The Threats and Harassment Women Face Online

Before I started talking about feminism and feminist issues on the internet, I’d heard horror stories from the women that did.

I think that we’re all aware that the internet can be a very polarizing place, and the possibility of anonymity can sometimes bring out the worst in people. People say things that they might not necessarily mean, or things that they would never actually say to someone face-to-face, just because they can get away with it when they’re hidden behind a username.

But that being said, there is a very specific pattern when it comes to the type of threats that are given to a specific type of woman.

This morning, I awoke to find a comment left on one of my articles, where I talked about the dangers that are present in over-sexualizing a woman’s body (the comment has since been deleted, for I did not want to risk the wrong person coming upon it). In this article, I mentioned that I developed early, and felt uncomfortable with my body because at the tender age of twelve, I thought that the people around me would view me as a sexual object as a result. The commenter started out by assuring me that the men in my family did in fact get aroused by the sight of me as a child. He then proceeded to graphically describe a rape scene, wherein I was the victim. I did not read the full comment, for the first half of it made me feel sick.

Now, I do not know this man, and more importantly, he does not know me. He does not know if I am, in fact, a rape survivor. He does not know if his graphic details will trigger me or send me into a panic attack, and he does not care. The commenter in question does not see me as a person, merely as an empty vessel on the other side of his computer screen, and yet he tells me that I deserve to be raped because I dared to proclaim myself proudly as a feminist.

And the funny thing about this comment is that, about a year ago, I had told myself that I would never speak out about feminism despite identifying privately as a feminist, because I knew the sort of threats that feminists face regularly.

When the online forum the Guardian examined comments that have been blocked by their writers, they found that eight of the ten writers who received the most blocked comments were women who had been harassed, mocked, and threatened for talking about gendered issues – including, yes, threats of rape.

Feminist author and columnist Jessica Valenti was forced to take a break from social media when she found that she couldn’t handle the constant threats of rape and death that were targeted toward her five-year-old daughter.

Feminist writers are not the only women who receive threats of rape or even murder for speaking out about feminism either. In Australia, the University of Queensland came up with the idea of doing a bake sale to raise awareness for gender inequality in the workplace, particularly the wage gap, which somehow prompted an onslaught of cyber bullying directed toward those arranging the bake sale, including comments such as, “females are fucking scum, they should be put down as babies” and “I want to rape these feminist c*nts with their f*cking baked goods”.

Heck, the year that I started taking classes on gender studies at my university, a university neighbouring my own, the University of Toronto, received online threats that some unknown assailant would walk into classes teaching gender studies with a gun and began shooting any feminist they saw. I still remember that first day of gender studies, sitting in my seat and glancing nervously at the door, hoping that the gunman wouldn’t decide to come to my school instead.

So, please, tell me again how rape is about pent-up sexuality, because I have heard it used, again and again, as a threat alongside violence and death to try to establish dominance over me and women like me when we speak up.

Before I started talking about feminism, I told myself that I would never talk about it in public, because I didn’t want to face these threats of rape and violence that feminists live with. But that is the entire intention behind these comments. These comments are not made because the women who receive them deserve them. These comments are made because the women who receive them have stood up and said something that they believe in. They have stated that there is a problem within society that needs to be fixed, but the thing about this problem is that there is an audience that doesn’t want to fix it. Maybe they don’t see it as a problem, or they simply don’t want to admit that they’re wrong, but the fact of the matter is they get offended whenever a woman speaks up and tries to change this patriarchal society that we live in. So their response is to try to silence them, to make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe until they shut up and stop trying to fix the problem.

These threats of rape and violence on the internet are not meaningless “trolls” just having a laugh. These are men who genuinely want women to stop fighting for equal rights. These are men who hate having their view of the world challenged so much that they would rather tell a woman that he never met that she deserves to be raped or killed.

And I don’t think I even have to say that nobody deserves that.

So to the women that receive these threats: keep doing what you are doing. I know it may be scary, or triggering, or unfair, but you are a strong woman who deserves to see the day where a women can speak up and not be threatened for it. And the only way we will achieve that day is by fighting for it.

To the women who will not speak up because they are afraid of these threats, I understand your fear. You are not wrong to feel it, but find comfort in the fact that these men are bullies, hiding behind their computer screen in an effort to perpetuate an outdated ideal of what women should be. They think that we should be silent and passive, when that is not what we are. And, hopefully, you will someday feel safe to speak up.

