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Caroline Criado-Perez's speech on cyber-harassment at the Women's Aid conference

"If there’s one thing I want to come out of what happened to me, it’s for the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” to be scrubbed from the annals of received wisdom."

Caroline Criado-Perez (r) with Mary Macleod, Mark Carney and Stella Creasy
Caroline Criado-Perez (r) with Mary Macleod, Mark Carney and Stella Creasy celebrating the success of her bank notes campaign. Photo: Getty

Before I begin, I just want to warn you all, that I will be quoting some of the messages I have received. They include offensive language and references to sexual violence, which may be triggering for some.

So I’d like to start off by giving you a bit of background into what led up to the harassment I received for over two weeks in July and August, because I think it’s important to see how little it takes to provoke this kind of abuse – it’s important to face up to how much of a problem we still have with widespread misogyny against any woman who dares to use her voice in public.

So some of you may have heard of a campaign I ran from April to July this year, asking the Bank of England to review its decision to have an all-male line-up on banknotes. (Note to media, I really didn’t campaign for Jane Austen’s face on a banknote, please stop saying I did, thank you!) The campaign received quite a lot of media attention, and I spent much of my time rehearsing arguments about the damage a public culture saturated with white male faces does to the aspirations and achievements of women and young girls.

As a result of this media attention, throughout the campaign I had been on the receiving end of your garden variety sexist communications. The sort that call you a bitch, a cunt, that tell you to get back to the kitchen. The sort that tell you to shut up, stop whining, stop moaning – to get a life. The sort that tell you to deal with the more important things because, after all, the Queen’s on all the notes anyway isn’t she. Only you probably wouldn’t realise that because you’re a woman and women are stupid.

These communications hurt and irritated in equal measure. They didn’t hurt because they were overtly abusive: they hurt because it was a reminder of how far women had to go before we were treated equally – but on the other hand, they were a reminder of how important the campaign was. I was fighting for the representation of women, because I firmly believed that the paucity of women in public life entrenched sexist attitudes towards us – and here was my proof.

But then I got a letter, sent to my mum’s house. And this was my first taste of how far some men will go to intimidate women they disapprove of. Women who stand up, speak out and say “No, this is wrong, and I’m not having it.” The letter was not in itself threatening, but it left me shaken – as it was intended to. The contents of the letter were immaterial in many ways – they were merely a conduit for a man to tell me, a woman he disliked, that he knew were I lived. That he’d gone to the trouble of seeking out my address online. That he could come round any time he wanted.

On the advice of some friends, I called the police. They said there was nothing they could do. So, I tried to forget the letter, and I hoped I wouldn’t hear from him again.

Not long after this, I was celebrating a campaign victory. Inundated with congratulatory messages, my phone didn’t stop buzzing all day, as the Bank of England announced that they accepted that an all-male line up on banknotes was a damaging message to be sending out, and that, as a result, they were bringing forward the introduction of the £10 note, which would have Jane Austen’s face on it. They also announced, and this was the best bit as far as I was concerned, that they would be instigating a review of how they selected historical figures on banknotes, with a view to making sure that the diversity of society was represented on them, and making sure that they were properly complying with the Public Sector Equality Duty. That was it. A victory, but in the grand scheme of discrimination against women, a minor one.

But, minor as it was, that was all it took for some men to decide I needed shutting up in the most aggressive way possible: with a deluge of threats of sexual violence. I’m going to read some of them out now, to give you a flavour. I divide them into two categories: the ones that saw it as a game, and the ones that were more serious.

I’ll start off with the ones that saw it as more of a game; these often came with hashtags like #rapecrew and #rapecrewforever appended to them:

  • You need a good smashing up the arse
  • Call the cops we’ll rape them too
  • Everyone jump on the rape train – à @Ccriadoperez is the conductor
  • So looking forward to titty-fucking you later tonight – I’ve got an invitation to your anus
  • Some of us, me, don’t need consent to know what a bitch needs
  • Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove
  • U wanna rape with me? – this was said to another man, including me in the tweet
  • I always whisper “surprise” well not always, but it’s implied
  • Carpet-munching cunt needs to get raped
  • All that meat mmmmmm
  • Can I rape you?
  • Im gonna rape you, be very afraid – enjoying having the media at your doorstep? Better hope there isn’t a rapist disguised as a reporter
  • Silence is golden, but ducktape is silver
  • This joke is like a rapist. It’s going to score whether you like it or not
  • RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE over and over again in capital letters
  • Seemingly supportive message with #hopeyougetraped at the end
  • Sent me pictures of sexual assaults, of domestic violence, of men’s faces twisted into deranged expressions, with words like “ain’t no brakes where we’re going” or “There ain’t no breaks on the rape train” superimposed over them.

