Laurie Penny knows about misogynist abuse of writers who have the effrontery to be women.
You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You
come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the
emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance…
An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and
flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male
keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.
This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a
few of those messages public on Twitter, and the response I received was
overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received, and many more began to
share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse.
Note to self: Follow Laurie Penny on Twitter.
Perhaps it should be comforting when calling a woman fat and ugly is the best
response to her arguments, but it’s a chill comfort, especially when one
realises, as I have come to realise over the past year, just how much time and
effort some vicious people are prepared to expend trying to punish and silence a
woman who dares to be ambitious, outspoken, or merely present in a public
Quite. The time and effort create a very sinister impression of dedicated, indeed downright Spartan, rage and hatred. The lack of proportion is unnerving.
Many commentators, wondering aloud where all the strong female voices are,
close their eyes to how normal this sort of threat has become. Most mornings,
when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift
through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference and
the odour and capacity of my genitals, and attempts to write off challenging
ideas with the declaration that, since I and my friends are so very
unattractive, anything we have to say must be irrelevant.
And one starts to think it’s not worth it.
I’d like to say that none of this bothered me – to be one of those women who
are strong enough to brush off the abuse, which is always the advice given by
people who don’t believe bullies and bigots can be fought. Sometimes I feel that
speaking about the strength it takes just to turn on the computer, or how I’ve
been afraid to leave my house, is an admission of weakness. Fear that it’s
somehow your fault for not being strong enough is, of course, what allows
abusers to continue to abuse.
I believe the time for silence is over. If we want to build a truly fair and
vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline,
it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour
who dare to have opinions. Free speech means being free to use technology and
participate in public life without fear of abuse – and if the only people who
can do so are white, straight men, the internet is not as free as we’d like to
Well then, the internet is not as free as we’d like to believe.