Online and Offline Violence Towards Women
Women and the Internet: Part One
Fixing this is going to require a lot of talking.
I try not to keep track of the threats. High profile women face hatred and threats online that can take your breath away. It has mine. I’ve been threatened with rape and being beaten to death and fucked to death with inanimate objects and more rape and put into slavery and more beating and then some more rape.
Sometimes the threats are sexual, sometimes just violent. I don’t know about all of them. I know Ryan Singel, my editor at Wired, often deleted them, along with comments about my looks, off the bottom of my articles before I could see them. I have a hard time remembering specific threats, because I have to block them out to function. Once, a man in Britain said he would send me a specific poisonous spider that would jump out of the box and kill me — points for creativity. A man in Australia told me that he fantasized about raping me then beating me to death. That stuck for the sheer vividness. Though when I think about his fantasy, it’s not really me he’s doing it to. It’s some kind of inanimate blow up doll of me.
I would fight, I think. I have a history of fighting back in real life. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it hasn’t.
For all the theories and fantasies about how we’d take down our attackers, it’s not so simple to decide if you should fight back. Some say you shouldn’t, because that’s how women get beaten badly or killed, and raped is better than dead, or eating through a tube for life. Or, if you win, you might go to jail for years. Raped is definitely better than going to jail for years, especially given the prevalence of rape in prison. There’s another benefit to not fighting back, which is this: if you know you can’t win, either because of physical or situational coercion, you can just leave your body. You just let it happen to the meat and send your mind somewhere a thousand miles away, where none of this is real. It works for rape, it works for beatings, it works whenever you are in terrible pain and no one is there to care for you. You make your body a stranger, you stop caring about it, sometimes you even hate it, and then it all happens to the stranger you care nothing for.
The problem is it can take years to come back to your body. It can be the hardest trip you will ever make. The stranger meat you’ve learned to hate takes all the abuse, and becoming one person again can be the task of a lifetime. Reuniting your mind and body is like trying to find your way in the dark, and every time someone says “Bitch you’d look better with my cock in your mouth,” you risk getting lost again.
Sometimes these days it just bounces off me, which reminds me that I’m made of walls.
The majority of online misogynists are all talk — they are looking to upset women, and through the force of their numbers and vitriol, crush women into silence. “It’s just talk,” I am told, “You need a a thick skin.” Inevitably this is said by people who clearly would not last a week in my threat-riddled public life. But not all of these men will settle for silencing women.
I have worried about some of my more persistent stalkers “going hot,” and I still do. I think all the talk ups the chance that someday one will take a shot at me, or finally try to do that thing they talk about with a crowbar.
Taking this speech off the internet doesn’t fix the fundamental disease. It sends violence against women back to being a silent problem that disproportionately hits disadvantaged women around the world. Women with no voice, women who are not in public, not famous, are out there suffering more than I do. But they are here with me too, when you look at me, the threats I get, and the stories I can tell about violence. You can see them, even if just a little bit. They are every so slightly more visible. Online violence reflects a very real world of the offline torture of women around the world.
In WHO’s report on intimate partner violence, between 10-69% of women reported being victims of violence. That means if you live in the best place on Earth for women, and you know more than ten, you know someone who’s dealt with domestic violence. But you probably don’t live in the best place on Earth for women, and you probably know many more than ten women. The actual, unreported numbers are also probably much higher. You know a lot of women that have dealt with brutal bullshit from their families and intimate partners.
Every day women die because they are murdered by their families and partners. On average, around three a day in America, two a day in the UK.
What we see on Twitter and in comments, what women are starting to talk about on their blogs in and public spaces, is a symptom of a breathtaking problem. Somehow men are learning that it’s ok to rape, beat, and even kill women, simply because they are women. They are learning this from men. Sometimes they strut their stuff in social media, and more dangerously, they usually don’t.
Let me say that again: a mind-boggling number of men out there think it’s ok to beat, rape, and kill women.
The salient question isn’t “what should we do about their tweets?” It’s “Where is a huge part of the male population of Earth getting this bullshit?”
The violence against women is so prevalent that we live in a culture where if a man doesn’t believe it’s ok to rape, beat, and kill women, he can believe he is a good guy. He can believe this even if he also believes it’s ok to restrict women’s access to public life and pay them wages that deny the value of their work. Men who think this way are not good guys. They are not good partners, bosses, brothers, or friends. They are just not quite murderers and rapists. I do think these men should feel good about not being murderers and rapists, and then immediately stop feeling good, because everyone should shoot for more in life than “I’m not a murderer or a rapist.”
Pushing the speech associated with this hate back offline serves to comfort a certain set of women, of which I am a member. Certainly we deserve comfort and safety. But it doesn’t stop the culture of gendered violence, often against women, that motivated this bullshit in the first place. People like my friend Laurie Penny shouldn’t live with bomb threats, and I shouldn’t live with rape and murder threats. But we also shouldn’t live in a world where women are raped and murdered in silence. Where they live in servitude, where they are denied pay, and the chance to live as a full creative beings.
The internet can’t fix this. You can’t use technology to solve social problems. You just can’t. I don’t mean you shouldn’t, I mean it never, ever works. Technology can assist social reform, and it can amplify social problems, which it does with misogyny and social media. But it never creates or solves these problems. Trying to make technology do the job of people always ends in tears. The misogyny doesn’t come from the internet, it comes from contemporary culture. It won’t be fixed by the internet, and it won’t be fixed by women.
It has to be fixed by men.
Men construct manhood. They do it together. Women have an influence, but it is external and always contextualized by men, who are still constructing manhood together. I can’t fix men’s attitudes anymore than a man can tell me how to give birth. We, men and women, can point each other at resources, and posit theories, and support each other, but at the end of the day, I have to push and men have to talk. In all honesty, I’m not sure which is harder. Acknowledging that, I still can’t let men off the hook. Men have to open their mouths and talk about constructing an idea of manhood that makes sense in the 21st century. The whole world needs a manhood that doesn’t rely on attacking or demeaning women.
Jackson Katz lays this out in his work, introduced in his wonderful TEDx talk on gendered violence.
I will warn you now, while I am doing these four parts on different aspects of women’s experience and feminism in the age of the internet, every part will have the same ending. This is because I am a woman, and women can’t fix manhood. That will be the job of men for as long as they exist.