Online Misogyny – a speech

On the 25th of October 2015, I spoke at the conference Feminism in London. The subject was online misogyny, and I was honoured to share the panel with Connie St. Louis, Dr. Emily Grossman, and Alison Boydell. The following is a transcript of my speech.

Hello and thank you for having me to speak at Feminism in London. I’m Claire, and it’s an honour to be here, and to be discussing something so relevant to women’s experiences both in terms of activism and in a more personal capacity. I wonder if I could start with a show of hands – how many people here have experienced misogyny online? Thank you. [Vast majority of hands raised.]

That’s sad, but not at all surprising.

If anybody is going to quote me on Twitter, please make it this: I believe that misogyny is endemic. It’s true that the Internet has revolutionised almost every aspect of our lives, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the nature of people’s values. From behind a screen, perhaps from a position of anonymity, men are harassing women, swearing at women, abusing women, threatening women, stalking women. The internet, much like the Force, can be used either for good or bad. It has never been easier to sign and share a petition but, equally, the odds are signing one the one the old fashioned way with ink and paper is far less likely to result in you being called scum and told to die. 

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As is the case offline, women speaking out can attract a lot of abuse – it’s not usually the opinions being shared that generate this anger in these men, but rather that the person sharing them happens to be female. Where the internet differs, with particular regard to social media, is the variety of tactics used to harass women. Men – and, in my experience, it is almost always men – say things to women that you hope they would never even consider saying offline. Yet, online misogyny has me wondering, how many of them think like that? Even if it’s generally not expressed quite so explicitly in person, those feelings of misogyny are still there. 

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Though she is now controversial, I’m going to paraphrase Germaine Greer here. Germaine Greer is of the opinion that women don’t realise just how much men hate us. I would suggest that the Twitter feed of any known feminist or prominent woman provides a clear demonstration. The men who sent rape and death threats to Caroline Criado-Perez, the men that intimidated Sue Perkins into deactivating her Twitter account, they exist and operate offline, presumably interacting with women outside of the digital world. How does it translate?

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There seems to be a distinction between conduct offline and on, lines which the perpetrators of online misogyny consider it acceptable to cross from behind a screen, but not in the flesh. I think that a cultural shift is essential if we are going to live in a society where women are not abused or threatened for speaking out, online and off. But, until we get to that point, how do we as women cope with online misogyny? How do we go on living our digital lives in such a potentially hostile environment? 

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Firstly, and most importantly, I suggest solidarity. This applies offline as well as on, though in some ways it’s easier to connect face-to-face. I know that things can get a bit fraught when we’re trying to make a complex and detailed point in 140 characters, especially when the conversation relates to our experiences and our identities. But other women aren’t behind the misogyny we experience, nor are they responsible for upholding a system in which it flourishes. Audre Lorde described it as horizontal hostility – wasting our time and energy on people also disadvantaged by a racist, classist patriarchy, instead of challenging vertical power structures. 

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A pattern I’ve noticed and experienced is that misogynistic comments often overlap with another aspect of a woman’s identity. Older feminists are treated as irrelevant, called crones and dinosaurs. Like Andrea Dworkin observed, their human worth to men is often entirely rooted in their perceived fuckability. Working class women are dismissed and dehumanised, which allows for their lived reality to be conveniently ignored. Women of Colour are relentlessly Othered, made to feel insignificant on grounds of race and sex.

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Obviously there are disparities in privilege, along the lines of class, race, sexuality, etc. I’m very much of the opinion that, like bell hooks says, true solidarity can only exist when these differences are acknowledged. And once that solidarity exists, it is strong. Sisterhood is powerful. Without the encouragement and support of women I am proud to call sister, I would have grown so weary of online activism. For every man who calls me dirty nigger bitch, there are a hundred moments of support and understanding with other women. It makes a real difference.

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Secondly, I encourage women to point out misogyny whenever it is realistically possible. There will, of course, be times when it is better for you to avoid engaging. Self-care matters. The digital world is often contrasted with ‘the real world’, but it is a real world in which real people interact with one another. Those threats, that abuse, can have a strong impact on us. It’s naive to pretend otherwise. But, when you are comfortable doing so, point out that some sexism has taken place. Highlight why the comments are wrong, what their implications are. Don’t accept misogyny. Have other women’s backs. Make those sexist comments less and less acceptable, show that there is no place for them. 

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I can’t claim to have all the answers but, in my experience, an incredible amount can be achieved when women work together. 

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