Your garden variety sexist communications

Caroline Criado-Perez gave a talk at the Women’s Aid conference; she talked about cyber harassment.

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.

I don’t think of it as “still” – I think of it as new. That’s because I’m a lot older than Criado-Perez, so I didn’t grow up with the internet, so I remember a time when there was no real way for misogynists to call women bitches and cunts in a public, archivable way. Norman Mailer couldn’t go on the Dick Cavett show and call feminists bitches and cunts, because he would simply have been bleeped. One of the many novelties the internet makes possible is noisy, repetitive, unabashed misogyny and harassment.

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.

She could have put that last bit better. It’s not the saturation with white male faces, it’s the lack of other kinds of faces. The point isn’t to say white males get out, it’s to say white males aren’t all there are.

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.

Then the Bank of England made its decision, and the real harassment got going. She gives details; lots of details.

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”.

Not even a professional one? They missed a trick there.

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?”

Why doesn’t she just say “no thank you” to more wine? Why didn’t she go to the police? Why should we believe her? Why would any skeptic ever believe any report of harassing behavior? Why do you hate skepticism?

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.

Yep. If you don’t like being harassed, get off Twitter – that’s what we’re told. If you don’t like people ranting about wanting to kick you in the cunt, stop writing and talking in public. It’s easy. It’s simple. Just shut up, and the problem is solved.

Except that that is the problem – women being bullied into shutting up is the problem. Women being bullied into shutting up can’t be the solution to the problem of women being bullied into shutting up.