Shouldn’t we be pleased that men who abuse women online are being held to account?
Twitter’s UK boss, Tony Wang, made a public apology to women who had received rape threats and death threats on the site this week. So what’s the appropriate response as a man?
Do we join the campaign to tackle misogyny online? Do we champion free speech and tell the women to “grow a pair” or do we say, “hang on a minute, what about the men”?
Before you jump to your own conclusion, let’s have a look at what’s happening behind the headlines. There is an emerging “fourth wave” of young, social media-savvy, feminist campaigners in the UK who are successfully using social media to challenge British institutions they believe need to change.
One successful campaign recently saw the Bank of England hastily announce plans to put the novelist Jane Austen on a banknote to ensure women had better representation on the nation’s currency.
The young woman behind the campaign received rape and death threats which sparked a new campaign demanding a “report abuse” button on twitter.
Members of Parliament got involved, celebrities backed a 24 hour #twittersilence dubbed a #trolliday and male suspects were arrested by the police.Then, while taking a well-earned break from Twitter, the “commentariat” got busy sharing its opinions about online abuse.
Some have said that misogyny is a social problem that can’t be solved by social media. The US tech journalist, Quinn Norton, for example, said:
“The social problem is that men are raised to hate women and technology is not going to fix that. Just shutting down the voices we don’t like doesn’t make the sentiments go away.”
Toby Young in the right-wing Daily Telegraph said that simply shutting down the voices of trolls was exactly what people should do in most cases. He illustrated the point by sharing some of the personal twitter abuse he’d experienced from fellow journalist Caitlin Moran who’d called him a “total C***” and wished that Germaine Greer would run a sword through his face. How ironic, Young pointed out, that it was Moran who was now proposing the 24-hour boycott of Twitter, to highlight its poor policing of abusive tweets.
And this is why it can be tricky to know how to take a position on online abuse as a man. Women are clearly not incapable of hurling abuse and men can obviously be the target. So while it’s easy to condemn a man making rape threats on Twitter, the ease with which we buy into the broader “stop men abusing women” narrative may depend on our personal ideology.
John Niven in Scotland’s Daily Record was in no doubt what the left-wing response should be:
“This is a men-on-women issue. Guys are pretty much doing it to the girls. Which, thankfully, is where our good friend socialism steps forward. Because this will not stand for those of us who are socialists. We are all equal.”
While Ed West in the conservative Spectator magazine said it wasn’t about misogyny, it was about manners and longed for a gentler world:
“The women-hating trolls do not show that society has a problem with misogyny…the most pleasant places to live are those where…men in particular have an incentive to be viewed as gentlemen – a word sadly missing from this debate about the treatment of women.”
Interestingly the UK edition of GQ magazine offered a new perspective when they revealed some of the extraordinary abuse they receive from One Direction fans who were offended by a cover shoot of singer Harry Styles.
Much like the offensive tweets directed at feminist campaigners, the online abuse of GQ’s staff included death threats and threats of sexual violence, with calls for all the men who work for the magazine to be castrated.
The abuse was certainly shocking and graphic, but somehow seemed trivial when compared with the rape threats against named women. Maybe it’s because the GQ journalists weren’t targeted individually or maybe it’s simply that One Direction are such a “safe” band that we don’t deem their fans to be a serious threat?
Niall Paterson at Sky News came closer to getting inside the male experience of abuse, recounting what happened when he broke a story that damaged Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the 2010 General Election.
“A female tweeter I didn’t follow…tweeted that I was a ****” he said, “an interesting word for a self-confessed feminist to use. I replied to the profanity….My words were immediately re-tweeted. For the next 24 hours I was subjected to abuse and threats of violence from many of this writer’s 70,000-odd followers. Despite a reporter’s thick skin, I’ll confess to a sleepless few nights. I’d never received such constant abuse and it certainly affected me emotionally.”
I made reference to Paterson’s experience in a comment piece for the left-wing Guardian newspaper and he later tweeted me saying: “interesting and brave piece, certainly comes closer to a conclusion than my witterings on the topic”.
My conclusion was simply this, if you cast a wide enough net you soon discover that online abuse is not limited by gender. It seems like a blindingly obvious thing to say but when people respond to this problem by saying “this is a men-on-women issue” and that “men are brought up to hate women”, it becomes essential that men say “and what about the men?”
Tim Reed, a commentator, below the line, on Ed West’s Spectator article summed up the issue for men as follows:
“Women’s groups have been very adept at ‘genderising’ any and all problems that affect females, and are able to exploit the media’s obsession with women-specific issues. As the current Twitter abuse issue shows, they have asserted that it is almost always women that receive these kinds of comments. On the other hand, abuse aimed at men is assumed to be non-gendered, receives no attention, and is usually considered fair game. Complain, and you’ll never be far from a ‘man up’ style dismissal.”
For me, Tim’s comments really got to the heart of problem from a male perspective. In a conversation where it’s presumed that men are causing a problem for women then there’s only two acceptable roles for men—either being a perpetrator or being a man who stands up and speaks out against male perpetrators.
All the men I’ve spoken to are happy to condemn rape threats and welcome men being held to account. And many would like to see the bigger picture—what about women abusing men, men abusing men and women abusing women? It isn’t easy to talk about these variations of online abuse — or any abuse for that matter. So what stops us?
Is it male stoicism? When the hashtag #KillAllMen began trending on twitter, Michael McKenna at Ask Men summed up the male response:
“It’s a direct provocation, and something of a mass movement, but it’s also too crazy to pay much attention to.”
Certainly men’s willingness to not take some things too seriously plays its part and there are also certain taboos at play in the gender discourse. As the feminist blogger Portia Smart wrote recently:
“Abuse also happens online by women against women. And yet…feminism is deathly quiet on the issue. The anger & volume that we collectively use to denounce male violence is noticeably absent when it comes to women that abuse.”
Earlier this year, Jackson Katz’s TEDx talk—violence against women, it’s a men’s issue-–went viral. It’s an excellent talk that widens the conversation about male perpetrators and female victims to include the men and boys who are victims of men’s violence.
But watching through the eyes of men and boys who have been abused by other men, we remain an afterthought and as for men and boys who have been abused by women, our experience was completely overlooked. As Portia Smart said, “the volume that we collectively use to denounce male violence is noticeably absent when it comes to women that abuse.”
One place this isn’t true is amongst anti-feminist men’s rights activists who work hard to create wider awareness of the issue of women who abuse men and boys. And yet the volume of conversations about male victims of men’s violence and abuse amongst these activists is notably quieter.
So where do men who are concerned about all victims of violence and abuse stand when people speak out about men’s abuse of women? Do we get behind them? Do we leave them to get on with it? Do we say ‘what about the men’? Do we say what about everybody? From my perspective, holding men who threaten women with rape to account for their actions is a welcome move and at the same time we need to ask ourselves this very important question—why are we collectively more tolerant of violence against men and boys?
Until we ask that question, the majority of gendered conversations about violence will continue to focus on men abusing women and when it comes to violence and abuse, online or off, that isn’t the only gender angle we need to focus on.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Craig Sunter