Sticks and Stones

Learning a new word can be a powerful experience: a thing or idea that has been lurking at the edge of your awareness suddenly takes shape, called into existence by the solidity of a name. This is captured beautifully in Fun Home, as we follow the young Alison Bechdel’s dictionary discoveries. Masturbation; orgasm; lesbian. There they are in the dictionary: she is not the only one. Unfortunately, the realities revealed are not always so joyous. My new word this week is troll. No, not those beady-eyed, punk-haired, plastic folk from the ’90s – how inoffensive they were. A troll, I have learned, is a person who abuses others online. It’s a verb, too: wikipedia defines trolling as posting “inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages,” while the Urban Dictionary cuts to the chase and calls it “being a prick on the internet because you can.”

[Trigger warning: I’ll quote some of this “trolling” below]

I’d never heard this term 7 days ago, but I’ve spent a lot of reading about them since the New Statesman published a piece by Helen Lewis Hasetely last week about the abuse routinely experienced by women who write online. Misogynist trolls are a special clan, and a rather large one at that. Arguing that “ there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online”, Lewis Hasetely recalls some of her own experiences and then offers the floor to 9 other female bloggers, each of whom has a catalogue of incidents to draw from.

Kate Smurthwaite, of cruellablog, quotes from a troll who recently began “IF THIS TRASH TALKING K*NT HAD HER F*CKNG, TONGUE RIPPED OUT OF HER SUCK-HOLE…”, before commenting, in a brilliant aside, “I won’t correct the spelling or grammar, that would seem odd”. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the language that women are commonly subjected to, Smurthwaite links this trolling to the pervasively misogynist nature of internet porn. Cath Elliot recalls “graphic descriptions detailing precisely how certain implements should be shoved into one or more of my various orifices”. Rape threats seem to be the bread-and-butter of the misogynist troll, and several writers have disclosed that they have received such threats in messages that included their home address.

This abuse, almost universally sexualised, seems to descend upon women writers regardless of the content or ideological stance of the blogger: Dawn foster concludes from her experience of threats and harassment that just “being a woman on the internet seem[s] to be enough to anger people.” While many women writers are decried as “sluts” and “slags”, catholic blogger Caroline Farrow, who describes her politics as “right-of-centre”, is condemned as “uptight and sexually repressed”: “I am often told how my mouth would be put to better use giving fellatio or that […] my defence of conservative values stems from a deep-seated need to be anally penetrated.”

I have no first-hand experience of trolling, but reading women’s accounts of being victimised hit a very personal nerve. I toyed with the idea of blogging for a long time before starting Lipstick and Teeth. There were pros and cons, and certainly degree of procrastination, but the main thing holding me back was fear. I was afraid because I’d noticed how vicious people can be to one another online and the hateful, personal attacks that women, in particular, are regularly subject to.

Technology has no morality in and of itself, and I’ve been reluctant to infer that the internet has caused people to be nastier. I was, though, aware that the anonymity afforded by online communication gives carte blanche to those wishing to dispense with the level of civility generally required for face-to-face interaction. Reading comments ranging from the casually rude to those that seem to bubble with a violent energy millimetres below the surface had made me question whether I was thick-skinned enough to blog. There’s been a wealth of articles and posts over the last week, with countless women sharing the regularity and vehemence of the hostility and threats they receive. While I have in the past found posted comments chilling, the fierce abuse and absolute abhorrence of women in this kind of trolling (most of which goes unpublished as it is unapproved, moderated out, or sent in private messages) shocked me to my core.

Realising just what women writers are up against made me feel at first justified in the fear that initially deterred me from blogging: that dark, nebulous force I’d been afraid of has a name, is real, and is scarier than I’d been able to imagine. In the original New Statesman piece, freelance political writer Eleanor O’Hagan argues that “misogynistic abuse is an attempt to silence women” and illustrates that it works – explaining how she has “watered down” her opinions for publication, and now avoids writing about feminism almost entirely in order to reduce the amount of hatred that she suffers. The fact that this terrorising of women works, effectively shuts women up, and almost deterred me from writing at all, fills me with rage and sadness in equal measure.

It’s been a strange week for my relationship with the internet. It feels like a less safe place, but also a more exciting one. The speed with which new pieces on this topic have appeared has been invigorating; writers’ readiness to disclose their personal experiences inspiring. I keep thinking about the Speak-Out movement in the 1970s: rape survivors talking to others about what they had been through. I feel that this week I’ve been witness to individual acts of courage and a collective show of strength. Following links from one blog to another, seeing women bounce off one another’s ideas, debate, encourage, and build, has made the internet feel like a true network, and has brought home a sense of the web’s immense capacity for facilitating constructive, empowering communication.

