Monday 26 August 2013

Review - Cybersexism by Laurie Penny

Misogyny. No other word can capture the avalanche of abuse that was heaped upon Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard and other women just under a month ago. It was frightening and disturbing. Misogyny, after all, is one of those things official society thought was dealt with in the dim and distant. If women marched and protested in the 1970s, then the Spice Girls and Girl Power in the 1990s signalled women's integration into society as equals. It was done. Women were happy working, raising families, and shopping. Just like men. The rape threats and violent language directed at the aforementioned has forced society into having a conversation it didn't think was needed, and ask why a minority of men work to bully, harass and hound women who do have a public platform.

Growing up at the tail end of the Analogue Age, I didn't go on the Internet until I was 18 and at university. Back then, in the mid-1990s, it was a clunky thing. All you could really do was skip from one website to another, sign up to email lists, join an intentional community or (text-based) role-playing outfit, chat, or, horror of horrors, subscribe to Usenet groups. But for all that it promised something new. It was a digital frontier thinly peopled by a brave few pioneers and homesteaders. At this point, just as hype about the Internet was building in wider culture, cyberspace - a term that barely gets used any more - was a place of hopes and dreams. True, even then there was a moralising undercurrent about the ubiquity of porn, but in the main the emerging internet culture flowed with utopian naivete. The Internet offered disembodied forms of communication where our gendered, colour-coded bodies no longer mattered. We could relate to each other as human beings and not as appendages of the categories society liked to slot us into. It offered a promise where gender, sexuality and race were completely up for redefinition. Or at least went the claims of early philosophers and academic cheerleaders. Digital sociology and cultural studies had a soft job of tracking and reporting on the negotiation and emergence of new identities, new tribes.

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. Reading Laurie Penny's latest book, Cybersexism, I was struck by the very different online lives we had, 10 years apart, at the same age. She writes the Internet "was a place where I could be my 'real' self, rather than the self imposed by the ravening maw of girl-world that seemed to be opening to swallow me up." (p.6) The 10 year difference meant Laurie was maturing when the formerly clear-cut division between online and offline was blurring. More and more, participation in the spaces the Internet afforded required users collapse the distinction between the two. Laurie credits LiveJournal for learning "not just how to write, but how to speak and listen, how to understand my own experience and raise my voice" (p.9). But being online now requires that one comes out of the 'gender closet', and as a woman with something to say, one risks becoming fair game for misogynist attacks. For example, recalling a journo party a couple of years ago she mentions how a young man "in an overstuffed M&S suit" let her know the website he worked for had acquired some photos from her Facebook profile, photos that were of the playful, semi-nude and ever-so-slightly risque kind. They were going to publish them. Why would someone go out of their way to acquire juvenile pictures, and then use them in such a way to threaten, belittle and intimidate if it wasn't about men feeling they had power over a woman?

This is just an example of how patriarchal social relations conspire to keep women in their place. For years, the press and successive governments have warned parents, young women, and girls about the dangers of grooming, of harassment and sexualisation that awaits at the end of a mouse click. There's always a horror story that can be told, or rumours related of slut-shaming websites that will destroy a girl's reputation forever. Social media's dominant platforms - Facebook and Twitter - are technologies of open surveillance. The possibility of being watched, at any time, by a parent, a teacher, a boss, a police officer, or a misogynistic troll is ever present. This is Bentham's Panopticon writ large, the ever-present potential of getting seen and therefore caught out. Hence certain habits are inculcated, a certain conduct becomes the way to behave. And speaking up as a woman about politics and gender, that definitely is not acceptable. In this respect, the new surveillance technologies are a mere extension of the kind of scrutiny women's bodies and behaviour have always attracted. Though, in quite an apposite point, Laurie notes that surveillance technology has brought home to men how they too are now surveilled in the same way.

Naturally, any discussion of cybersexism cannot ignore pornography. Of it, Laurie notes "online misogyny, like any other misogyny, is about power, resentment and frustration, and not about sexual overstimulation, although it can be sexually expressed" (p.16). Therefore Internet porn isn't inherently sexist, though many of the tropes it features are congruent with rape culture. Interestingly, while Laurie rejects differentiating between online and "real" sexuality she notes that the corporates who dominate the web are terrified of allowing porn slip onto its networks. Hence for anyone active with social media and who uses the Internet for sexual activity, there has to be a split between the public-facing performances of self and the other, however that is lived out. Similarly, attempts to regulate the Internet in the name of Protecting Our Children From Sick Filth lets patriarchy off the hook. Banning it, or splitting porn away into a twilight existence prevents a public conversation from developing about sex in the Internet age, and in particular questioning the misogynistic degradation of women in a lot of mainstream het porn. It seems the only "polite" conversation about porn that is permissible is when a performer contracts HIV.

