November 8, 2011 by Rhi
There’s been a lot of debate on “Teh Interwebz” over the last few days about online abuse. Mostly regarding female bloggers and commentators, who have received some fairly misogynistic attacks over the course of their careers. It’s not a nice thought to to consider, and I’m genuinely sorry to anyone who has suffered as a result of their writing. It takes a certain amount of bravery to continue to speak out loudly about issues, when the response is so threatening.
I’m going to hold my hands up – I was called out on twitter because I asserted that “I wasn’t really a feminist”, and I couldn’t really explain what I meant by that. I’ve been giving it some consideration over the last few days, and when I consider my life so far, what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved, I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered a situation where I felt that I was honestly at a disadvantage from being a woman. There may have been the odd occasion when I was younger, when I encountered men who perhaps raised an eyebrow, or opened their mouths to question whether I was capable of doing what I intended to do, but I honestly didn’t stop to think about it long enough – I just sort of pushed past them and got on with it before they had a chance to object. Similarly, none of my male friends have displayed any misogynistic tendencies (if they had, they wouldn’t be my friends). Even in my relationships, past and present, it’s rare that I have anything in common with a man who isn’t open to equality. My husband cooks, cleans, and generally does everything that is required of an adult to facilitate a pleasant life. There is no discussion about division of labour – we each do what needs doing, and there’s no task which either of us hasn’t carried out at some point.
So, you’ll see why I find it hard to get my head around discussions of sexism. It’s not that I don’t believe it exists, it’s just I haven’t experienced it directly. Or maybe I have, but have wilfully ignored its existence, and put it down to other things. Someone suggested to me that, because I work in theatre, where the gender of characters often dictates what roles one can and can’t fulfil, I have become inured to the concept. I’m not sure this is the case. Although theatre has traditionally been hard on women, modern theatre has broken down many barriers. Neither is gender a bar to roles – I’ve seen a female Hamlet on more than one occasion.
I never define myself as a “woman xyz”. But my gender is, in many ways, an inescapable part of who I am. I can’t deny the fact I am a woman. What I can do, however, is avoid defining myself as one first and foremost. Whilst it’s important for future generations of girls to see women making great achievements, I feel that if I were to define myself as, say “a female writer”, all of a sudden the fact that I am a woman becomes as important as the fact that I am a writer. When actually, from where I was sitting, I’d just be a writer. The female bit is, for me, incidental. That’s not to say I deny that I am a woman. But I feel that if I want to compete on a level playing field with men, I have to avoid defining myself as something different. I AM just as good as a man, and therefore I don’t need to make an issue of the fact that I’m not one.
All that is said, of course, in the context of never having suffered from sexist abuse. And never having worked in a male dominated industry. I have no doubt that were my experiences different, then my opinions would be also.
So what about the question of internet abuse? I think that, whilst it CAN be related to specifically female traits, it’s not always as a result of someone being anti-woman. I’ve dealt a lot with bullying in groups of young people, and by-and-large, the motivations are the same as what I’ve witnessed online.If someone is going to be a bully, they will find something, ANYTHING, to attack their target. And their motivation is not to be a misogynist (although undoubtedly they are one), it is simply to make themselves appear better, or sometimes just to FEEL better. When I deal with children who are bullies, often it very quickly becomes apparent that they themselves are suffering confidence problems, and that is their motivation for picking on others. It’s a tired cliche but a true one – people pick on other people because of jealousy. Not always, but often. And they might not even realise that themselves. One child I dealt with, responded to the question :”What makes you say these things?”, with words to the effect of “She’s always walking about with her skinny hips, and her long hair. And it really pisses me off”. So who is the victim of sexism there? The child being bullied, because the motivation for the abuse is based on how she looks? Or could it be argued that the bully is also affected by sexism – because SHE was motivated by what society tells us is “beautiful”? She picked on someone else, because they made her feel inferior, because of what she has learned from life.
And here’s where I begin to wonder about the benefits of engaging with online abuse. Whilst real life bullying MUST be tackled head on (especially in the case of young teenagers and adults), online bullying and abuse is almost always about power. It could be a man calling a woman ugly because he disagrees with her politics. Or it could be a woman attacking another woman over bottlefeeding instead of breastfeeding – the internet gives a voice to everyone who can access it, and there is no effective way of screening people for ability to stay on topic. There will always be a perceived “failure” on your part which someone can use against you, which in turn makes them feel as though they have scored a point. It doesn’t matter to them that they’ve ignored your argument, because they aren’t in this to discuss facts. And even when it escalates beyond criticism – when every post or tweet becomes an attempt to devalue you as an individual – the most effective reaction is undoubtedly to simply not engage. I don’t even have to ignore the person who attacked me anymore – I merely act as though they don’t exist. I don’t read their output, or have anything to do with them. Their power is gone, the threat is neutralised, they get bored and move on to someone else. And even if they don’t, if I can’t see it, it can’t hurt me. That does, of course, require support. Thinking of someone talking about you behind your back isn’t nice. But when you understand that real life friends, and family, and people who know you would not care, then suddenly “sticks and stones” becomes a realistic mantra for the situation. It’s only hurtful if someone you respect criticises you. Strangers who can’t see past an internet avatar don’t really count as people to give a shit about. Not for me, in any case.
I’m not denying anti-feminist abuse exists online – I’m certain it does. And I think if you are a well respected journalist, you can gain a lot from tackling it directly. But I fear for us mere mortals down the blogging chain, addressing online abuse directly can quickly lead to something far more scary and more threatening. Speaking out is important – but it’s also important to remember that by writing about misogyny, you are giving more space for misogynists to comment and peddle their wares. Although it could easily be argued that it’s also giving them more rope to hang themselves by. I’m still in two minds about this, if I’m honest. Speaking out made things 100 times worse for me. Working on what makes me happy, and stuffing the haters in the internet box marked “This User Does Not Exist”, was far more effective.
One thing I do know: Sexism exists in society as a whole – it’s there every day. In advertising, in conversations, in toy shops, in workplaces, in schools, on television. Casual references which pass unnoticed. That insidious type of sexism is far more damaging that the open and obvious misogyny displayed by sad little blokes on the internet. Men still shop in Boots even though their advertising campaigns paint them as imbeciles who can’t look after themselves. Women still drink WKD, even though their adverts advocate lying to your partner, and insinuate that women don’t understand football down the pub.
What would help is if women could learn to accept our differences, and not attack each other on body issues. It would also help if being a feminist wasn’t still being defined as “hating men” – which is still a common perception for some. Men are brilliant, I love them. They’re my best friends, my lovers, and they judge me far less often than some women I’ve come across. What makes misogynists horrible isn’t the fact that they’re male – it’s that they’re scared. They don’t need dealing with, they need help.
- What should we do about sexist abuse online? | The panel (guardian.co.uk)