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Laurie Penny: It's time to end the culture of online misogyny

It would be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. But it is found all over the web - and it's silencing its victims. Fighting it is not the same as censorship.

Trolls - the cute kind. Flickr/Cali4Beach, used under Creative Commons
Trolls - the cute kind. Flickr/Cali4Beach, used under Creative Commons

"There's nothing wrong with [her] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garrotting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn't sort out." 

Like many women who have public profiles online, I'm used to messages of this sort - the violent rape and murder fantasies, the threats to my family and personal safety, the graphic emails with my face crudely pasted onto pictures of pornographic models performing sphincter-stretchingly implausible feats of physical endurance.

This one, however, was a personal message from Richard White, the owner of "Don't Start Me Off!", or DSMO. This was a racist, misogynist hate-site based in the UK, dedicated to trashing and threatening public figures. Last week, after Cambridge don and national treasure Mary Beard wrote about the "sadistic" abuse directed at her by the site, DSMO shut itself down.

“The misogyny here is truly gobsmacking [and] more than a few steps into sadism,” wrote Beard, bravely confronting what many other victims of online harassment have not felt able to say. “It would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on Google."

According to its creator, Richard White, a lettings agent from Sidcup who started Don't Start Me Off! "as a humour site to discuss issues of the day”, the site “is meant to be like a pub where people banter and try to be funny. It is not a hate site." He went on to claim that "We didn't allow certain words or people threatening to kill people." That certainly wasn’t my experience. Clearly, one man's 'banter' can be another woman's ceaseless, dispiriting catalogue of sadistic fantasies and homophobic abuse.

Don't Start Me Off! Was just one site. The attacks on Mary Beard, however, have focused public attention on just how viciously misogynist the internet is getting right now - particularly British-based sites, and particularly to women who are in any way active in public life. It doesn't matter if we're right-wing or left-wing, explicitly political or cheerily academic, like Beard. It doesn't matter if we're young or old, classically attractive or proudly ungroomed, writers or politicians or comedians or bloggers or simply women daring to voice our opinions on Twitter. Any woman active online runs the risk of attracting these kinds of frantic hate-jerkers, or worse. I’m not the only person who has had stalkers hunting for her address, and last week I needed a security detail after several anonymous trolls threatened to turn up to a public lecture I was giving. I could go on.

It’d be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. Unfortunately, not only are men like White clearly at least minimally sane enough to hold down desk-jobs, their school of misogyny has become an everyday feature of political conversation online, particularly in the UK. 

Here are just some of the things that have been written about me personally in the past few months in the comments section of the Guido Fawkes website, Order Order, a blog followed by politicians and journalists across the country, whose editors are considered part of mainstream political debate in the UK. These are a selection from the comments that the editors have not deemed worthy of deletion:

"I think she should have been given a glasgow kiss."

"Perhaps Sharia might be a good thing after all, if Ms Penny was not allowed out without a member of her Family and we did not have to look at her face, also we could stone her to death, my favourite though would be a Public Hanging or Decapitation, all judging by her views, to be acceptable behaviour. Perhaps she should be Circumcised, only sew up her mouth."

"Call me old fashioned bt this young lady shouid [sic] be whipped through the streets of London before being made to suck Ken Livingstones cock as people throw shit at the pair of them*."

 

When I’ve asked for such comments to be moderated, the men who run the Guido Fawkes site have sneered and called me ‘embarrassing’.

It's important to stress that people like Mary Beard and me are not outliers in having this experience, although some women do seem to be singled out to be made examples of. We are not even the only women to have been targeted in this way by the blogs I've mentioned. There are lots more hate-sites like this, more comment-threads full of vitriol and threats, and threats to hurt and kill are hardly less distressing when they don’t come with an explicit expectation of follow-through in physical reality. These messages are intended specifically to shame and frighten women out of engaging online, in this new and increasingly important public sphere. 

If we respond at all, we’re crazy, hysterical over-reacting bitches, censors, no better than Nazis, probably just desperate for a ‘real man’ to fuck us, a ‘real man’ like the men who lurk in comment-threads threatening to rip our heads off and masturbate into the stumps.

Perhaps a ‘real man’ like Richard White, who has now apologised to Professor Beard (and, late last night, to me - see below), although he has yet to apologise to Cath Elliott, to Josie Long or any of the other women who spoke out about his vicious misogyny. Nor has he apologised to the unnamed worker in the supermarket near his workplace, another object of this sad little troll’s Walter Mitty fantasies of femicide: “Some Chavs do indeed work,” wrote White on his site. “There is this great fat lump of make-up that sits in the Co-op opposite my office . . . if I thought I could get away with it, I’d drag her outside and kick her cunt so hard, my shoes would need a whole legion of cobblers to put them back together again.”

The idea that this sort of hatespeech is at all normal needs to end now. The internet is public space, real space; it’s increasingly where we interact socially, do our work, organise our lives and engage with politics, and violence online is real violence. The hatred of women in public spaces online is reaching epidemic levels and it’s time to end the pretence that it’s either acceptable or inevitable.

The most common reaction, the one those of us who experience this type of abuse get most frequently, is: suck it up. Grow a thick skin. "Don't feed the trolls" - as if feeding them were the problem. The Telegraph’s Cristina Odone was amongst many commentators to imply that Mary Beard should have done just that rather than speaking out this week. “Come on, Mary,” wrote Odone. “Women in public arenas get a lot of flak – they always have. A woman who sticks her head above the parapet. . . . is asking for brickbats.”