And, lastly, to the men who make these comments, please ask yourself why you feel justified in doing it. What is it about women who fight for their own equality that makes you so angry? What is it about feminists that makes you forget that they are people, with thoughts and feelings and families and experiences? And the next time that you go to write such a comment to a woman who you have not met, who is merely trying to argue her perspective and change the world for the better, stop and ask yourself if you would ever say this to a woman face-to-face with a sound conscience.

‘Feminism’ and ‘Man-Hating’ Are Not The Same Thing

I have identified as a feminist for quite a while now, and especially recently, I’ve been very vocal about it. I don’t think there’s any shame is being vocal – in fact, I think it’s kind of important. After all, the only way to confront issues like rape culture, the objectification of women, and outdated gender roles is if we actually talk about them. But talking about feminism (and more than that, using the word ‘feminism’ unashamedly) has made me increasingly aware of another issue: the way in which feminism is frequently perceived as man-hating.

When I first started talking about feminism, I had heard women make comments such as “I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men”, and so I knew about the association going in. But at the same time, I figured that very few people would associate me as a man-hater simply because I knew that I would be careful about the way that I talked. I would make sure that nothing that I said sounded hateful, and for two reasons: 1) because I don’t believe in fighting hate with hate, or think that I will be taken seriously if I do sound hateful, and 2) because I don’t hate men. I hate toxic masculinity, sure (more on that later), but men as a group are great, I’m not going to dismiss them all based solely on the fact that they associate themselves with a specific gender.

And yet, even while being careful about what I say, I’ve still gotten multiple responses that insinuate that all feminists (and me by extension) are man-haters. I’ve had people respond to a perfectly inclusive feminist discussion by saying, “you’re right; women are better”, when that wasn’t at all what I was trying to say. I’ve had people say, “it’s weird to hear you talk like that, because most feminists are man-haters”, when that isn’t my usual experience. And oddest of all, even when I’m not even talking about feminism at the time, I’ve had people make comments such as, “well, you know how Ciara feels about men”, as though they immediately assume that because I talk about feminism, I have negative feelings toward men.

And I don’t. I really don’t. In fact, part of identifying as an intersectional feminist means that I actively try to avoid having any negative feelings toward any group of people who just happened to be born a certain way.

So why is this such a common assumption that people make?

Well, it isn’t any secret that this idea of the man-hating feminist has become a common one in popular culture. We hear talk of ‘feminazies’, as though somewhere in the world, there are actually group of feminists that round men up and lock them away in concentration camps (just so this is clear, this has never happened in the history of the planet). We hear about bra-burning feminists who scream in people’s faces to get shit done, to turn the order of the world upside down so that women rule and men obey. But the odd thing about this imagine is that, as common as it is to come to people’s minds, it doesn’t at all reflect the reality of feminism and its goals.

Ask anyone who identifies as a feminist, and chances are they will tell you the same thing: feminism is not about giving women, as a group, a position of superiority over men, as a group. If anyone is clambering to turn men into slaves and dogs, they are extremists and do not reflect the views of the average feminist. By definition, feminism is about creating a society of equality, one where nobody is limited by their gender. A society where women can lead the country and where men can express emotion.

And that brings me to another point – feminism does not solely concern women. Feminism primarily concerns women, sure: if a completely feminist world is created, it is women who will see the biggest changes in their lives, but women will not see the only change. Many feminist issues involve men, and not just as the perpetrators. This is because feminism is not a battle between men and women – feminism is a battle between feminists (male and female alike) and the patriarchy.

For those of you who do not know what the patriarchy is, this is the name given to a very traditional set of societal rules that enforce the idea that men and everything associated with male-ness is superior to women and everything associated with them. And believe it or not, the patriarchy hurts men too. The patriarchy is what enforces the idea that men must be tough and unemotional. The patriarchy demands that men be providers for their family, that they make good money, protect their women from any threats, that they have women in the first place and they aren’t, in fact, gay. And the hard truth about many of these expectations is that they aren’t easy to live up to. Some men have a very difficult time providing for their families, and when they do, they confront a sense of failure, an inability to be ‘the man’. All men are born with emotions, but the patriarchy demands that they don’t express them, that they bury them deep down and bear that burden alone, resulting in a difficult time expressing themselves and inevitable feelings of loneliness. And because the patriarchy views men as tough, when they are the victims of rape or abuse, it isn’t rare for people to not believe them, simply because they’re men and should have been able to fight off their attacker, especially if their attacker was a (according to the patriarchy) weak and fragile woman.

