Wo. What was that we were saying about misogynist comments and sexist epithets and stereotype threat and the way racist and homophobic comments are uncool but misogyny is edgy and funny?
Crude insults, aggressive threats and unstinting ridicule: it’s business as usual in the world of website news commentary – at least for the women who regularly contribute to the national debate.
The frequency of the violent online invective – or “trolling” – levelled at female commentators and columnists is now causing some of the best known names in journalism to hesitate before publishing their opinions. As a result, women writers across the political spectrum are joining to call for a stop to the largely anonymous name-calling.
Largely anonymous, is it? Oh but surely that doesn’t matter. Surely that doesn’t make any difference, and anyway it’s a sacred right. Everybody has a sacred right to anonymously call non-anonymous women bitches and cunts. Obviously.
The columnist Laurie Penny, who writes for the Guardian, New Statesman and Independent, has decided to reveal the amount of abuse she receives in an effort to persuade online discussion forums to police threatening comments more effectively.
“I believe the time for silence is over,” Penny wrote on Friday, detailing a series of anonymous attacks on her appearance, her past and her family. The writer sees this new epidemic of misogynist abuse as tapping an old vein in British public life. Irrelevant personal attacks on women writers and thinkers go back at least to the late 18th century, she says. “The implication that a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker did not start with the internet: it’s a charge that has been used to shame and dismiss women’s ideas since long before Mary Wollstonecraft was called ‘a hyena in petticoats’. The net, however, makes it easier for boys in lonely bedrooms to become bullies.”
Linda Grant, who wrote a regular column for the Guardian in the late 1990s, has stopped writing online because of the unpleasant reaction. “I have given it up as a dead loss. In the past, the worst letters were filtered out before they reached me and crucially they were not anonymous,” said Grant.
“What struck me forcibly about the new online world were the violence of three kinds of attitude: islamophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. And it was the misogyny that surprised me the most. British national newspapers have done little, if anything, to protect their women writers from violent hate-speech.”
The author and feminist writer Natasha Walter has also been deterred. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m less happy to do as much journalism as I used to, because I do feel really uncomfortable with the tone of the debate,” she said. “Under the cloak of anonymity people feel they can express anything, but I didn’t realise there were so many people reading my journalism who felt so strongly and personally antagonistic towards feminism and female writers.”
Neither did I. I do now though – boy do I ever.