And then there were the more overtly violent and graphic messages:

  • @rapehernow disgusting bitch…should have been aborted with a hanger
  • SHUT YOUR WHORE MOUTH…OR ILL SHUT IT FOR YOU AND CHOKE IT WITH MY DICK
  • After strangulation, which organ in the female body remains warm after death? My cock
  • Stop breathing
  • I will find you – just think, it could be someone who knows you personally
  • @rapey1 WOMEN THAT TALK TOO MUCH NEED TO GET RAPED
  • rape her nice arse
  • Raped? I’d do a lot worse things than rape you!!
  • I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried!! #tenfeetunder
  • I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do, you’re pathetic, kill yourself before I do #godie
  • I’m going to pistol whip you over and over until you lose consciousness while your children(?) watch and then burn your flesh
  • I hope you get raped and die soon after #bitch
  • You’ll never get me…you’ll only feel my cock when it’s raping you slut
  • Open that cunt wide bitch…you about to feel da pain
  • I’ll paint your face white while you beg. [look up] To be released LOL
  • I have a sniper rifle aimed directly at your head currently. Any last words you fugly piece of shit? Watch out bitch.
  • UR DEAD AND GONE TONIGHT CUNT. KISS YOUR PUSSY GOODBYE AS WE BREAK IT IRREPARABLY
  • FIRST WE WILL MUTILATE YOUR GENITALS WITH SCISSORS, THEN SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE WHILE YOU BEG TO DIE TONIGHT. 23.00
  • And finally, from a man who repeatedly tweeted at me about how I was a witch: Best way to rape a witch, try and drown her first, then just as she is gagging for air, that is when you enter

And then of course there were the bomb threats, like:

  • A car bomb will go off outside your house at 11:40pm. I will be watching you to make sure it does
  • A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER AND DESTROY EVERYTING
  • And even the joy of some racist abuse like: Perhaps if you keep your fucking spick bitch nose out of UK politics you wouldn’t get abuse

And then there was the taunting about how powerless I was:

  • Blocked me other account, many more lol
  • New account up and running lol
  • It’s great to be back after 30 seconds

There was the stalking me online, digging up details of my past, my family, my work history. Writing blogs, making videos, setting up account after account after account solely dedicated to either harassing me, or talking about me abusively and intimately.

There was the circumventing blocking on Twitter by using ask.fm – this involved my harassers asking questions of other people on ask.fm, that included my twitter handle, which meant that when that person answered one of these questions, I got tweeted. The “questions” varied from rape threats to publishing what they thought was my home address. And the questions were asked hundreds and hundreds of times, so that they filled up my twitter mentions. And I can tell you that on the day this type of abuse was at its worst, I broke down completely, utterly overwhelmed, starting to think that it was never going to end. By this point, it had been going on for a week.

One of the saddest things about the abuse I suffered, was the fact that it wasn’t just from men. Some women joined in on the act too – although the majority of the malicious communications I got from women were of the victim-blaming variety. Stop attention-seeking, you’re a media whore, a fame hag, bet you’re crying your way to the bank over this. If you were really bothered you would just keep quiet. You’re not silenced – look at you all over the airwaves. Why should we care about you, you’re not perfect, you’re no mother Teresa. And at its worst and most blatant: “you’re no victim”.

In this society steeped in misogyny, celebrity and inequality, I was someone to be both envied and hated – even as the rape threats continued to come. And of course women turning on me led a man who was stalking me to crow: “Even some feminists are turning on Caroline Criado-Perez now, they can see her real motives. Could be a big backfire #assraped”. He was right though. It was feminists too.

The impact of all this on my life has been dramatic. When it was at its height I struggled to eat, to sleep, to work. I lost about half a stone in a matter of days. I was exhausted and weighed down by carrying these vivid images, this tidal wave of hate around with me wherever I went. And I kept being asked to relive the experience for endless media interviews – when I look back at that relentless attention, I can’t quite comprehend it. It didn’t feel real then, and it doesn’t feel real now. I still can’t quite believe this has happened to me.

The psychological fall-out is still unravelling. I feel like I’m walking around like a timer about to explode; I’m functioning at just under boiling point – and it takes so little to make me cry – or to make me scream.

And I’m still being told not to feed the trolls.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate that phrase. That phrase takes no account of the feelings of the victim – only of the feelings of a society that doesn’t care, that doesn’t want to hear it, that wants women to put up and shut up. It completely ignores the actions of the abuser, focusing only on the actions of the victim – because that’s what we do in this society. We police victims. We ask “why doesn’t she leave?” instead of asking “why doesn’t he stop?”

If there’s one thing I want to come out of what happened to me, it’s for the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” to be scrubbed from the annals of received wisdom. Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die. What are victims meant to do with that image, the rage and the horror that it conjures up? We’re meant to internalise it until it consumes us? Well I’m sorry, but I’m not having that.

Victims have to be allowed to stand up and shout back – they need to be allowed to ask for support, without being accused of attention-seeking. They need to be allowed to draw the attention of the world to what so many women go through on a daily basis, and make it front page news. Because, make no mistake. Not talking about this is not going to make abuse and misogyny go away. On the contrary, it will help it to thrive.

