Several days ago, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez was repeatedly subject to rape threats for her work on the Jane Austen £10 note campaign. Perez was subject to hundreds of @ mentions an hour at the height of her persecution. Perez has called upon Twitter to improve their response to this kind of abuse. Many have responded, citing the example of the twitter joke trial, that Perez was only subject to trolling, and that she should just ignore it and move on. Lots were concerned that an improved 'report abuse' function might hamper freedom of speech on social media networks. I'm here today to explain - in the simplest terms I can - why ignoring abuse is no way to solve this problem.
Sexism still exists. (boo!) It still affects men as well as women. However, it is women who are far more affected by sexism than men. Some of the effects of sexism upon women are things like: getting paid less for doing the same work. Being more likely to be unemployed than a man of the same age and educational background. Being the one in the family who has to take parental leave, even if it is your family's preference to have the father be the stay at home parent. Being highly likely to be made redundant upon your return to work from maternity leave. Being judged more on how you look than what you can do. There are more. This isn't intended to be a comprehensive list, but it'll do us for starters.
Ok, so let's move onto the worst bit. It's relevant, so stick with me. Women have a bad time in many public spaces. Sexual assault is prevalent to quite a disturbing level. When I talk about sexual assault I include: having 'compliments' shouted out of car windows at you as you walk down the street; having strangers make sexualised comments to you in the street; being stared at in an intrusive way; being followed; being shouted at; being grabbed or groped. You might be shocked to find out the extent of this. Personally, between the ages of 15 and 17, I had at least one of these things happen to me almost every time I went out of the house. It still happens to me these days, though not as often, thankfully. The worst ever one was when a complete stranger grabbed my boob in the street. I was about 16 at the time and the guy who did it skated off afterwards, laughing. Now listen. These things didn't happen to me because I am hot shit. They happened because all over the world, in all of our streets, there exist a lot of men who have internalised the belief that women's bodies are public property. In short: they think that if they like the look of it, it's their right to touch it. You with me so far? And the worst part of it is: it happens all the time.
You, reading this, might be cynical. Perhaps you think either "She's exaggerating. That doesn't happen", or perhaps that the women who suffer it somehow 'bring it on themselves'. Well, I have two responses to this. One is to ask any woman you know. Your mother, your sister, your friend, your girlfriend. I guarantee she has suffered the kind of low grade sexual assault I'm describing. And my second response is: we do not bring it on ourselves. I've been sexually assaulted while wearing baggy jumpers, paint-splattered dungarees, even on one occasion (restrain yourselves, gentlemen) a borrowed German Army surplus jacket several sizes too large. In short: It matters not how we dress. It happens anyway, and the message from our assaulters is: "We can do whatever the fuck we like to you, and it's your own fault for going around being a woman in public."
It had a wearing effect, as continued abuse does. There were days when I was genuinely reluctant to leave the house. I knew that at some stage in the day I'd likely be subject to more of the same. Please, when reading this, consider: abuse is not the fault of the victim, and there is no 'right' way to respond to it. I did not invite these things to happen to me. All I wanted was to be able to go out without worrying that some knobhead was going to try to masturbate down the back of my coat, or whatever. Simple, right? A right I should enjoy, right?
Well, the truth was, it happened so often I started to get a bit jumpy. There didn't seem to be a good way to respond to it. I often wanted to be able to ignore it, but often couldn't. Sometimes the abuse was done in such a way as to be deliberately intrusive, as a way of getting a reaction. Stuff like, a weird guy sitting too close to me on the bus, and breathing heavily. Getting up to leave would be a reaction. Looking uncomfortable would be a reaction. Anything would be a reaction, so whatever you do, the sex pest has got what he wanted. These things, which happened to me at one stage almost daily*, (THIS IS KEY SO PAY ATTENTION) made me feel like I had no right to be in a public space. The effect (KEY MESSAGE KEY MESSAGE) was to make me feel like that if I went around being a woman in public, I should be prepared to take the consequences.
I mention all this not because I think that all men do it. They don't. Many men are respectful and non-sexist and would never dream of going around grabbing a stranger's ass in a bar. But there are two important things to mention. One, this sort of abuse has a degrading effect on our ability to feel safe in public spaces. (As I mentioned above, there were many occasions when I did not feel safe in public spaces.) And two, rape jokes are a continuation of the kind of unwanted sexual comments that women suffer in their everyday lives. They're a specific kind of sexist abuse targeted at making women, as individuals and as a group, feel uncomfortable.
Rape overwhelmingly affects women far more than it does men. 1 in 3 women will be raped in their lifetimes; it is something that far less frequently happens to men. Only a dunderhead could fail to notice that, given these statistics, rape jokes are likely to be targeted specifically at women. Rape 'jokes' are used by sexists and misogynists to make women feel uncomfortable in a very specific way. Remember how often women have suffered sexual assault already - even the type you might consider 'minor'. The rape 'joke' is a continuation of street abuse. It's a way of telling women: "You have no right to be here, and I can do whatever the fuck I like to you, and it's your own fault for going around being a woman."
If you want to improve the world, I'd suggest that the way to do it is not by trying to protect anybody's freedom to make a rape 'joke'. Instead, I'd urge you to think about the implications of preserving sexists' ability to intimidate and threaten women, as individuals and as a group. Do you really want misogynists and sexists to be able to say whatever the fuck they like to your girlfriend, your friend, your sister, your daughter? A rape 'joke' is specific - it's targeted to women, done as a way of keeping women in their place, and making us feel uncomfortable; like we have no right to be here. So seriously, if you want to uphold anybody's rights - think about the rights of women to feel safe.
*Gentlemen, if you are shocked by this and want to help, there is a lot you can do to become an ally of women. A good place to start would be by supporting and listening to the women who surround you, and by challenging sexism where you see it. This article on 101 ways to become an ally to women is an excellent starting point.
Fun pop quiz: When is it ever ok for me to grab the ass of a strange woman I do not know, and have never spoken to? Disclaimer: she has a really nice ass and she looks the type to respond well to my advances.)
1. When Cheryl Cole comes back as a judge on the X-Factor.
2. When George Lucas makes another Star Wars film, and the Star Wars film that he makes is as good as The Empire Strikes Back, and the film stars Alec Guinness playing the part of his own Dad.
3. When Chris Nolan releases a sequel to Inception titled Inception II: Running Away Through Treacle and the film stars Chuck Norris, Danny Dyer, and Jason Statham.
(Answer: any or all of the above!!!!!)
Pop quiz question two: But what about if I want to shout a nice compliment like 'nice tits!' or 'give us a smile, love' out of a car window? I mean, she looks a bit like she could do with cheering up, and women love that sort of thing, don't they? So when should I try that?
1. When Erasure release their long-awaited LP of Millwall FC football songs.
2. When Oasis reunite and release an album of Beatles covers.
3. When The Beatles reunite and release an album of Oasis covers.
Answer: any or all of the above!!!!!!!)
Currently reading: The Martian Chronicles Ray Bradbury