The patriarchy also expresses an odd perspective when it comes to men and children, including their own. According to the patriarchy, men are not natural parents in the way that women are, and therefore, when they take care of their children they are ‘babysitting’. Women are considered the primary caregivers; men are merely helping out. This can be a problem for the woman, most certainly, but it is also a problem for the man who wants to be taken seriously as his child’s father.

Furthermore, the patriarchy is also responsible for what is called ‘toxic masculinity’ – a set of learned behaviours that society pushes on men specifically, but are ultimately harmful, both to the man displaying them and to others. An example of toxic masculinity would be a display of violence – an act that is very frequently done to prove a man’s toughness (or maleness), but can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Other examples of toxic masculinity would include misogyny, homophobia, and sexual assault.

But toxic masculinity is not something that is innate to the male gender as a whole, and it is not a set of behaviours displayed by every man. When I say that toxic masculinity is something that needs to end, I am not referring to men as a whole, nor to masculinity as a whole. All that I am saying is that we as a society need to stop teaching boys from such a young age that they need to turn to such extremes to prove their maleness, because doing so only hurts them and others in the long run.

And these are issues that feminism is trying to fight. Feminism wants men to be able to show emotion, to allow their wife to provide for them if that dynamic works better for them, to not feel any shame if they don’t quite live up to what society demands that they be. Feminism is about equality, and that equality includes men.

Feminism is not an exclusive club either; men can identify as feminists just as much as women can. In fact, many male celebrities have stood up for feminism in the media, including Patrick Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Daniel Radcliffe. Even the Dalai Lama has outright referred to himself as a feminist. These are not men who are actively fighting against their own interests; they are men who believe in equality. Equality for the women in their lives to have command over their own bodies and to pursue whatever they want in life, as well as equality for men to have emotion and be taken seriously as their child’s parent.

Why Feminism Is Still Important

I’ve been noticing a very dangerous pattern in feminism lately – or, technically speaking, I suppose, outside of feminism. More and more frequently, whenever the word is brought up to a crowd of women, they’ll squirm uncomfortably in her seats, adopt an awkward expression to their eye and they’ll say, “I believe in equality, but I’m not a feminist.”

Now, I’m not going to say that these women are wrong, per se. After all, they’re only saying how they feel, and how can a feeling be wrong? No, instead I’m going to say that these women have been misinformed – they’ve been misinformed by society, by the media, and by the men around them who are intimidated by feminism (not all men are, of course, but I’ll get into that in more detail later).

I think many of us are familiar with the dictionary definition of feminism. After all, that’s the first line of defence that the feminist who hears this statement jumps to. “By definition,” s/he says, hoping to appeal to this woman’s logic, “feminism is about equality, about creating a world where we can all receive the same treatment, regardless of gender. You can’t say that you believe in equality but you aren’t a feminist – the two are one in the same”

The thing is, however, many of the women who awkwardly avoid being labelled as a feminist know this. They’ve heard the dictionary definition, and they still stand by their misinformed claim to accept one idea without the other. So then why? What is it about the movement for equality that makes so many women uncomfortable?

Well, if you ask many of them, they’ll give you a multitude of answers.

“Because I don’t hate men,” some of them might say, their answer short and sweet and simple.

“Because feminism doesn’t address the issues that men face in our society. Men are expected to be the providers, and we don’t talk about how unfair that is!” says another.

“Because feminists today don’t have any real problems,” another will suggest. “Not like women in other countries, anyway, where they’re still sold as property and beaten to death if they have sex out of marriage.”

On the surface, I understand where many of these arguments are coming from. They’re well-intentioned, I’m sure, but still, misinformed. Because the way I see it, feminism does address all of these problems.

As I’ve said before, true feminism is about equality. It is not “women vs. men”, as many of these non-feminists seem to believe. It is about feminists (male and female alike) vs. the patriarchy – a long-established set of societal norms based on the assumption that men/masculinity is better than women/femininity. The general existence of the patriarchy is not anyone’s fault. No true feminist is blaming men for it. The problem is that everyone – including women – have internalized at least some of these patriarchal ideas, and thus, it keeps being enforced.

