Asking for brickbats

Laurie Penny says that internet misogyny should end.

“There’s nothing wrong with [her] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garrotting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn’t sort out.”

Like many women who have public profiles online, I’m used to messages of this sort – the violent rape and murder fantasies, the threats to my family and personal safety, the graphic emails with my face crudely pasted onto pictures of pornographic models performing sphincter-stretchingly implausible feats of physical endurance.

There’s more attention to the issue (and yes, it’s an issue) now because Mary Beard spoke up about it.

According to its creator, Richard White, a lettings agent from Sidcup who started Don’t Start Me Off! “as a humour site to discuss issues of the day”, the site “is meant to be like a pub where people banter and try to be funny. It is not a hate site.” He went on to claim that “We didn’t allow certain words or people threatening to kill people.” That certainly wasn’t my experience. Clearly, one man’s ‘banter’ can be another woman’s ceaseless, dispiriting catalogue of sadistic fantasies and homophobic abuse.

Don’t Start Me Off! Was just one site. The attacks on Mary Beard, however, have focused public attention on just how viciously misogynist the internet is getting right now – particularly British-based sites, and particularly to women who are in any way active in public life. It doesn’t matter if we’re right-wing or left-wing, explicitly political or cheerily academic, like Beard. It doesn’t matter if we’re young or old, classically attractive or proudly ungroomed, writers or politicians or comedians or bloggers or simply women daring to voice our opinions on Twitter. Any woman active online runs the risk of attracting these kinds of frantic hate-jerkers, or worse.

Why? Because they can, apparently.

It’s important to stress that people like Mary Beard and me are not outliers in having this experience, although some women do seem to be singled out to be made examples of. We are not even the only women to have been targeted in this way by the blogs I’ve mentioned. There are lots more hate-sites like this, more comment-threads full of vitriol and threats, and threats to hurt and kill are hardly less distressing when they don’t come with an explicit expectation of follow-through in physical reality. These messages are intended specifically to shame and frighten women out of engaging online, in this new and increasingly important public sphere.

If we respond at all, we’re crazy, hysterical over-reacting bitches, censors, no better than Nazis, probably just desperate for a ‘real man’ to fuck us, a ‘real man’ like the men who lurk in comment-threads threatening to rip our heads off and masturbate into the stumps.

Perhaps a ‘real man’ like Richard White, who has now apologised to Professor Beard (and, late last night, to me – see below), although he has yet to apologise to Cath Elliott, to Josie Long or any of the other women who spoke out about his vicious misogyny. Nor has he apologised to the unnamed worker in the supermarket near his workplace, another object of this sad little troll’s Walter Mitty fantasies of femicide: “Some Chavs do indeed work,” wrote White on his site. “There is this great fat lump of make-up that sits in the Co-op opposite my office . . . if I thought I could get away with it, I’d drag her outside and kick her cunt so hard, my shoes would need a whole legion of cobblers to put them back together again.”

Remember that Basil Fawlty line, when an American guest calls him a pain in the ass? “It’s always bottoms with you Americans, isn’t it.” It’s always cunt-kicking with you whatever-you-ares, isn’t it.

The most common reaction, the one those of us who experience this type of abuse get most frequently, is: suck it up. Grow a thick skin. “Don’t feed the trolls” – as if feeding them were the problem. The Telegraph’s Cristina Odone was amongst many commentators to imply that Mary Beard should have done just that rather than speaking out this week. “Come on, Mary,” wrote Odone. “Women in public arenas get a lot of flak – they always have. A woman who sticks her head above the parapet. . . . is asking for brickbats.”

Asking for it. By daring to be a woman to be in public life, Mary Beard was asking to be abused and harassed and frightened, and so is any person who dares to express herself whilst in possession of a pair of tits.

Asking for brickbats! No she isn’t! Any more than a woman who goes outside is, or a woman who takes a bus to work is, or a woman who goes to a pub is. No one who exercises a human right to do an ordinary human activity is asking for violence or insults. It’s revolting that Odone would say that.

I always hesitate over whether or not to speak about this. In fact, I’ve written and deleted this post that you’re reading several times. For one thing, I don’t want to let on just how much this gets to me. Nobody does. It’s what the bullies want, after all. They want evidence that you’re hurting so they can feel big and hard, like Richard White in his ridiculous Twitter profile picture, which shows him with beefy arms aggressively folded and his face obscured by a cross. Nobody wants to appear weak, or frightened, or make out that they can’t ‘take it’ – after all, so few people complain. Maybe we really are just crazy women overreacting?

And so we stay silent as misogyny becomes normalised. We’re told to shut up and accept that abuse of this vicious and targeted kind just happens and we’d better get used to it. Whilst hatred and fear of women in traditionally male spaces, whether that be the internet or the Houses of Parliament, is nothing new, the specific, sadistic nature of online sexist and sexual harrassment is unique, and uniquely accepted – and it can change. The internet is a young country. Its laws and customs are not yet decided. We don’t have to accept sexist hatred in silence any more. This week, with many victims sharing their stories of online harassment on the hashtag #silentnomore, the fightback began in earnest.

I’ve been too busy talking about online misogyny directed at me and my friends to look at the hashtag #silentnomore. That’s ironic, isn’t it.


  1. smhll says

    Asking for brickbats! No she isn’t! Any more than a woman who goes outside is, or a woman who takes a bus to work is, or a woman who goes to a pub is. No one who exercises a human right to do an ordinary human activity is asking for violence or insults. It’s revolting that Odone would say that.

    I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Why is ‘it’s just the way it is – live with it’ a good enough answer for these people? We don’t accept it from the religious when they use it to deflect criticism; why the heck should we be okay with it (referring specifically to those doing this sort of thing in our community) coming from atheists?

  3. oursally says

    It’s weird, this obsession these creeps have with “cunt-kicking”.

    In my youth I used to take part in karate competitions, and have been kicked just about everywhere. I can assure you, being kicked “in the cunt” is not possible, because women keep their genitals tidily tucked away between their legs. Being kicked in the crotch is no worse that being kicked anywhere else – ears and nose are much worse. However when men get kicked in the genitals they curl up and cry, and so do most of the other men in the room.

  4. sheila says

    “A woman who sticks her head above the parapet. . . . is asking for brickbats.”

    Just like a woman who gets on a bus is asking to be gang-raped with an iron bar.

  5. Scr... Archivist says

    @2 Wowbagger asked,

    Why is ‘it’s just the way it is – live with it’ a good enough answer for these people?

    It’s good enough for them because they are actually meaning, “It’s the way I like it, and I’m not going to allow you to change it.”

  6. jamessweet says

    So here’s a take on the whole “Don’t feed the trolls thing”: I actually think that, in general, that is good advice when subject to this sort of abuse. There comes a point when the threats of physical violence are too scary, of course, but generally if somebody photoshops your head onto a porn star, it’s better to just let them look like immature gits all on their own rather than say anything. As the victims know all too well, often speaking out just makes it worse.

    But. But but but. That wisdom is only applicable when you are talking about an isolated incident. It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that there is an epidemic of particularly vile and violent ridicule aimed specifically at female public figures, or women on the Internet in general. This is not just some immature jerks being immature, this is a serious problem that needs to be addresses. And in that context, when a victim speaks out, the only way to see it, in my opinion, is as an act of bravery, not of some sort of “thin skin” nonsense. Yes, the victims who speak out will get it even worse — but this isn’t a few isolated incidents, this is a pattern, and if nobody speaks out then nothing will change.

    DFTT is good advice — for keeping your own self from being picked on more. That Beard is not following it is to her credit, not her shame. Something has got to give here…

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