Slut-shaming, Twitter abuse, trolls, stalkers – the internet has become dangerous territory for women, argues Laurie Penny in her spirited new feminist polemic Unspeakable Things. And she writes with considerable experience. “There’s nothing wrong with [her that] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garroting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn’t sort out,” declared one of her many critics. Like any woman with an online profile, she’s used to being the target of such messages: “The violent rape and torture fantasies, the threats to my family and personal safety, the graphic emails with my face crudely pasted on to pictures of pornographic models performing sphincter-stretchingly implausible feats of physical endurance.”
So Penny is not surprised by the vicious torrent of abuse that greeted Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard after she appeared on the BBC’s Question Time last year. “My appearance on Question Time prompted a web post that has in the last few days discussed my pubic hair (do I brush the floor with it?),” wrote Beard, “[and] whether I need rogering (that comment was taken down, as was the speculation about the capaciousness of my vagina, and the plan to plant a d*** in my mouth).” She was also named “Twat of the Week” by the now-defunct website Don’t Start Me Off.
Banter that might once have been appropriate at a frat party exists on the same Twitter feeds where girls are starting feminist campaigns
Similar attacks blitzed the journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez when she led the campaign for a woman to be honoured on the £10 banknote. At the height of the bombardment she was getting 50 tweets an hour, many of them threatening rape or murder. And she realised that she was being targeted simply because “some men don’t like women, and don’t like women in the public domain”.
Penny would agree, pointing out that while such vicious sexism is indeed rampant all over the internet, it’s far from a new phenomenon. “The internet is not the reason for the supposed tide of filth and commercial sexuality we’re drowning in…One has to ask when there has ever truly been a time when abuse and violence did not take place, when women were not brutalised, when children were not taken advantage of.”
What is shocking, though, is the extent to which the hatred and violence of men to women is laid bare online. That’s what Laura Bates discovered when she started her Everyday Sexism blog, and was startled to be inundated with more than 50,000 testimonies in two years – now immortalised in her book of the same name. The respondents range from young girls to businesswomen, politicians to mothers and grandmothers.
And, depressingly, Bates even devotes a whole chapter to the one section of society you’d think might have fared better: female students.
“Just got called a slag by two guys sitting outside the University of York library,” said one respondent. Another reported an article in a University of Exeter charity ball booklet in 2011 that revealed how many calories men could burn while stripping a woman naked without her consent.
There are graphic accounts of the humiliating initiation rites carried out in the name of Freshers’ Week: boys scoring points for deflowering virgins, with a prize for the “lad” who collected the most bras from the “sluts”; fancy dress parties called “Slag ’n’ Drag” or even “Fuck a Fresher”; an event where girls were lined up on stage and told to race to be the first to strip; a party where a girl was expected to down a bottle of beer that a man was cradling in his crotch.
And Bates backs up the stories and confessions with some stark statistics. In its 2010 survey, Hidden Marks, the National Union of Students found that one in seven female university students has experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during her time as a student, while nearly 70 per cent of respondents said they had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in or around their institution.
Bates cites the case of Rebecca Meredith who, when taking part in a debating competition at the University of Glasgow last year, was booed and shouted at throughout the speeches until finally one young male competitor shouted: “Get that woman out of my chamber!”
Such phenomena aren’t confined to the students, either. Everyday Sexism abounds with tales of the sexist behaviour of lecturers ranging from physical groping, sexual advances and suggestive comments to degrading remarks about the abilities of the female students. “On first day at Cambridge University, ancient don asked whether I had had to ‘bend over’ to get in,” reported one. Several wrote to say that male academics simply ignored or else belittled them. One was told that “nice young women don’t ‘play with science’ ”.
It may make for dismaying reading. But for Laurie Penny, this documenting of the casual nastiness meted out to women is also the main weapon we have to fight back. “Germaine Greer once wrote that women had no idea how much men hate them,” she reminds us. “Well, now we do. The internet has a way of making hidden things visible, of collapsing contexts so that the type of banter that might once have been appropriate at a frat party exists on the same Twitter feeds where 15-year-olds are starting feminist campaigns.”
Blogs like The Everyday Sexism Project, UK Feminista, The F-Word and The Vagenda, Penny suggests, signal the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny, as do their accompanying books. “Women and girls and their allies are coming together to expose gender violence online and combat structural sexism and racism offline.”
Meanwhile, though, what can be done to deal with “everyday sexism” on campus? For a start, the books by these brave, angry young women should be required reading not just for the students but for faculty, too. And every woman should pop one in her handbag along with the pepper spray and rape whistle – to fend off the gropers and the squeezers and the taunters by hitting them where it hurts.