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Women writers speak out against online verbal abuse


Mary Tracy
WVoN co-editor 

Women writers and bloggers have finally come clean about the torrent of online abuse that they have to put up with just for doing their jobs.

And it really is a torrent.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley took up the cudgel, describing her experiences online (see WVoN story), and inviting other female bloggers to do the same.

Although everyone is subject to some abuse, it’s the sheer volume thrown at women bloggers that is, she says, like a “festering sore”.

She says “normal” net users have no idea what it’s like to “open the front door to a chorus of commenters howling at you about your opinions, your name, your appearance, your sexuality”.

If they did, she reckons we “might all have a little less tolerance, be a little less ready to excuse sexist abuse as part of the “rough and tumble” of blogging”.

The next day, journalist Laurie Penny joined in, recounting her experience in The Independent.

“After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance.”

Ray Filar commented on Liberal Conspiracy about the silencing effect on women’s voices that results from the exposure to online abuse:

“Silencing works by trivialisation of what women say, through mockery of what women say, through reducing women to sexual appearance.”

The Observer joined in on Sunday, focusing on the ubiquity of violent abuse directed at all women writers independently of their politics or the topics they write about.

Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and writer, said of verbal abuse: “With sexual violence, what the victim is receiving is the self-hatred of the individual who is expressing that pain and upset that is inside of them in a very explosive manner”.

Then on Monday, The Guardian asked four women writers for their opinions about what should be done to stop online abuse, with Comment is free’s community co-ordinator Bella Mackie explaining how The Guardian moderates its debates (see WVoN coverage).

The question, however, still remains – what can we do to stop it? Pity the answer isn’t so easy but all thoughts warmly welcomed here on WVoN where, thankfully, there is no online abuse.

  1. Jane Da Vall says:

     “‘Normal’ net users have no idea what it’s like”

    By ‘normal’, she must mean ‘male.’

    I wish, just once, one of these journalists would realise that it’s not all about them, that the torrent of bile is directed at all women. Just once, I wish that, when they declare that the purpose of the hostility is to shut women up, they do so not only to congratulate themselves on enduring the abuse, but, also, to acknowledge the success of that strategy in driving women away from news sites and blogs. 

    I wish those women who speak for all women by default would shut up for five minutes and listen to the silence where the voices of ordinary women should be. 

    Then I wish those women would stop supporting the sites that publish the abuse and demand chsnge,  The abuse will stop only when their own editors stop publishing it.

    • The torrent of abuse is everywhere where women speak. I write about, and lecture on, violence against women. Last week in a session on feminism I was verbally abused in a way which was designed to silence me. If some of the the things said to me were racist, rather than sexist, there would have been action.

      Sexism directed at women who speak, no matter who they are, or where they speak, is presented as acceptable and legitimate critique. I preface all my lectures on feminist issues with an implied apology for the offence I seem to cause and the derision I attract. This saddens me, but in no way will it silence me.

      I do understand the particularly difficult position journalists and writers are in for they attract open and continued hostility which permeates their lives and work. To speak out is to attract negative attention which is sometimes very difficult to deal with. I have just written a book which tackles the subject of silencing female victims of domestic homicide. The silence is frightening and dangerous.

      • vicki wharton says:

        And this on Liberal Conspiracy:

        Speaking as a women who has had a couple of ex partners who were violent, this just looks like domestic violence but on the internet. I would actually say that we should stop calling domestic violence that and start calling it sexist violence and then people would stop focusing on the location of the violence and start focusing on the perpetrator and the victim. The reason we take racist violence seriously is that people get kicked to death for their race, or religion or sexuality – and 2 women a week get killed whilst undergoing this type of abuse on a daily basis face to face rather than down a phone line. Threatening behaviour is against the law and that’s what these guys are doing, trying to scare women in whatever context into shutting up and being under their control.

    • vicki wharton says:

      Hi Jane
      Exactly. I posted this on The Guardian piece, not sure how long it will stay up but here’s my thoughts on it.

      I subscribe to Women’s Views on News and the CiF moderators are not nearly as zealous as they are portraying themselves. When hauled out on why they are allowing pure hate speech directed at women they state that they allow the rough and tumble of internet debate. CiF has become an almost women free zone because of what is euphomistically called trolling – or violent chauvinist threats would be more accurate. Threatening behaviour is illegal – for very good reason – it is done to intimidate people – and whatever the medium of delivery it should be taken down off the websites immediately otherwise the website is colluding in the intimidation by hosting it.

      • It is interesting that you mention domestic/sexist violence as this is an area of interest for me. There are clear differences between the motivations and context of female perpetrated violence against men, and men who are violent to women. They are two separate areas for research – but every time I speak on domestic abuse against women I have to spend half my time justifying why I don’t acknowledge or talk about the violence done to men by women. This is another tactic to deflect attention from what is a serious and endemic problem of global proportions. It effectively silences the female experience by making it appear biased and discriminatory. Women are silenced in many ways, but silenced they are and I spend great deals of time and effort fighting to be heard.

        I would like one day to speak, and not feel frightened, hated, derided or patronised – it is a big problem

        • vicki wharton says:

          Tell me about it. Both the police, judicial and social services system wouldn’t deal with my partner’s violence when the police were called when he was attacking me. The policeman threatened to arrest me and it was only by pointing out the physical evidence around me that upheld my version of what had happened did they finally accept that any violence on my part was from me fighting to get away from him, rather than attacking him. I also pointed out, as the attack was in front of our four year old daughter, that she had been heard by the person who phoned the police saying No daddy, no. It seems that a four year old had a better grasp of reality and who was the aggressor than pretty much any of the attending adults did.

  2. Vicki, I’m really sorry you experienced that. Thanks for sharing your story, and I send you supportive thoughts.

    • vicki wharton says:

      Thanks Mary, I share my story to take the experience I went through of sexist violence out of the text book and into real, lived experience. It illustrates the fact that sexist violence is every bit as dangerous as racist or homophobic violence, and yet there is a deliberate fragmenting of violence directed against women and girls into a thousand little shards of violence which are then called different names, honour killings, domestic violence, femicide, genital mutilation etc that prevent the joined up picture being recognised in a way that racially or sexuality motivated violence is. Until society acknowledges the whole picture, I think women and girls will always be fighting to have their experience taken seriously as a collective discrimination rather than a series of one offs motivated by location or race.

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