Women therefore are expected to behave in a certain way, and how misogyny can frame women's depiction in porn is taboo - at best it's a private matter, and at worst porn in general is something to crusade against. It is as if Internet culture has drawn a veil over women's behaviour and women's bodies. So when a woman is "unwomanly" enough to draw back that veil and uses a public platform to campaign on something as relatively innocuous as women's representation on banknotes, they're asking for it. The storm of sexist hate that fell on Caroline Criado-Perez's shoulders came as a troubling wake up call for everyone on the left. I had known about instances of misogynistic bullying of women online in the past. Indeed, Laurie herself had previously written about it. But the volume and extremity of the abuse was something else, and I think came as a deep shock to many - women and men both. However, by making itself visible it has galvanised a pro-feminist backlash against it. Bigotry, usually hidden away in whispers or behind closed doors, has come into the open. It has provided a handy focal point to rally against.

The big question, of course, is how to go about it. Cybersexism, though readily identifiable, is a dispersed series of memes, tropes, and attitudes. They are not a series of wrong ideas that can be sorted out by a civilised one-to-one over Skype. Online misogyny is rooted in some (young) men's responses to how masculinity is lived and experienced, in particular the gradual but real erosion of gendered privileges associated with it. Addressing what I understand by a "crisis" of masculinity (and its attendant social pathologies, including this) is beyond the scope of Laurie's book. But the suggestion she does make is, despite not having any illusions in its own problematic relationship to gender and masculinity, the exploration of an alliance between feminism and geek culture. In general, geek culture does value personal autonomy and freedom from censorship. If it can be shown that those values are shared values, and that cybersexism presents a fundamental threat to them then feminists might have a powerful ally that can root out misogyny. After all, Anonymous has form unmasking hate pedlars, such as this charmer.

Cybersexism is a short book packed with insights about the recoding of gender in the digital age, up to and including male privilege, rape culture, and trophy wife syndrome. It's also a book about women's appreciation of the opportunities the Internet offers and how patriarchy's misogynist excrescences tries to deny them to half of the population. And as well as all of these, it's a call to arms. Laurie's is an important contribution to the 'new' feminism, and stands every chance of becoming an influential one.

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Anonymous said...

Good post - I'll be interested to read the book. You only have to look at the #womensequalityday hashtag trending at the moment to see examples of what you're on about in this post. I think after a few years on the net the ire raised by feminism online generally falls into four categories - "You are prejudiced yourself as you should be a humanist/what about men's rights" "Get in the kitchen/make me a sandwich etc" "You are a dangerous censor and an enemy of freedom and independent thought" and the type you're writing about here, "I'm going to harm you/sexually violate you". Obviously the last kind is by far the worst but I suppose the omnipresence and repetitiveness ofthe other stuff has a drip drip effect.

Also, the post reminds me of the old days in David Bell's cyberculture letures. I've still got the book somewhere!


Phil said...

If I'd had the notes to hand I might've said something more about cybercultural studies and the like! Digital sociology, however, is becoming fashionable and it's something I want to look into more. I just hope it's got beyond the naive theorising I found when I first undertook a literature review of it.

Anonymous said...

You should see the avalanche of abusive shit dished out to men online.

I don't blame 'porn' culture for this anti social behavior but shopping culture, the consumerist culture. It breeds this kind of idiocy and infantilism. And guess what, you can't blame men for shopping culture, which is why you have to put it down to porn.

Phil said...

Erm, if you read the piece it explicitly states that porn is *not* the source of misogynistic behaviour. Rather, Laurie argues it is a means by which sexism is exercised - a position I agree with, incidentally.

Anonymous said...

I am rejecting the cybersexism argument, therefore rejecting porn has anything to do with this whatsoever and putting the whole thing down to consumerism and the shopping culture. You make the mistake of looking at male activities and assuming sexism, while ignoring female activities. Shopping culture has more influence on sexism and the general condition of people than porn culture, and comparing the former to the latter is like comparing an ocean to a puddle.

The fact you even mentioned it, but didn't mention the grotesque consumerism that surrounds us like a vast ocean, tells me you are tilting at windmills. To quote the movie, you cannot handle the truth.

Phil said...

Your fixation with the porn ignores the wider point the review makes about the surveillance of women. Besides, like porn, consumer culture and the use of women's bodies to sell things is the symptom of deeper inequalities refracted through culture.

I don't know why you think your argument is so profound. It's ABC for anyone who remotely cares about gender inequality.