**WARNING: This commentary contains language that some people may find offensive**
In a way, we can take the online backlash against women’s voices as a sign of progress. At least women are permitted in the public sphere now, having battled our way into personhood, into politics, into heretofore forbidden arenas like sports-casting and opinion columns that aren’t focused on giving matronly advice. Maybe it’s a backwards progress.
Still, it’s hard to see the acrimonious outbursts of verbal violence against women as anything but intentional displays of aggression meant to terrorize us back into what some still consider our rightful state: silence and compliance.
Take this short video as an example. In it, men sit across a female sports-caster and read aloud the tweets she’s been sent. The content ranges from sexist ‘jokes’ to sexualized threats, all with the end goal of driving her out of her chosen profession and completely back into silence. The men reading appear to be shocked at the cruel and alarming content of the tweets, but that must be because they haven’t spoken with any women about their experiences on social media.
It’s well studied and documented that women face higher rates of harassment on social media, especially Twitter, with 7.1 per cent of tweets aimed at female politicians and journalists deemed “abusive or problematic”. Of course, as with everything, the numbers rise higher still when the recipient is a woman of colour, Indigenous, lesbian or bi, or gender-nonconforming.
Feminists are particularly targeted. Well-known feminist Jessica Valenti took a leave from social media after sexualized threats were made against her then-five-year-old daughter. Countless women whose names we don’t know have had to follow suit, with social media sites playing impotent when it comes to addressing credible threats of violence against women. Some abusive accounts get deleted, but users are back the next hour with a new one.
It is especially jarring when so-called male allies to women will unleash woman-hating comments against female public figures—how can a man consider himself a feminist when his go-to insult against a woman he disagrees with is ‘bitch’? It is exhausting to always be calling out the men who claim to be on our side but are so quick to use previously off-limit language to disparage a Republican woman, a Christian woman, a Karen. To paraphrase Andrea Dworkin: Feminism is the political practise of fighting male supremacy on behalf of all women, even the women you don’t like.
When it comes to having an opinion, a man is vocal, opinionated, assertive, and at worst, an asshole. But a woman is a cunt, a bitch, deserves to be raped and murdered. Women get ‘doxxed’ at a higher rate than men. (Doxxing is when your private information, or documents, are revealed the world. Addresses are made public and online threats quickly escalate). Women are still held to a higher standard when decisions like sending intimate photos are made. This action still ruins women’s careers, whereas for men, it’s a foible, it’s expected, it normalized. Boys will be boys, and women will be shamed.
Men can recover from scandals like a cat with nine lives, but women leave the public sphere at the mere threat of a scandal being released. Our very humanity is extortion material. Women’s presence in the public is dependent on a pristine persona and any real or perceived slip can cost her everything.
When it comes to different standards, certainly the left is just as guilty as the right. I have often bemoaned the fact that left eats its own before the right can even show up on the scene. Cancel culture, the atmosphere where any opinion or action that hovers outside the currently accepted (and ever in flux) hivemind is submitted to an onslaught of backlash, public censure, calls for deplatforming, and indeed, even book-burning. Debate has gone by the wayside, replaced with virtue signalling and performative allyship.
Never has this been more evident than the JK Rowling fiasco*. A woman who, when her books were released, had to use her initials to improve the odds that her book would be widely read. Even though women make up the higher percentage of readership and authorship, we are still expected to kowtow, to disappear ourselves, in order to be seen as palatable to the male audience.
JK Rowling’s essay on her stance on women’s spaces and the battle for a fulsome discussion on the clash of women’s rights and trans rights absolutely demolished any belief I may have had about our ability as a society to engage in healthy, good-faith discussion over a topic that impacts literally billions of people. JK Rowling is indeed a woman who has nothing to lose—she is proving to be ‘uncancellable’. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t being attempted.
Within the replies to her tweets supporting women’s rights, if you are unlucky enough you may be exposed to child pornography or women’s dead bodies. This is a common silencing tactic on social media and I was first exposed it to over a decade ago on 4chan, where posts made by women were flooded with these images, making it impossible to participate in discourse and often causing trauma to those who come across the horrific photos.
JK Rowling recently commented that she had to, like any good woman, ignore such tweets. Any woman with a public persona understands the battle between engaging in dialogue and silencing herself. It’s a tightrope, with the left and right on both ends of the rope, shaking it.
I’m less interested in a debate on the validity of controversial opinions as I am about the onslaught of fire and brimstone against them. The internet has never been as toxic as it is right now. Maybe it’s because women were always taught to use gender-neutral handles, never use a personal photo, and mute your mic when playing online. We are breaking those rules and facing the consequences, and people eager for an excuse to publicly excoriate women have been given the keys to the online kingdom.
I am a bit omnipresent on social media, and there is a world of difference in how I am treated when I use my real name, or a pseudonym that can still be pegged as female, or a gender-neutral or male-appearing username. You can guess which ones get the rape threats, the misogynistic comments, the spiteful, hateful, utterly cruel comments. But maybe you wouldn’t have guessed that those usernames also get the most tone-policing, the most challenges, the most concern-trolling—the subtler methods of silencing.
It’s not a mistake. Women who dare to be opinionated in public are still treated like heretics, and it’s a bit too reminiscent of the witch trials for my liking, where no matter what a woman does, she’s damned by the townspeople who are a little too gleeful to enact retribution when they see a woman step out of line.
Maybe my vision of the ‘good old days’ of the internet is a little rosy. Indeed, these days I see more solidarity between women than I’ve ever seen. We’re not just waiting for our friends to show up and back us, now there are legions of women standing united, even when we don’t completely agree. I think we can trace this to the #metoo movement, where women were legion and our experiences would not be ignored.
I don’t need the internet to be a ‘safe space’ and I question where there is any such thing. But I do want it to be an equal space, an open space, one where the first thing that comes to mind when a woman speaks hers is not a sexualized or misogynistic comment.
Women are on the internet. In fact, it’s thanks to women like Ada Lovelace and Hedy Lamarr that we have this ability at all. We aren’t going anywhere, and I’m excited to see what spaces we fearlessly take over next.
[*ED.—Members of the trans community and others have spoken out against some of the misinformation in Rowling’s essay, including details specific to Maya Forstater’s case, and have taken exception to her stance. Read more on that here. We offer this in contrast for a broader view of the controversy, and to acknowledge that there are differing opinions.]
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.