A woman on the internet

By HJ Hornbeck

Every song starts with a single tweet, as political blogger Laurie Penny can confirm:

“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.”

Soon, other female bloggers started chorusing the nasty mail they received. This brought forward a big problem on the inter-tubes: it doesn’t pay to be a woman on the internet.

Men, in contrast, have it easy. Penny, who is guilty of no more than “criticising neo-liberal economic policymaking,” has had people harass her family, try to blackmail her with old photos, and threaten to publish her home address. To inspire a similar level of hatred, infamous male atheist P.Z. Myers had to defile a Eucharist cracker, considered by Catholics to be the sacred flesh of Jesus Christ, and even that didn’t earn him weekly threats of rape.

Our culture is oddly flippant about sexual violence. Facebook, when asked to remove a fan-page titled “You know she’s playing hard to get when your [sic] chasing her down an alleyway,” dismissed it as a bit of harmless fun: “Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.” It took two months, 180,000 signatures and a shaming campaign via Twitter to make the social network giant follow their own terms of service and take the page down. In contrast, a page for breast-cancer survivors was labelled “pornographic” and quickly yanked.

This bias silences women. Petra Davis used to write about sex and music, until an email led her to a web page containing images of mutilated women. At the top was her name, her address, and an invitation to “rape me all night and cut me open.” Petra hasn’t blogged much since.

And that’s just the overt threats. Atheist blogger Jen McCreight holds a double-major in genetics and evolution, and sits on the Board of Directors for the Secular Student Alliance. Head to her Wikipedia page, though, and both are glossed over in favour of her founding role in “Boobquake,” a tongue-in-cheek protest against an Iranian cleric. Nineteen months on, it still overshadows all her other work: “I’d like to say [I’m known for] my wit and charm, but let’s be honest — [it’s] my boobs. I could cure cancer and people are still going to make earthquake jokes at me.”

By fixating on women as sex dispensers, we drive them out of the chorus. A study on who’s contributing to Wikipedia found that only 13 per cent of users were women. This creates a bias in what’s covered — episodes of Sex in the City don’t merit more than a sentence or two, let alone their own page, while every episode of The Sopranos merits a lengthy page that can be longer than Sex in the City’s entire episode list. Friendship bracelets merit 244 words, while toy soldiers are worth 1,555.

Laurie Penny’s simple act of naming-and-shaming has changed the tune in the blogosphere. And there’s already pushback: on Freethought Blogs, for instance, some commenters are digging for blackmail material to use against the female bloggers.

You have a role in this song, too. Racist language is no longer tolerated in our society — not because we passed laws banning racism, or even because a few vocal critics named-and-shamed the racism they saw, but because the average person supported those critics. Women, don’t be silent about any abuse heaped on you. Men and women, support the women who publicly talk about this. Together, we can dismantle this bias and let everyone sing in the chorus.

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