond vehicles. Volvo focuses on safety too and hopes that Volvo cars will be involved in no accidents by 2020 due to automation.

As we enter a market in which the top tech companies will be meeting at crossroads in their driverless cars, competing visions and levels of ambition will create a new relationship of trust between consumers and driverless car producers. There is no doubt that driverless cars will be here to stay, our roads one day teeming with passengers who get to relax on the roads. Taking your hands off the wheel will eventually become the norm, but don’t expect to be free-wheeling worldwide for a while yet.