Why the Internet Needs Feminism
The hubbub surrounding Sochi a few months back, while a sad testament to Russia’s increasing conservatism, at the very least served as a rallying point for LGBT activists and allies alike.
Despite the general opposition from Western observers to Russia’s lamentable record on homosexuality, bigotry of a different sort somehow found its way into the mix, courtesy of truelad.com:
‘It’s hard to be certain but if I had to make a call on it I would say that there will be more hot women at the Winter Olympics than there were at the Summer ones. Hot posh girls love to ski, the Winter Olympics is just the ones who are streamlined (i.e. not fat).’
Considering the wealth of casual chauvinism knocking around online, I’m not certain why that one stuck with me. Perhaps it was the frustration of seeing more prejudice introduced to an already tumultuous dispute over the mistreatment of gays, like pissing in a toxic cocktail.
Still, I’m going to give the ‘lads’ their due and confess that, as an example of internet sexism, that one was relatively tame. It gets a hell of a lot worse.
Take a glut of venomous responses to a perfectly reasonable Facebook post by the band Chvrches (who happen to be superb, incidentally). Last year, the band’s singer, Lauren Mayberry, politely requested that ‘fans’ stop sending messages requesting access to her pants.
And how did our esteemed generation of web users respond to this gentle reproach? With measured humility and a spot of guilty shoe-gazing, you say? Well, let’s just see…
‘I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you twat lol’
‘This isn’t rape culture. You’ll know rape culture when I’m raping you, bitch’
‘Act like a slut, getting treated like a sluy [sic]‘
Charming. Gross and creepy as these responses are, this was the one that stood out for me: ‘It’s just one of those things you’ll need to learn to deal with. If you’re easily offended, then maybe the music industry isn’t for you.’
This kind of condescending reflex response – that turns culpability for abuse onto the abused – is endemic to a general, pervasive sexism that is alive and well in the 21st century and which appears particularly at home on the web.
Let me be clear: this is not ‘banter’, this is not a joke, this kind of rhetoric is utterly unacceptable, on or offline, and it’s making us all look like chumps. It has to stop.
Wake Up 2014 – We Still Need Feminism
We’ve all heard it said that Western women, with their apparent privileges and liberties, have no need of a concerted Feminist movement. The myopia of this view speaks to a patriarchy that, at best, sees oppression only in the clearest physical terms of niquabs and genital mutilation.
That sexism is still a huge problem faced by the developed world in 2014 is abundantly evident at a social and societal level. How often have you heard it said that women ‘just don’t get’ rape jokes? Given the shockingly low conviction rate for sexual assault in the UK, my homeland, this feels an especially vile assertion.
More broadly, the underlying sexism in British society sustains an 18% income gap between the genders, hardly surprising when you consider office politics that reward ambition in men but condemn the same trait as obstinacy in women.
The determination with which defenders of the patriarchy rallied around the well-intentioned but, I feel, ideologically misguided move to censor the word ‘bossy’ attests to how entrenched these attitudes have become.
In many respects, the internet has done a fabulous job of showing up the chauvinistic undercurrent in privileged society. The Everyday Sexism Project provides a forum for women and men to critique street-level bigotry while the meteoric success of Upworthy has provided a platform for progressive gender politics to reach the masses.
However, it remains painfully obvious that the distance and (relative) anonymity of the online discourse offers a ‘safe’ context in which to express the kind of poisonous, small-minded views that simply have no place in civilised society.
In 2011, Helen Lewish-Hasteley of the New Statesman asked a group of female bloggers about their experiences of online sexism; some of their testimonies make for queasy reading.
One of the more printable examples included a user who described a blog author as an ‘unlikeable bitch…thick as pig shit’ and asked ‘Do you have any brain cells or [do you] share them?’ This comment was submitted to a completely innocuous post that, surprise surprise, had absolutely nothing to do with gender.
Aside from rape and death threats (which are illegal, plain and simple), the abuse experienced by these women had two areas of focus: an emphasis on appearance (with the bloggers identified as either ‘ugly’ or ‘slutty’) and general anger at women who dare to express their opinions. As one blogger commented, ‘misogynistic abuse is an attempt to silence women.’
As a webmaster and freelance writer for a particularly blokey sector, I encounter internet sexism on a daily basis (I’ve actually written pretty extensively about my feelings regarding sexism in the online gaming industry). Just last week, I trashed a user comment sent to a casino portal requesting ‘new additions to the wank bank’ (that means ‘new female dealers’, by the way).
Unfortunately, it’s not just the users that are culpable. The web world continues to be a male-dominated milieu, and in my experience, a worrying number of content creators, designers, developers and webmasters are outright contemptuous of gender politics.
What I find especially striking about my colleagues in the digital sphere is not only their mistrust of Feminism wholesale, but their bafflement at the suggestion that a lot of what they say and think amounts to bigotry.
I recently engaged in a heated discussion with a co-worker about Lord Rennard, a UK peer who was suspended after being accused of groping female cabinet ministers. After a while, our debate migrated to the topic of sexual assault. My colleague is a young, intelligent and largely politically enlightened individual, so you can imagine my shock when he started talking about ‘different degrees’ of rape. He even claimed that ‘most’ cases of sexual assault are deliberately played up by insidious females keen to smear the reputations of their attackers.
The Internet: Society’s Dark Mirror?
It’s upsetting, if not entirely surprising, that widespread intolerance pervades under the surface of our ‘liberal’ society. The transparency of the internet helps such views see the light of day where otherwise they’d be confined to cloistered masculine arenas (male changing rooms, pubs, the LadBible Twitter feed) in which playground mentality predominates.
After several hours of researching internet sexism for this post, I was approaching the point of emotional exhaustion. Desperate for some thoughtful input, I turned to Sarah Graham (journalist with the Feminist Times) for her two cents. She commented,
‘The most extreme examples of [sexism] online are the kinds of bile women are subjected to on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, online gaming, etc. It’s stuff that most people wouldn’t say to your face, but the internet is depressingly good at exposing what many men really think about women.’
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Everyday Sexism, Upworthy and, indeed, this very blog prove that the internet can be a tool to scrutinise and unpick the long strands of chauvinism woven into our culture. The one positive thing about providing an open forum for sexism is that it really has nowhere to hide.
The internet needn’t be a dark mirror reflecting the basest aspects of society; it can be a window onto the stark truth of our culture, allowing us to praise the good and stamp out the bad.
Sarah put it better than I ever could:
‘We need feminism on the internet, as we need it everywhere else.’