Friday, 05 September 2014

Lewis' Law and online misogyny

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From the incomprehensibly vicious to the boringly repetitive, the online response to women’s voices is vastly different to the experiences of men in the same space. Why do some men find relief in such venomous attacks on women in the media?

Lewis’ Law dictates that “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”.

This seems like circuitous logic, until you do the one thing that everyone tells you not to do on the internet: read the comments.

Writers are used to criticism - our ability to think, our political allegiances and our basic literacy skills are constantly questioned and insulted - but the comments section under an article written by a woman metastasises into cancerous hate. Because being a woman with an opinion is still one of the most outrageous things you can do.

Anita Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home after the usual wave of bile she receives for critiquing games crested into specific violent threats against her and her family. To clarify, the “usual” abuse she receives includes being the subject of a game in which users can beat her and a constant barrage of rape and death threats.

While Sarkeesian is a particularly extreme example, it illustrates the abuse women receive online when they stray from what is expected of them, namely, compliance.

Link to an article about feminism? Be told you will be forced to drink some anon’s semen. Read that you deserve the most extreme violence inflicted upon you, as if they think a threat of violence is unique to a woman’s daily existence. Do the worst and push back, and you can be threatened with so-called Islamic beheadings that will undoubtedly occur to you should you remove yourself from a white man’s protection. Post a screenshot of said trolling and another man will question why you pushed back, as though you should tacitly accept such behaviour by refusing to challenge it and accept policing from men, uncomfortable at the visible proof women are so viciously abused online.

That was 4 hours one night on social media for me last week and, to be frank, I have almost no public profile.

The abuse female writers receive online demonstrates a visceral reaction from a particular section of their audience – when that freed from social constraints by the ease and anonymity of social media and comments sections.

I’ve seen the abuse that high profile women writers receive and it is staggering, both for its violence and volume. Critics who harbour a sneaking suspicion that feminists are whining about a situation that can be controlled by ignoring the abuse have no idea of just how much energy and will plummet in the face of tens, hundreds or even thousands of threatening messages.

A recent study from Pew research found that people were less likely to debate politics online than in person for fear of social rejection. The rejection they feared existed as a threatened corrective measure to keep people under control and silent.

Using Pew’s findings as a guide and the minor presence of feminist critique or women’s voices in mainstream media, we can infer that gendered online abuse exists to silence women, to bring them back under control of the collective. Women in the media are a minority, subject to the control of the dominant voice - white men. And to maintain their dominance, they must defeat or silence all threats and challengers.

According to Rutger’s Vyshali Manivannan in Tits of GTFO, the way to defeat challengers encroaching on an established culture is to offensively drown them out. Are you a woman with a voice? Let’s drown it with misogyny, a raft of the most offensive and violent chatter we can muster to mute your energy and sink your work lest your ideas are accepted and threaten our culture. That’s why women writers are abused online - because men don’t want to hear them and need to ensure that no one else does either.

This can also be seen in recent reports indicating that men receive more online abuse than women - studies brandished to dispute women’s valid complaints about abuse. Demos, a think tank employed by British Newspaper Sunday Times, declared their analysis showed more men received online abuse than women. Take that you whining martyred feminists! Take your rhetoric and rape culture and face the SCIENCE. Good day, Madam. *fedora tip*

But when you look closely, there’s something very wrong with the research. Firstly, it only covered Twitter. Secondly, it only covered celebrities. Thirdly, it only covered this paltry list of swear words once assembled by Google. The main flaw is that it considered abuse to only comprise obscenities and not what women actually face: threats of violence. Look at this sampling of abuse to Anita Sarkeesian from one Twitter account. Rape figures prominently, so does kill, weapons are referenced, and assaults are specified. These are terms that would escape Demos’ calculations. It’s a study that claims to show men are more abused than women, without making any effort to understand how women are abused online.

Even within these restrictions, Demos found that women journalists receive three times more online abuse than their male counterparts. Can you imagine what a more comprehensive study would reveal? One that understood women are silenced with more than just swear words, but the entire spectrum of prejudice, of racism and any number of violent hate-filled phobias?

Or how sexism that seeks to silence women hide in the smoke and mirrors of misdirection. It’s a magic act where they claim they aren’t hounding a woman into silence or professional ruin because she’s a woman, oh no, it’s because they have suddenly decided she has faulted against their “ethics”. No, misogyny and the thousands of abusive messages sent to women online aren’t the issue - no, the real issue is how men face “ironic misandry”.

Women raising their voice in a media landscape dominated by men is still a radical act. There is a concerted effort to bring them under control, whether it is by increasing the volume on the male voice (and the voice of its allies) or to literally drown out a woman’s voice through prolonged abuse that distracts or deflects their future work.

But, as Helen Lewis stated, every act of abuse, every attempt to drown women out just shows how vital our voices are.

Speak up - deafen those who seek to silence us.

Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_