After I received my first online rape threat, Caroline Criado-Perez was the first person to reach out to me publicly. "Are you ok? I've been there," she confided. As the co-founder of The Women's Room and a prolific feminist campaigner, she had certainly been there – the target of all sorts of sexist-driven online abuse. But nothing would prepare her for what ensued after she successfully lobbied the British government to put a woman on one of its banknotes. At first, the messages were encouraging and positive, but they quickly escalated into something else entirely.
After the announcement that Jane Austen would be on the £10 bill, Criado-Perez was flooded with a slew of violent rape threats on Twitter. Although one would think equal gender representation on bank notes is a pretty benign issue, the abusive tweets she received were hair-raising. The bold feminist campaigner received as many as 50 rape threats an hour, probing her to ask her Twitter followers to screen-shot them because she couldn't even keep up with monitoring all the hate herself. "For me, the really shocking thing is how this has happened over such a tiny, tiny thing. We asked for there to be a woman on a bank note, how does asking that even annoy someone? Annoy someone so much they send a barrage of rape threats? It's kinda gobsmacking," Criado-Perez told Huffington Post UK.
The sad reality is that if you're a woman on the Internet, this sort of gender-based harassment is no anomaly.
Withstanding rape threats has become a rite of passage for female writers or personalities, just as making them as become a right of passage for cowardly and anonymous misogynist trolls. If you’re a woman who happens to possess opinions, and write about feminist issues (god forbid!), chances are you will be violently trolled. As Owen Jones from The Independent notes, "The attacks on Criado-Perez are essentially about attempting to drive women from public life. Nothing infuriates misogynists more than a woman with an opinion, particularly those prepared to challenge publicly the status quo and prevailing views."
For the record, the issue is not that women receive more criticism than men, but rather that it comes in more violent and vitriolic forms. Men will be attacked for their opinion, whereas women will be threatened because they have opinions.
Fellow PolicyMic writer Soraya Chemaly talks about the Internet being an unsafe space for women — the "digital safety gap" perpetuated by the systematic harassment of women online. The data supports this claim. For instance, one study showed that female usernames in chat forums received 25 times more abuse than male ones. In an experiment conducted by the University of Maryland, researchers found that "Female usernames, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day." So all else equal, if you're a woman online, you're going to be on the receiving end of more hate.
In her essay, Chemaly explains that women dominate social media (53% of Twitter users are female), but are still treated like a minority in these spaces. "Public space has traditionally been an entirely male sphere. It's only recently that this has begun to change. But, like street harassment and the threat of violence that give it its suppressive power, namely rape and physical assault, this kind of online abuse is largely tolerated. Having an opinion, as Laurie Penny put it, is the 'short skirt of the Internet.'"
Emma Barnett at The Telegraph exposed the disturbing psychology of your average woman-hating trolls. She courageously interviewed one and asked him how he would feel if his mother (potentially the only woman he would respect) was the target of rape threats like Criado-Perez has been in the last few days. Barnett said that his answer defied belief. "She would know these men wouldn’t actually come and rape her. They don’t mean it. Rape is a metaphor," he (actually) answered.
This troll's disturbing comments reveal what Soraya Chemaly has already noted before: Rape has a purpose. As the troll disturbingly admits, the rape threat serves as a way to shut that women up and put her back in her place. It gives a no-name loser living in the crevices of his mom's basement a sense of power over a prolific female writer because he can rape her, or at least scare her into believing he can. Why does he keep doing it?
Because he can. He keeps doing it because often he never faces the consequences. We tell women to "stop feeding the trolls" as if it was their responsibility to prevent the abuse in the first place.
Women will not be equal until they are free from the threat of rape. The fact that it's virtually impossible to be a woman on the internet without being threatened with violence shows just how unequal the virtual space still is. For women whose careers take place online, social networking like Twitter have become an occupational hazard.
Criado-Perez's experience was horrific, but it wasn't in vain. Her tale launched an online campaign on Change.org to pressure Twitter to take hate speech and abuse seriously. The petition already has more than 70,000 signatures, and Twitter has since announced a new "report abuse" button. A 21-year-old man in Manchester has also been arrested in connection with rape threats to Criado-Perez.
Will this make a difference?
Criado-Perez isn't sure. She says that the abuse button only works for people getting one violent threat, but when you're getting them by the hundreds (or thousands), as many other female writers like Zerlina Maxwell or Lindy West have, the technology is still ineffectual.
Whatever system we come up with, putting an end to gender-based online harassment will require a major shift in attitudes and practices. Women won't fight trolling with complacence. Men won't fight harassment by remaining silent. Trolls will keep trolling if they don't get caught.
Sign the Change.org petition today and tell Twitter that it needs a responsible strategy to deal with hate-speech and violent threats to protect its users.