Asking for it. By daring to be a woman to be in public life, Mary Beard was asking to be abused and harassed and frightened, and so is any person who dares to express herself whilst in possession of a pair of tits.

It’s an attitude so quotidian that only when you pause to pick it apart does its true horror become apparent. I am contacted, not every day, but most weeks, by young women who want to build lives as journalists or activists but are afraid of the possible backlash. Every time I receive one of these letters, I get a lurch of guilt: should I tell them the truth? Should I tell them that sometimes I’ve been so wracked with anxiety by the actions of trolls and stalkers that I’ve been afraid to leave the house, that I’ve had to call in the police, that there’s every chance they might too? Or should I tell them to be brave, to take it on the chin, to not be frightened, because their fear, their reticence to speak, is precisely what the trolls want to see most of all?

I always hesitate over whether or not to speak about this. In fact, I've written and deleted this post that you’re reading several times. For one thing, I don't want to let on just how much this gets to me. Nobody does. It’s what the bullies want, after all. They want evidence that you're hurting so they can feel big and hard, like Richard White in his ridiculous Twitter profile picture, which shows him with beefy arms aggressively folded and his face obscured by a cross. Nobody wants to appear weak, or frightened, or make out that they can’t ‘take it’ - after all, so few people complain. Maybe we really are just crazy women overreacting?

And so we stay silent as misogyny becomes normalised. We’re told to shut up and accept that abuse of this vicious and targeted kind just happens and we'd better get used to it. Whilst hatred and fear of women in traditionally male spaces, whether that be the internet or the Houses of Parliament, is nothing new, the specific, sadistic nature of online sexist and sexual harrassment is unique, and uniquely accepted - and it can change. The internet is a young country. Its laws and customs are not yet decided. We don’t have to accept sexist hatred in silence any more. This week, with many victims sharing their stories of online harassment on the hashtag #silentnomore, the fightback began in earnest.

Right now, the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny is underway. Some people claim that this backlash is an act of ‘censorship’. Some website owners claim that promoting and publicising sadistic misogyny is merely respecting the ‘freedom of speech’ of anyone with a lonely hard-on for sick rape fantasies. That sort of whinging isn’t just disingenuous, it’s terrifically offensive to anyone with any idea of what online censorship actually looks like.

As I write, there is a real fight going on to keep the internet as free as possible from government interference, a fight to free speech and information from the tyranny of state and corporate control. Without going into it too much here, the internet is full of people who have spent their lives, risked their lives and even lost their lives in that fight. To claim that there’s some sort of equivalence between the coordinated attack on net neutrality and digital freedom going on across the world and the uninterrupted misogyny of comment-thread mouth-breathers doesn’t just take the biscuit, it pinches the whole packet and dribbles ugly bile-flecked crumbs into the keyboard.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, brain-aching. These people talk unironically of their right to free expression whilst doing everything in their power to hurt, humiliate and silence any woman with a voice or a platform, screeching abuse at us until we back down or shut up. They speak of censorship but say nothing of the silencing in which they are engaged. I have even been told, with apparent sincerity, that using the ‘block’ button on Twitter to prevent anybody who has posted threats of violence against me is actually an attack on the troll’s freedom of speech - no apparent distinction being made between the right to express your views and the right to have your ugliest half-thoughts paid attention to.

According to the current logic of online misogyny a woman’s right to self-expression is less important by far than a man’s right to punish her for that self-expression. What appears to upset many of these people more than anything else is the idea that any woman or girl, anywhere, might have a voice, might be successful, might be more socially powerful than they themselves are - at least, that’s the message I get every time I’m told that I’ve got a lot to say for myself, and my silly little girl’s mouth could be more usefully employed sucking one of the enormous penises that these commentators definitely all possess**In 2011 I wrote that a woman’s opinion was the mini-skirt of the internet. Since then, the situation appears to have deteriorated, not just for women in public life but for women in public full stop.

The internet is a many-to-many medium. It gives readers and audience-members a right to reply to those writers and politicians who, in the pre-digital age, enjoyed the freedom to expostulate and make pronouncements without having to listen to their readers or listeners beyond the odd angry letter in the paper. And that’s great. I remain glad that I grew up as a journalist in the age of the internet; I am used to writing for an audience that is responsive and engaged, to listening to constructive criticism and acknowledging it where it’s appropriate. There’s a world of difference, however, between the right to reply and the right to abuse, threaten and silence.

Somehow we’ve lost sight of that difference. We’ve lost sight of it in particular in Britain, where the political conversation is rapidly sinking into a trough of spite-jousting, bullying and blinkered prejudice just when we most need it to be robust and compassionate. It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. The time for silence is over. It’s time to take back the net.

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* This commentator is quite possibly a seventeenth-century Burgher, in which case one wonders what he’s doing in the onanistic matrix of quasi-libertarian comment threads.

**I’ve always found this a curious misunderstanding of sexual engineering and online speech, in that it’s technically possible to administer oral sex and type at the same time. I wouldn’t advise it, though, especially if you make a habit of visiting the kind of conservative forums that can make you bite down hard in horror.

Update: Richard White contacted me yesterday to apologise, saying he had only received two formal complaints about DSMO in seven years and he had no idea its language "overstepped the mark". 

Editor's note, 30 January 2013: Laurie has posted an update to this piece on her personal blog, which can be found here