Laurie Penny | Contributor | Thursday, 8 May 2014

Is The Internet Intrinsically Sexist?

The Debrief: Writer Laurie Penny wonders if we should encourage girls to stay meekly offline, whilst the men build a beautiful future for them to keep clean? Or should we help them fight back?

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This Thursday, Blurred Lines, a documentary about modern sexism fronted by the formidably lovely Kirsty Wark, airs on the BBC. It features prominent feminists, such as Germaine Greer, concluding that modern misogyny is exacerbated by modern technology. When I was interviewed for the programme, I was asked whether I thought the internet was a dangerous place for women. 

It’s a leading question that’s been put to me time and again since the publication of my book Cybersexism. I’ve been asked whether the internet is intrinsically bad for girls by journalists, by concerned parents, and occasionally by young women themselves – desperate to write, code and participate online but are worried that if they do, they’ll face consequences they might not be able to cope with. But the fact that this question keeps coming up is deeply political, because the question of whether danger exists obscures the more important matter of how we respond to it. Do we encourage girls to stay meekly offline, while the men build a beautiful future for them to keep clean? Or do we help them fight back?

Teenage girls are a perennial target of technological concern-trolling – ‘what will this weirdscape of social sexting, selfies and outraged hashtags mean for their fragile pubescent morality?’ – but, in this instance, the concern is far from baseless. Here are some of the things that have happened to me in the past half-decade of being a active internet user, blogger and journalist: I have faced and still face a daily barrage of insults, threats and harassment. I’ve got used to seeing my work trashed and belittled, to being called a slut and a whore, an ugly dyke and a 'silly little girl’ who should know better than to talk about serious politics. I’ve got used to hearing that I deserve to die. If I react, I’m an attention-seeking whiner and, if I don’t, I am a narcissist. Total strangers have sent me graphic rape and murder fantasies, threats of violence and humiliation, and pornography with my face clumsily pasted on. I have had a bomb threat sent to me, forcing me to leave my home. Most of the people sending these messages are men – all of them use the language of internalised misogyny.

I’ve got used to seeing my work trashed and belittled, to being called a slut and a whore, an ugly dyke and a 'silly little girl’ who should know better than to talk about serious politics

The potential emotional overheads of online presence as a female-identified human today are enormous. The fact that those overheads are survivable does not make them just. Personally, I resent the extra energy it takes just to stay on the field where I deserve to live and fight.

Because here are some of the other things that have happened in those five years: I have built a career that I love that fulfils me creatively, pays my rent and allows me to travel the world. I have made dear and wonderful friends, and built contacts with people living continents away, connections that are as astonishing for their intimacy as they are for the distances involved.

Most importantly, I realised that I wasn’t alone. There were other people out there who felt quite like I did. There were other weird kids, other queer kids, other angry feminists, other nerds and anarchists and people who wanted to rearrange the world to suit our notion of what was just and right. More than anything else, it is the internet that has enabled women, girls and allies across the globe to come together in solidarity, to raise our voices collectively, to enunciate how much is left to be done, to demand respect, to imagine other worlds.

Do we encourage girls to stay meekly offline, while the men build a beautiful future for them to keep clean? Or do we help them fight back?

And that, I believe, is the key. When women are harassed and bullied off the internet, they are being driven away from the use of the most powerful tool they have to change their world – our world. When examples are made out of girls who participate online, it is because that participation is a clear and present threat to the stale old social order. It is the same logic by which women and girls have always been told that the street is a dangerous place for them. If you go out after dark, you might get grabbed, or groped, or worse. Best pack up your dancing shoes and stick to the kitchen. Best stay out of public space altogether. The technology is new, but the sentiment is very, very ancient.

Gendered violence, and the threat of gendered violence, has always about scaring women into submission. It's a warning: Reach too high, walk too tall and bad things will happen to you. We are raised on tales of what happens to little girls who stay up past their bedtime, who go out alone, who read dangerous books and meet dangerous people and think dangerous thoughts. Good girls shouldn't. Good girls don't.

Gendered violence has always about scaring women into submission. It's a warning: Reach too high, walk too tall and bad things will happen to you

But there is another sort of danger we do not tell young girls about until it is too late. It is the danger that lies in wait whenever we tell ourselves, 'Not so fast, not so far, you’ll get hurt.' The real risk of getting hurt and humiliated as women attempting to exist in public space must be weighed, at every point, against the certain doom of never having adventures, never achieving our potential, never living fully in the future being created all around us. Either way, there’s danger. We get to decide what kind of danger we'd prefer. 

When it comes to girls growing up, we speak too much about danger and not enough about courage. So yes, the internet is dangerous for women. But that doesn’t mean that the answer is to sit quietly with your legs and laptop shut like they want you to do. The continued presence of women, girls and feminist allies in their strident millions online is changing the world. It is not women who need to be protected from the big, bad internet – it's society that needs to be protected from us. 

Follow Laurie, author of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution on Twitter @PennyRed

Picture: Eylul Aslan 

Tags: Facebook et al, Feminism

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