I’ll irritate most of my friends for saying this, but I’ve always found feminist writer Laurie Penny immensely enjoyable, in person and in writing. I say that as someone who is – or at least was – appalled by practically everything she says. Why “was”? Because I’ve just finished her pamphlet Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet, and it’s… well, it’s terrific.
Yes, all of the old problems are there. There’s a bit too much sodding hysteria, too much is taken for granted and too often Penny fails to realise that the struggles she describes for young women aren’t much different to those men go through – or that, where they are, there are just as vicious proxies on the cock-toting side of the fence.
But you can’t deny that the woman can turn a sentence, and that she scores a few hits. She’s entirely right when she says, for example, that men get hysterical about NSA revelations because, unlike women, they didn’t grow up being watched. By and large, boys don’t spend their formative years under anything approaching the same level of physical scrutiny as girls.
So the new surveillance culture and the rise of social software is elevating a problem women have always had and turbo-charging it. Thus the fact that “obtaining a naked or next-to-naked picture of another person gives you power over them”, the most straightforward truism in the essay, cannot ever apply as closely to men as it does to women.
The simplest compliment I can pay Cybersexism is that I wish it had been many times the length, because what it lacks in rigour it more than makes up for in vivid autobiography, and I think if more people read this before taking to the internet to hurl death threats at Laurie Penny, they might, as I will, think twice before dismissing her as a hysterical spoilt brat. They might even listen to what she has to say.
I’m less interested in the catalogue of abuse Penny has assembled – we all get hate on the internet – than I am her provocative argument that sex on the internet should not be viewed as any less real than sex IRL; that “how you fuck can be less important than how you talk about fucking”.
Perhaps for a Lefty columnist, that’s a given.
I did come away with the small but significant truth that there is a uniquely terrifying, preternatural sort of impotent rage behind a lot of anonymous male commenters, tweeters and posters on the internet that makes life as a woman in the public eye especially difficult and upsetting. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that fury, and how disquieting, disorientating and disempowering it can be.
I remain unconvinced that misogyny is unavoidably architected into anyone’s experience of the internet; I think a lot of these commentators actively seek out the worst of the internet and then masquerade as shocked – or hurt – when they find it. And I’m uncomfortable with the implication behind Penny’s argument, which is that women need special treatment, always a warning sign.
Further, I don’t see misogyny on the internet getting markedly worse: outraged female columnists banging on about their detractors’ insults are not evidence of an explosion in violent threats and abuse. Noise does not equate to research. If anything, I sense the majority of trolls are getting more timid now more of them are getting outed and rounded on by attention-seekers like Times columnist Caitlin Moran.
But, but, but. She’s got a point. We do need to think more carefully about how women are spoken to online, even if only because men are coming across as such graceless, ungallant and unchivalrous bastards.