The fight for feminism

Bank notes 3

It’s been a crazy few weeks. On Friday 5th July a group of us dressed up as ‘inspiring women from history’ and presented a box of 33k signatures to the Bank of England asking them to keep women on banknotes. We were led by my lovely and fabulous friend Caroline Criado-Perez. I dressed up as Boudicca – I’d never worn a cape, sword and shield before so it was a rather surreal experience! Read about it here in the Guardian.

Bank notes 1After this, the Bank announced they would put Jane Austen on the next £10 note. We celebrated, but the joy was short lived. Suddenly Caroline got bombarded with online abuse. She has been incredibly brave in retweeting her rape and death threats to show the world what gets launched at women making a stand on feminist issues. Read about her inspiring battle here. 

// Don’t feed the trolls?

I spoke about bank-notes, Caroline’s bravery and social media trolling on Sky News last week. You can watch that interview here. We discussed trolling in particular. Many complain that retweeting is not the way to deal with it: “don’t feed the trolls!” they say. But this advice means abuse happens in private. Shining a light on it by RTing some of the comments means the rest of social media have to see it and are made aware. It also means networks like Twitter can benefit from peer-to-peer ‘policing’ rather than just top-down authorities stepping in.

// Lads Mags

Many of us women have had to normalise online abuse. Obviously it goes to a totally different and criminal level when it’s rape or death threats; these should never be shrugged off. But general vile abuse is something many of us feminists just have to accept. Chatting with Caroline and with Laura from Everyday Sexism and Lucy Holmes from NoMorePage3 the amount of nastiness we all get sent is horrible. It just seems to go with the territory – but it shouldn’t have to.

Today when raising my voice for Lose The Lads Mags, as I have with the No More Page 3 Campaign, I decided I would start retweeting some of the abuse. It stemmed from me expressing some personally vulnerable stuff about the negative effects of seeing ‘soft porn’ magazines in newsagents and in general public places when I was younger.

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I would say that seeing those images of women on men’s pin-up calendars, on the accidentally-left-open Sun’s Page 3 and on the high up shelves of newsagents when browsing the kids comics had the following effects:

– It damaged my understanding of what it means to be a woman; the lie that we are only worth as much as the attractiveness of our bodies.

– It taught me from a tiny age that to get men’s attention, women “have” to look a certain way and that becoming physically attractive should be our all-consuming task.

– It hit me with the reality that women are sex objects within culture and this must just be accepted not challenged. Even though this deeply upset me as a little girl I already felt like I was faced with the need to accept this as the norm.

– It actually made me not want to be a woman as I felt like my ‘lot’ in life was a terrible one: that I was destined to spend my days fighting to look attractive only in order to be used as some kind of object.

Opening up about how “deeply disturbing” these magazines and their images were was met by a torrent of abuse. I’ve censored out most but I’ll include a few here [warning: offensive language]

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// Even tough cookies break

The Twittersphere is often a nasty place. I fell in love with social media back when I lived in California and the social media revolution was first born on the West Coast. I quickly fell out of love with social media when the police had to move me out of my apartment overnight due to rape and death threats. These were sparked by me simply being a woman who put her head above the parapet on issues of gender equality.

Far from home, those nasty messages wrecked me. I’m a pretty tough cookie but when men started showing up in my neighbourhood asking for my address, telling me online exactly what they “planned to do to me” and began attending my public lectures as the addresses were public, I just broke. My manager and I had a file inches thick, full of names, threats and incidents, mainly sparked by social media.

The American authorities were pretty much useless as they said the threats didn’t fall under a geographical jurisdiction – and six years ago the policing of social media threats was far less developed than today. Trolling, abuse and sexual threats were a large part of the reason I moved back to the UK three years ago – I just felt too vulnerable in a foreign country by myself.

// Trying to fight back

Returning to the UK I decided on a way I could fight back. I started doing a PhD which I’m currently in the middle of. My topic is “Internet Ethics”. So it gives me an outlet for my angst! I’m researching how we can use social media more ethically. I’ve spoken about my research on Radio 4 “Sunday” and “The Moral Maze” and in the Independent if you’re bored one day and want to check those out!

Lads’ mags

Lose the lads mags!

// Don’t just walk on by

Social media ethics are a crucial topic to consider. Questions of privacy, free speech, how we handle the powers of anonymity and when and how to switch off.

However, there is a real risk these discussions can become academic rather than rooted in personal life experience.

Caroline speaking out so bravely about her rape and death threats is a great example of this. For my Twitter followers, I hope the messages I RTd today have given you a glimpse into the lewdness and degrading nature of trolling. Yes they are offensive and I had complaints for promulgating that bad language online. Yet I feel awareness is more important in this case.

Please continue to support anyone you see receiving abuse on Twitter. If someone were being beaten on the pavement, you probably wouldn’t just walk on by. Especially if the abuse contains criminal threats of death or violence. Please add your voice to important campaigns like Lose The Lads Mags or No More Page 3 if you agree. If you don’t agree with these campaigns, then at least stand up for those who you see trolled online.

If enough of us do it, we CAN make a difference.

>More on this in a couple of TV interviews I’ve done lately, below.