A blogger who wished to remain anonymous shared that she hasn’t received much abuse, and explains “I think a major factor in my avoidance of such abuse so far is that I am not particularly high-profile”. I have not yet been the victim of a troll, but if I keep writing and keep acquiring readers, it seems that I inevitably will one day. I’d really like to live in a world where receiving rape threats is not the marker of being a high-profile female writer. In the meantime, I’ll draw inspiration from the thousands of women who keep on writing.

Dykes on Mikes (to watch out for)

I was on Pride Live again this Monday – how can I resist when they keep asking me to talk about books? This time the spotlight was on Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, creator of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For I was introduced to Fun Home earlier this year through a London lesbian bookclub of which I am a very-part-time member. It’s a memoir in graphic novel form which explores a surreal and macabre childhood, the joys and perils of coming out, and the ultimate skeleton in the family closet. You can hear me musing about it here. My bit starts at around 41 mins in. Enjoy!

We’re (actually) All In This Together

An Essex County Council report on bullying has generated headlines this week by documenting the experience of pupils “being told to act less gay […] as teachers felt they were making themselves a target for bullies.” The report, which drew on testimonies from students gathered at a conference, records other victims being advised to “wear their hair differently” and, perhaps most depressingly of all, summarises: “Pupils wanted teachers to be more accepting of difference”.

Gay rights campaigner and Colchester Labour Party chairman Jordan Newell was reported to be “shocked”. In the “appalled” sense, I’m right there with you, Jordan; but surprised? Sadly not. The School Report, Stonewall‘s 2007 research into the experiences of LGB pupils in Britain, showed that over half the young people interviewed had heard teachers or other staff make homophobic comments, while 30% identified adults as the perpetrators of homophobic bullying at their schools. Quotes from pupils included in the report suggest that the “act less gay” mantra is not exclusive to Essex. One pupil recalls that the “teacher said it was my fault for being open”; another was told by a school librarian that she’d caused the bullying by “admitting” her bisexuality. The research suggests that just 7% of teachers consistently challenge homophobic language when they hear it.

Clearly there is a spectrum, of which teachers who are outwardly homophobic themselves are (terrifyingly) a part. There are also amazing, queer-positive teachers doing fantastic work to keep their pupils safe while they educate them. My sense is that, in the middle, there are lots of well-meaning teachers who know that homophobic bullying is A Bad Thing, but feel ill-equipped to deal with it and therefore deny its existence.

I had cause last year to speak to a teacher about some homophobic bullying that was not being addressed. She told me “We don’t have homophobia in our school.” I resisted the urge to reply “my mistake, I thought that your school was in THE WORLD”. As such, there will be some homophobia there, and to pretend otherwise helps no-one. In fact, the hands-over-ears “lalala I can’t hear you” approach (which teachers of all people should recognise at 100 paces) harms pupils. Erasing the suffering of victims and granting impunity to bullies denies children any opportunity to learn from their experiences of one another – for example, through restorative justice.

In many ways it’s positive that this story has made the press. Across the papers “act less gay” has been framed as ridiculous advice, with soundbites from Beat Bullying, Stonewall and the NUT putting weight behind the argument. But if we pretend that the sentiment expressed to the pupils involved is extraordinary, an anomaly in our queer-positive world, then we’re no better than the teacher who says “there’s no homophobia in our school” (in a “these aren’t the droids we’re looking for” voice).* Plenty of people would suggest that advising a child to act less gay is a perfectly reasonable, indeed benevolent, response to homophobia: check out the comments on the Sun’s coverage if you don’t believe me.

I’m frustrated by how often discussion of bullying implies that what happens in schools is unconnected to what happens in the rest of society. To start from this premise surely limits how effectively we can challenge ignorance, cruelty and abuse – in all its forms, in all contexts. To my mind, it’s a no-brainer that mandatory, quality training for teachers on anti-oppressive practice, and on responding to and preventing bullying, would improve the lives of children and young people. But we can’t bestow sole responsibility for eradicating homophobic bullying onto the teaching profession – because children live in the world. We can help (whatever our sexuality) by fostering meaningful, open dialogue about homophobia – what it looks like, how it feels, why it happens, where we go from here – as we go about our lives.

* if you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, it just means you’re not a geek like me.