Laura Bates takes a look at online sexism. (Cue a rumble of outraged outrage in response.)
The internet is a fertile breeding ground for misogyny – you only have to look at the murky bottom waters of Reddit and 4Chan to see the true extent to which it allows violent attitudes towards women to proliferate. But, crucially, it also provides a conduit that enables many who hold those views to attack and abuse women and girls, from what they rightly perceive to be an incredibly secure position. Meanwhile, the police seem near-powerless to take action, social media sites shrug their shoulders, and women are left between a rock and a hard place – simply put up with the abuse as a part of online life, or get off the internet altogether.
These are not just nasty comments, or harsh criticisms – they are extreme, detailed and vitriolic threats of rape, torture and death. I have received messages detailing exactly how I should be disembowelled, which weapons could be used to kill me, and which parts of my body should be raped. When I ignored the threats, they intensified and proliferated, finding out information about my family members and threatening to rape them instead. They are the kind of messages that race around your head at night when you try to sleep, no matter how much you wrote them off as empty scare-mongering during the day. They make you hesitate to post online and change the way you use social media. And nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. Of the three rape threats I reported to police in recent months, two have already been dropped because the police are unable to trace the perpetrators…
Just like Sweetie and any other young girls her age venturing into shared online spaces, the answer seems to be an ambivalent shrug – this is just what happens to women online so you might as well get used to it. And woe betide you if you try to protest the apparent unfairness of that, because didn’t you know that you are threatening free speech?
If this really is just what happens to women online then women face a massive obstacle to being online, don’t we. It’s not a thing you just get used to, nor should it be. The price of participation should not be bullying and harassment, let alone threats of violence. Using harassment and threats to stop people participating is itself a threat to free speech. Which speech has the better claim to freedom? The kind that harasses women just for showing up, or the kind that objects to being harassed just for showing up?