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Laurie Penny on online aggression: What do you do the day after a death threat?

You carry on, writes Laurie Penny.

Last night I went for dinner with a friend, M, who is one of those women who can’t walk down a street without being hassled by men: cat-calling, making bizarre animal noises at her, professing undying love or threatening rape. This is a daily reality for many of us, but with M it’s on a whole other level of threat awareness. Just strolling home with her feels like walking through an enemy camp. We were talking, naturally, about the situation for women who have an online presence in the UK right now, and how frightening and relentless the sexist bullying is getting, and M asked me how I manage to continue to write, given that I’ve been dealing with all this bullshit for more than three years now. I asked her: how do you continue to walk down pavements in public? The answer is: M walks with her hips swaying and her head held high. Because she knows she has a right to the street.

On Monday, I received a bomb threat. This has been happening to several prominent British women journalists and politicians recently, and I suppose it’s some sort of dubious distinction, but it didn’t make it any less frightening and enraging to have to call the police and then find somewhere else to stay for the night. I’m lucky in that I live alone and have relatively little trouble grabbing my go-bag and sleeping on a strange sofa; I know that at least one of the other women who received these threats has a disabled child, and I can only imagine the hassle and stress she went through.

I have a few friends who live nearby, but for some reason, the person I called instantly was somebody I know from online dating, somebody I used to sleep with casually and don’t anymore. He was out with his new girlfriend that night, so offered me his room. I knew instantly that that was where I wanted to be, by myself; it’s a room I used to feel very safe in, where nothing was ever demanded of me except what I wanted to give. His housemate let me in, and I rushed upstairs, shut the door, and took the enormous Jedi-warrior bathrobe that I used to mock so horribly off the hook. I made tea, took off my clothes, wrapped myself in the Jedi robe and sat cross-legged on the bed. I wrote the column I had due for the next day. I felt like nothing could touch me.

Right now it’s pretty scary to be a woman who makes a public spectacle of herself in Britain. By "making a spectacle", I mean "daring to have an opinion in public"; the piece I wrote in 2011 about a woman’s opinion functioning as the mini-skirt of the internet is relevant here. Twitter is also in total meltdown as various camps of campaigners tear chunks out of each other, and it’s upsetting to see. One of the bizarrely modern headaches I’ve had lately is the ongoing, extremely public feud between my current editor and my ex-girlfriend over intersectionality issues, a fight which I’ve had to scramble to avoid because it’s a huge helping of fuck no. There is a deep well of unkindness, of recrimination and refusal to listen, bubbling up online right now in my communities. It is disturbing, and it’s exhausting.

When I’d finished my column, my eyes swimming with tiredness, I posted on Facebook: I need clear space to write. The past two years have been a litany of online attacks and British media bearpit bollocks and the energy I’ve wasted on the mental overheads has been enormous. I don’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to be a writer and a campaigner, I didn’t ask to be a scapegoat and a target, and I didn’t expect it. It’s a curious lonely place to be in and there’s nothing anyone can really do. I’m still here and still fighting but I don’t want to have to fight like this. It’s boring.

Not giving up comes at a cost. I haven’t yet flounced off Twitter or made any sort of dramatic, public exit from the spaces in which I work and receive abuse, because I don’t think that my doing so would help anyone. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seriously considered just kicking it in for the good of my mental health. Imagine that you’re a professional dancer and you have to dance down a street where men are screaming abuse at you, throwing things, leering, sending threats. Do you stop dancing, even if you know a little part of your soul will die if you do? No, fuck that. You keep on dancing; even when your bones ache and your head rings from the relentless cunt bitch stupid girl attention seeker sellout whore. You keep on dancing, but there’s a cost. Don’t ever imagine there’s not a cost

I don’t make it easy for myself. I know that. Not only have I not shut up about women’s rights over the past three years like people want me to, I’m in the middle of writing a book which talks openly about sex, including my own experiences. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that I’ve a slightly adventurous sexual history and am an active member of the queer and poly community in London and elsewhere, and I know that those who are seeking to attack me are probably going to find that out at some point; I’ve been threatened before by people who wanted to release details and/or pictures of me as a half-naked teenager, and I know it’s going to come out at some point; I want to be in control of when and how that happens. I’m not ashamed in any way, not of my life choices and not of my decision to keep on talking.

But the energy it takes to carry on is enormous, and becomes self-reflexive: you write and speak just in order to keep on writing and speaking in adversity. This is no way to be creative; it is no way to sustain a writing life. It makes me angry, and I want it to stop so I can get on with all the other work I want to do. I do not want to be known as the girl who gets a ton of flak for speaking up; I want to carry on saying things that have relevance, even if only to a handful of readers scattered across the world. I’m bored of this, and I’m angry, and I want it to stop. Also I am considering buying my own Jedi robe to wear whenever I open Twitter. That’s all.