So many women got in touch with me when the story broke to thank me for speaking out about it, for making it front page news for so long. They had been through the same, they said. And the police had not helped them. The police had told them to lock their accounts, to stop tweeting controversial things – in one case, the controversial thing being tweeted about was racism. A black woman was being told she could not tweet about racism, because there was nothing the police could do about the ensuing rape threats.

Well, I’m not having that either.

There is something the police can do. They can do what they finally, after a lot of media coverage and behind the scenes pushing, did for me, which is to investigate what are, after all, crimes. Hate speech is a crime. Harassment is a crime. And if the police don’t have the resources to deal with these crimes, they need to be given them – and they need to use them to properly train their forces about how to handle these cases. Because I don’t want to live in a society that just throws up its hands when women are being routinely abused and says “it’s too hard. Just live with it.”

There is also something social media companies can do. They can make it clear that abuse is not acceptable, in order to help shape a context where abuse doesn’t thrive. They can make reporting easier – and invest in well-trained staff to deal with these reports. They can listen to their users when they tell them that certain features aren’t working – like the current blocking system on twitter that still enables harassers to stalk the timelines of their victims, and incite others to harass them too.

But ultimately, all these actions would be treating the symptoms and not the cause. Social media doesn’t cause misogyny; the police can’t cure it. What we really need to do is sit down as a society and take a long hard look at ourselves, in order to answer the question: “why are we producing so many people who just seem to hate women?” And the answer is going to be from within an education system that barely features women at all, and that doesn’t include statutory lessons on sex and relationships. It’s going to be from within a media where only one in four experts is a woman – and which deems the two women who die every week from domestic violence as too commonplace to be newsworthy. And so it remains hidden. And so it goes on.

As women, we need to stand up and say no to this defeatism. To this status quo that views us and our needs as expendable, the first thing to go when we need to save money. We need to start getting together, determining what the parts of our society are that foster a climate where women are seen, but not heard, abused, but not given redress, and fighting back. The internet is without doubt an enabler of misogyny – but it’s also an enabler of other voices. Women’s voices. Women are using the internet in ways that give them a platform like nothing has before. We start and we win more campaigns than men do. We support other people’s campaigns more than men do (these are actual stats, not my feminist propaganda). We need to start understanding how formidable we can be, when we stand up together, start fighting back, start making demands of our politicians, and not backing down.

One of the things that gets repeatedly thrown in my face, is the issue of free speech. I’ve been compared to China, to the Nazis, to the NSA, for fighting for the right for women to appear in public armed with opinions, and not face threats of sexual violence as a result. But the reality is, I love free speech. I am grateful for it every day. I love how the internet and feminism have given me the permission to use my voice, in a way I didn’t dare to in the past. But this free speech I’ve discovered, the free speech of women, is under attack. And it’s under attack as much from people who tell us not to feed the trolls, to stop attention-seeking, to keep quiet and not be controversial, as it is from men who send us rape threats every time we open our mouths, or those who call us Nazis for objecting to this.

Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing. But in its current incarnation it serves the interests of the powerful, rather than the powerless. Like so many other liberal concepts, when it exists in a society where substantive equality, as opposed to formal or legal equality, has yet to be achieved, where we have equal pay acts, but no equal pay, it can be as oppressive as it is liberating. And if we don’t question this simplistic understanding we have of free speech as a society, we will continue to live in a society where it’s ok that women don’t have a voice – politically, publicly, and socially.

Remember that man I told you about near the beginning of this speech? The one who wrote to my mother’s house before all this started? The one the police said there was nothing they could do about? Well, he’s written again. Just last week. And there still seems to be nothing the police can do. Just like there’s nothing the police can do about the men who insist on finding new and imaginative ways to contact me – commenting on my blog, commenting about me on blogs they know I’ll read, joining in on conversations I’m having with other people on twitter, so I know they’re still there. Watching.

This is their freedom of speech. They have a right to contact me, a private person, not an MP, not a company, any time they want. They can email me, they can tweet me, they can write to me, they can be as abusive as they want, just so long as they don’t directly threaten me. And there’s nothing I can do. Well, I say no to that too.

We need our lawmakers and keepers of those laws to understand the myriad and complex ways in which women are menaced. We need them to understand that women don’t need men to come out and actually threaten to rape us for the threat of rape to be implied and understood. We need them to understand that this is a threat we live with every second of our lives, it’s a threat that we’re brought up to expect, it’s a threat that shapes how we dress, where we go – and what we say. And it’s a threat that I’m not prepared to live with anymore.

I want my freedom of speech back. And if we stand together and keep shouting back, I believe we’ll get it.

Thank you for listening.

This speech was delivered at the Women's Aid conference on 4 September 2013, and is crossposted from Caroline's blog with her permission