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Laurie Penny looks at cybersexism


women, cyberspaceLaurie Penny joins ‘women on Twitter’ debate with new essay.

Author and leading feminist commentator Laurie Penny is entering the debate on Twitter, women and trolling with ‘Cybersexism’, a new essay that explores how the political map of human relations has been recently redrawn by feminism and changes in technology.

Cybersexism is from Laurie Penny’s forthcoming book ‘Unspeakable Things: The New Sexual Counter-Revolution’, to be published in early 2014.

Penny is exceptionally well placed to write about this contentious issue in a way that adds genuinely new and nuanced views; she was one of several female journalists in the UK to recently receive a bomb threat on Twitter, along with campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, MP Stella Creasy and historian Mary Beard.

A proud ‘nerd, nomad and activist’, Laurie Penny explores how the internet can be liberating as well as limiting.

Cybersexism starts: ‘The Internet is a godless place, but that’s as close to an in-the-beginning-was-the-word as it gets. The phrase was coined by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, in time for the London Olympics opening ceremony, but the principle that the Internet should be socially, economically and politically free, and that anyone anywhere should be able to use it to build new interactive platforms, extend the frontiers of human knowledge or just surf dating forums for cute redheads, is basically sound. This is for everyone. Or at least, it was supposed to be.

‘There was a time, not so long ago, when nerds, theorists and hackers, the first real colonisers of cyberspace, believed that the Internet would liberate us from gender. Science fiction writers imagined a near future just on the edge of imagination, where people’s physical bodies would become immaterial as we travelled beyond space and distance and made friends and connections and business deals all over the planet in the space of a split second. Why would it matter, in this brave new networked world, what sort of body you had?

‘And if your body didn’t matter, why would it matter if you were a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, or something else entirely?

‘I’m twelve years old and I’ve started hanging out in the type of chat forums where everyone will pretend to believe you’re a 45-year-old history teacher called George. At the same time, the other half of the Internet seems intent on pretending that they are thirteen year-old schoolgirls from the south coast of England. Amidst growing moral panic about paedophiles and teen sluts preying on one another in the murky, unpoliced backwaters of Myspace, I feel something a little akin to freedom. Here, my body, with all of its weight and anxiety, its blood and grease and embarrassing eruptions, is not important; only my words are important. I don’t want to be just a girl, because I already know that being a girl is understood to be somewhat less than being a person. I want to be what web theorist Donna Haraway calls a cyborg:

‘A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism… I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.’

And Penny goes on to ask why threats of rape and violence are being used to try to silence female voices, analyses the structure of online misogyny, and makes a case for real freedom of speech – for everyone.

Cybersexism is available as of 22 August as a Kindle Single.

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