Some things stick with you more than others. I have other things I want to write, but my mind keeps coming back to the attacks in California a few days ago. Not just the attacks, but the reactions to it – from both sides.
This is long, and a bit rambling – I’m sorry. I’ve tried to cut it down as much as I can, but I really want to set some of these things down in words.
I’ve split this piece into two – this first part deals with the reality of the abuse women face. The second part deals with what I think we can do about it.
One thing – I’m not going to use the attacker’s name, and I’m going to talk as little as possible about the actual incidents as I can. He’s got his name out there enough, so let’s not add to that. The person who did these things wasn’t anyone special – he was just some guy.
Just some guy. Operative word: guy. He was a self-identified “Men’s Rights Activist” (MRA) and “pick-up artist”. In his videos and other sundry ramblings, he expressed his dissatisfaction with how he was received by women – he deserved affection, deserved sex from them, and he wasn’t getting it.
(The extent to which he was driven to kill by his MRA ideas, or whether he was mentally ill, or driven by something else entirely, is not something I’m going to get into here.)
The MRA angle is the aspect a large part of the online community has picked up on – and one that the media initially downplayed. But when the anger boiled over into a massive Twitter campaign under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, attracting tweets from more than 250,000 users in just a few hours, it became harder to ignore.
If you haven’t had a look at the hashtag yet, go and do so – it’s worth scrolling through for a few minutes, to understand the anger.
#YesAllWomen was a direct response to the immediate cries of “not all men” that sprouted immediately after the attacker’s motives were revealed – as in “not all men do this”, “not all men are like that”, “not all men are misogynists”, and so on.
No, not all men – but yes, ALL WOMEN end up suffering misogynist abuse in some form or another. This ranges from cat-calling and patronising comments all the way to physical abuse and rape on an individual level, and an inescapable, systemic, structural oppression as a group.
A theoretical (and very lucky) individual woman could go her whole life without a single wolf-whistle, inappropriate physical gesture, or anything directly misogynist, and still end up significantly disadvantaged, underpaid and under-appreciated, just because she was a woman.
Much of the anger comes from people who, for a long time now, have been trying to explain that this current wave of misogyny is a big deal. On the internet, men have been pouring an ever-growing wave of abuse in the direction of women – any women who are so brazen as to stick their heads above the parapet.
Let’s talk about that abuse for a paragraph or two. It’s nasty. It’s really nasty. Death threats, rape threats, posting personal information, addresses, phone numbers, inserting faces into pornographic pictures. And this pretty exclusively goes to women, rather than men – especially women who venture into “traditionally male” territories such as comics or computer games.
Here are some examples. Some of these contain upsetting or triggering words and images, so be warned:
- Anita Sarkeesian wanted to make videos about sexism in games – for her trouble, she got this and this
- Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to put Jane Austen on the £10 note – cue the online attacks
- Janelle Asselin ventured an opinion on a comic book cover – she got rape threats
- Lindesy Averill is making a film about fat-acceptance – yup, rape threats
- Amanda Hess just happened to be a female journalist – so someone set up a Twitter account exclusively to threaten her
- Same for Jill Fillpovic at the Guardian – guess what she’s been receiving?
- Vanessa Bruno just existed – but this was enough to get an online harassment campaign
Some of those examples I knew about, some I didn’t – it took less than two minutes searching online to find these cases, and I didn’t get beyond the first page of results.
Real-world examples abound as well – have a look at #YesAllWomen for plenty. Or take one from yesterday: a US student who was the subject of male harassment, was groped – and then brushed off by authority figures when she first tried to report it. Only after one of her teachers stepped in did the school take any action.
The abuse is real, and it’s rooted in the gender of the recipients, not the content of their messages.
People subjected to this abuse have long been making the point that we can’t assume these threats are idle – if someone quotes your address and then says they will rape and kill you, it’s hard to see it as some inconsequential trolling. And if someone right in front of you makes you afraid of being attacked, it’s hard to see it as “a bit of fun”.
Beyond the obvious threats of violence, the casual abuse – everything from “make me a sandwich, LOL” to “suck my dick, bitch” – creates an atmosphere where the more hostile commenters can thrive: they know they are among friends and allies.
And now it’s happened – someone in the habit of making threats of violence online has gone and done it in real life. This is why the protest of “not all men” doesn’t go down very well – no, it isn’t all men, but it’s more than enough of them, and ultimately it only needs to be one of them.
So far the reaction online has been fuelled by anger and rage and utter loathing for MRAs in particular, and sexists in general. An accurate summary of the sentiment might be: fuck them, and fuck everything they stand for.
This is entirely understandable – but I’m not sure it’s helpful in every situation. At least, not if we want to make things better.
In the second part of this piece, I’ve set out some ideas about how we can tackle the problem of deeply ingrained misogyny, and why unchecked anger is not always the best solution.