Women Online: Catch 22
Welcome to 2016, kids. The internet is everywhere, in our pockets and in our hands. Being a human who puts things on the internet opens up all sorts of possibilities - but there's one sort I'd like to write about today, and it's specific to being a woman. Are you nodding your head already? Do you know what I'm going to say?
That's right. Sexual harassment.
If this is something that's affected you badly then please be aware that I will be pulling no punches with this post, and I don't want you to plough ahead without being aware of that. I'm not explicit, but I am to the point.
I would also like to acknowledge that I am aware it's not just women who are harassed online, nor is it always a male harassing a female - but this is largely the norm from what I've seen and it's certainly all I have experienced personally. I write from a personal perspective and welcome constructive discussion that can expand and inform my view.
It started with a photograph. Just me, smiling happily. Captioned something about the weather or where I bought my dress or what I was doing that day: inane. Nothing you'd expect anyone to find provocative (that's a whole other subject for another day!). And then the comment popped up. And then another. On other photos. On my twitter feed. In my DMs.
I don't need to get graphic - your imagination will do enough, I'm sure. They ranged from the casual 'baby' 'cutie' lechy type stuff right through to occasional things that were apparently cut from porn.
I'd seen this happen to other women, and I deplored it, of course. But I'd naively assumed that because I wasn't famous, or a lingerie blogger, or a known activist of any kind (this was pre my involvement with The Body Confidence Revolution) that it was highly unlikely to happen to me. But that's the thing about sexual harassment - it doesn't discriminate on that basis. And why would it?
None of these women were 'asking for it' in any way; they weren't asking for men's opinions on their bodies, their sexuality; they weren't asking to be addressed as a possession, a plaything, asked to send photos, wear this, do that. That's the whole thing about harassment - by its nature it is unasked for, in all its forms.
Rachel Gee Bee, a blogger from New Zealand whom I've been following for a while, summed it up for me last week when things had got particularly ridiculous. 'Welcome to having a social media presence. Unfortunately.' Great - so this is the norm, apparently. Rachel, along with many others, has to deal with this kind of thing on a daily basis.
Courting Drama or Making a Necessary Statement?
So the question is this: when I call out a man for making sexualising statements toward me online, am I just "making a fuss"? I'd like to mention a recent example, in which I posted a screenshot on my Instagram of messages I had received from a complete stranger. My intent was to call attention to their inappropriate behaviour and make it clear that I would not simply allow that behaviour to remain private.
Now, some have pointed out to me that this is unnecessary. I could just ignore them, block them, and get on with my life. What harm would it do? None, right?
Ignoring individual messages or comments is one thing. But those individual messages and comments are small parts of a bigger picture - one in which the men who behave like this are not cautioned, not contradicted, not called out and not held to account. How can we expect to see an improvement in behaviour if the wrong behaviour is ignored?
Perhaps my chosen method was blunt. It certainly did not respect the privacy of the person who sent the messages. Then again, they didn't respect my privacy or indeed my position as anything more than a sexualised object when they messaged me in the first place. Therefore I consider that when people have a go at me for how I handle these things - and they do - those people clearly don't see the bigger picture.
The Catch 22
Here's where the real fun begins (and yes, I'm being sarcastic). In my experience and from observing dozens of others, women who publicly talk about the sexual harassment they experience online are vilified for talking about it. They are told to sit down and shut up. They are told they should expect it. They are told to lighten up. They are told they're an attention-seeking bitch who deserves it.
At best, the 'what do you expect' camp indicates a lack of awareness. At worst, the ones who jump to attack are possibly perpetrators of the same behaviour themselves, and are angry someone has dared to contradict their right to say whatever they want to whatever stranger takes their fancy.
So we end up with this catch 22 situation. If we stay quiet about sexual harassment online we are still being made subject to it and nothing changes, but if we speak up we are stirring the hornets' nest. Some days it's like fighting the Hydra, with three new heads growing up from every one you despatch. Frankly, it's tiring, demoralising, and there are times I consider quitting being 'public' in any sense online on account of it. But I'm not one for giving in.
Could I handle it, and myself, better sometimes? Absolutely. But is my response really the major issue in play here? Not really.
Where I Stand
A woman who makes public the harassment she receives in private is not a "bitch". She is not "over-reacting". She is not "making a scene". These are reductive, dismissive responses to a very real problem. Sexual harassment online does not manifest itself in any more than words and pictures - which is more than unpleasant enough - and it's almost as if because it isn't in person, people think it's less offensive or dangerous.
I suppose the classic thing for me to say here would be, what if your mum/sister/girlfriend/daughter etc were on the receiving end of this harassment? Yeah it's a trope that gets trotted out every day, but for a reason - we're trying to personalise the situation. Because at the end of the day, this is about people. It's an issue of basic human decency and respect. And I wish I knew how to more effectively make that point from my little corner of the internet.
meme by David Bates