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

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Welcome to feminism's new gross out frontier

This new movement normalises women by focusing on their bodies, warts and all.

Vaginas are so hot right now. If that sentence shocks you, then you’ve been out of the cultural loop. Thanks to a new wave of television and autobiographies by some very funny women, female privates have moved to the front and centre of popular entertainment.

Male bits, once the only game in town, are now chiefly of interest only as a sidebar to hilarious female riffs on misfiring, awkward and unsatisfactory sex, thanks to recent work by the likes of Lena Dunham, Britain’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (writer, actor and star of BBC series Fleabag), and now Amy Schumer, whose smash hit “femoir”, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, recently hit stores.

This is all part of a new movement – what I like to call “gross-out feminism”. It is gleeful, honest to a fault, and practised exclusively by women who long ago kissed goodbye to the capacity to be embarrassed. Its goal – apart from to make people laugh – is to provide a kind of shock therapy to those still harbouring the notion that women don’t have bodily functions, trapped gas, or insubordinate periods. Or that women must either be thin or desperately wishing they were so.

Gross-out feminism works by normalising women through focusing on their bodies: traditionally, the first and final frontier of femininity. It violently pushes all remaining cats out of the bag. Women have smelly, sometimes even extremely malodorous vaginas – Schumer’s smells like “chicken ramen”; “baby diaper” morning breath; explosive diarrhoea; acne. They sometimes fart during sex.

You’d be right if you noticed that this type of feminism doesn’t look like the iconic polemics of Shulamith Firestone, Naomi Wolf or Germaine Greer. It does not fit the sociological paradigm of Natasha Walter, Ariel Levy or Laurie Penny, all of whom have tackled a classic 20th century feminist subject – objectification – with political panache. And no, it’s not related either to the brainy fiction of Erica Jong or Marilyn French.

But gross-out feminism owes much to these. The classic texts of feminism laid down the parameters of the various struggles women engage in on a daily basis. One of these was the battle to be taken as full humans, complete with an independent sexuality. As far back as the 1790s, Mary Wollestonecraft raged against the reductive construction of doll-like femininity.

The new feminism builds on all this, but its toolbox is drawn not from an intellectual arena but rather from a peculiarly modern fascination with personal and especially sexual transparency. Honesty shall set us free: as sociologist Richard Sennett lamented, we moderns trade first and foremost in intimacies. But wrapped tightly in gut-busting hilarity, the relentless personal honesty of Schumer et al loses its potential for hollow narcissism and instead becomes powerful, adding vim to the traditional message to women to be strong and confident.

Schumer in particular paints an honest, if troubling picture of the impact of what Naomi Wolf so famously addressed in The Beauty Myth. Money, pain, time: a bewildering amount of these are required in order for most women to feel presentable, let alone attractive. Schumer nails this, but also admits to her own “beauty myth” victimhood.

Before a date she too waxes, straightens her hair, fasts, and tries to squeeze into Spanx so tight that they threaten to splice her guts in two. Schumer, then, is taking one for the team. She’s performing her truth so that we can exorcise our demons. The intriguing implication is that she, like Dunham and Fey, is an everywoman as well as herself. “I am myself,” in her words. “And I am all of you.”

A new sisterhood

Might this signal a reinvigoration of the idea of a universal “sisterhood” that since the 1970s has buckled under the weight of concerns about racial, ethnic and class difference? Perhaps so.

In her hit sitcom Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge does similar work to Schumer, if less autobiographical. She doesn’t spend much time on her appearance, but when an attractive man calls in the middle of the night asking to come over, waking her up, she excruciatingly manufactures the appearance of having just come in from a night out. She throws off her pyjamas, pulls on her glad rags, a coat, and swigs some wine in preparation. She is soon speaking deadpan to the camera while being taken up the backside. Her sexual honesty is eminently relatable to by millennials, and tinged with sadness. Waller-Bridge’s genius is reading with jaded perfection the sexual proclivities of men half her intellect and beauty.

There are caveats, of course. Some might argue that bringing feminism back into the body merely reaffirms the idea that women are principally bodies rather than whole people. And putting sex front and centre emphasises a potentially one-dimensional representation of what it is to be human. Both of these objections are fair. But when it comes to mainstream, massively entertaining representations of women, gross-out feminism may finally be what has been missing all these years, showing once and for all that the “fair sex” is human in both body and spirit. Warts and all.

Zoe Strimpel is a doctoral researcher in history at the University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.