Can women speak? In light of a recent video from Just Not Sports, featuring sportswriters Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, a large portion of the Internet would seem inclined to vote no.
In the video, men are invited to read aloud comments that Spain and DiCaro have received about their writing online. The men’s expressions fade into horror as they read lines like “I hope you get raped again” and “You need to be hit in the head with a hockey puck and killed.” It’s both heartening and profoundly sad to find that the men in the video are shocked by the violence of these comments. After all, it’s common knowledge–among women on the Internet, anyway–that women regularly become targets for vitriolic abuse when they dare to express any opinion whatsoever.
Rape and death threats against women who speak in public often come to dominate public conversations more than the initial points they were trying to make. This makes a twisted kind of sense: often, the initial remarks in question are innocuous, and the response wildly out of proportion. We should all be concerned about a world in which we don’t pay attention to what women say until their physical safety is on the line.
Take another recent case, in which women received rape threats over cupcakes. The Australian University of Queensland’s student union decided to demonstrate the gender pay gap by holding a bake sale, in which cupcakes were priced according to buyers’ comparative income. A white man, for example, would pay a full dollar for a cupcake. But a woman of color in the legal profession, who would make an estimated 55 cents on that white man’s dollar, would only pay 55 cents.
It’s hard to imagine why paying forty-five cents extra for a handful of cake would drive anyone into an apocalyptic rage—unless you’ve used the Internet before. The news of the bake sale was greeted on a student Facebook page with protests that the university was “engaging in conduct that’s blatantly discriminatory against men.” Soon, news of the dread Man-Hating Cupcakes had spread to uglier corners of the Internet. The event organizers received a deluge of threatening or hateful direct messages and e-mails, along with some delightful memes featuring pictures of beaten women cowering in front of male abusers.
The pattern of innocuous protest and violent response is in no way unique to this incident. British activist Caroline Criado-Perez successfully petitioned to have a woman’s face added to the ten-pound note. She was inundated with death threats along the lines of “I will find you, and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do. You’re pathetic. Kill yourself. Before I do.” (Two of her harassers were later sentenced to jail time, leaving us with the heartwarming feminist lesson that it was actually a woman who’d told Criado-Perez she would subject her to “worse than rape.”)
In the United States, voting for Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders—or even criticizing Sanders at all—is routinely met with a barrage of insults along the lines of “why haven’t you killed yourself yet,” despite the fact that Clinton and Sanders agree on most points. Even the most seemingly trivial critique you can name—that video games might be a wee bit of a boys’ club—spawned GamerGate, an anti-feminist hate movement so extreme and ruthless that its targets have had SWAT teams summoned to their home under false pretenses.
These reprisals for public feminist speech are disproportionate. Threats of rape and murder are disproportionate by nature; no one, anywhere, deserves them. But it’s worth questioning why people seem to automatically resort to the most extreme forms of violent language available when women do anything, up to and including selling baked goods. People don’t react this intensely unless they feel threatened. And I’d argue that the problem here is not what women say. It’s that they’re saying it in public.
Society is waking up from centuries of cultural conditioning that tell us that women are supposed to be silent, deferential, centered on the needs of others rather than themselves, and, above all, private. In fact, you could argue that the history of feminism is the history of women becoming public. In order for the UK to put a “woman of accomplishment” on its bill, women had to have famous accomplishments. In order for a US presidential primary to include shrieking rage at a female candidate, women had to gain enough overt political power within the system that one of them could run. To have systemic abuse of female sportswriters, women had to get hired by newspapers; to confront the pay gap, we had to get used to the idea of women in the modern workplace. And so on.
Activism, which includes everything from writing online to running for office, is not just a matter of substance. It’s also an overt attempt to claim power and influence in the public sphere. As such, the threats and emotional abuse aimed at women who express opinions in public work on two levels. First, they’re an attempt to destabilize and silence women by making silence feel safer than talking. Second, such threats are also an attempt to re-direct conversations away from the issues that women were trying to discuss in the first place.
If you drown out every Facebook post about wage inequality in venom, threats, and intentionally shocking images of women being beaten, sooner or later, people are going to be talking about the abuse instead of unequal pay. Abuse isn’t just wrong, it’s Derailing 101: If you can’t prove someone wrong on the points they’re discussing, you can throw a fit that prevents anyone from discussing that topic.
When women who are working for change have to devote a large portion of their time to dealing with, fending off, or discussing harassment, they have precious little time or energy left over to devote to the other problems they want to fix. Their harassers seem to know all this—to be counting on it, in fact. And that shows how much further we still have to go.