Let’s use this in an example – maybe the one provided by our friend, the non-feminist. Men are expected to be the provider, and that isn’t fair. I agree – it isn’t. The problem is that the patriarchy tells men that they need to fulfill this role simply because they are men. Because waiting for them at home, of course, is a weak, passive woman who needs to be protected. Because if the man doesn’t serve as the provider, then this women will die, as she is incapable of fending for herself. It is the patriarchy telling men this, not feminists.

Men do face many problems at the hands of the patriarchy. They are expected to limit their expression of emotion because emotions are weak or, in other words, ‘feminine’. They are dismissed when they come forward with stories of rape or abuse, because men are much too strong to have either thing happen to them. They are expected to fit into this narrow definition of what it means to be a man, and if they deviate from that at all, then they are belittled and called ‘feminine’ (fag, sissy, girl, ect.). And that is why feminism is so important. We need something that confronts the patriarchy – that teaches people about it and helps them to understand the problems underlying it. We need it just as much for men as we do for women.

And as far as the argument goes that modern feminists in western countries don’t have any problems – I disagree. Women are still far from being treated as men’s equal, and if you think that we are, then I don’t think you’re looking hard enough.

In my home country of Canada, one in three women will be raped. And if numbers don’t scare you enough, then that means that it can be expected for either me, my mother, or my sister. That means that whenever you walk into a room filled with people, then there are multiple female rape survivors standing amongst you. That means that it is not a foreign problem – it is something that we are dealing with right here, in our country, and it is part of a huge, complex series of problems all stemming from patriarchal ideas.

And if you are raped, then you can expect not to be taken seriously as a woman. You might be asked questions like “how much were you drinking” or “what were you wearing” or “are you sure you didn’t lead him on”, as though any of that has anything to do with the violence that has been perpetuated against you. If you are raped, then it’s your word against his, and there’s very little chance that you will ever receive real justice.

In my home country of Canada, a woman working the exact same job as a man will make seventy-two cents for every dollar he makes. And you can expect to make even less than that if you’re a woman of colour.

In my home country of Canada, women are told constantly to be ashamed of their bodies – whether it be directly, like being told to cover up or hide yourself while breast-feeding, or indirectly, like the time when I was told in high school that I needed to put a sweater on because my body might prove a distraction to the boys in my class.

If I went on about all the feminist issues that we still have to face in Canada, I’d be here all day, but my point is, we’re still a long way from equal. And, yes, there are women in other countries who have it worse, I won’t deny that. But you know what isn’t helping those women? Telling feminists to shut up and stop complaining because people in Africa have it worse.

If women in other countries have any hope of receiving help, then they will need feminism. They will need that tool to dissect the patriarchy. They need that long-standing history that will help them to understand how to proceed. Feminism can help those women, not hinder them.

And it isn’t shocking that domestic feminists are concerned with domestic problems – they’re surrounded by them, they see them every day. I honestly doubt that if you asked any feminist in the first world if she thought that the wage gape was more important than the issue of women being beaten to death for having sex out of marriage, she would say that it is. But she would say that they are both problems that need to be addressed, and feminism is capable of addressing both of them.

And if you don’t personally believe that feminism today is doing enough for men or for women in other countries, then why don’t you be the change? Start talking about it, write a blog, spread the word – it’s easier today to do that than it ever was. Feminism is a grand movement, and it’s been constantly changing ever since its invention. If you told a first-wave feminist about the issue of the wage gap, after all, she’d have no idea what you were talking about! So introduce the idea if you feel the need to – be that change. Don’t disregard the entire movement because you don’t feel it’s done a sufficient job of discussing certain issues yet.

So then if feminism does address all of the problems that non-feminists are concerned about, why are they still so uncomfortable with the idea? And worse yet, many people – women included – have become hostile to the idea, turning to movements such as “Feminism is Cancer” to voice their hatred.

Well, in my opinion, it all goes back to the first explanation given by the non-feminist: “I don’t hate men”. As I hope I’ve proven above, feminism, of course, is not about hating men, but it does seem to be difficult to convince some men of this.

I find myself reminded of the “meninist” movement – that group of men who preached the idea that feminism was imposing on their masculinity, and they didn’t feel free to be themselves anymore. There are two reasons I can think of for them feeling this way:

1) it’s a knee-jerk reaction. They see women who are looking to upset the balance of society, who want to take away the privileged status that men have upheld for centuries, and their automatic assumption is that women are going to take it for themselves and appoint themselves the dominating gender. “It’s a mutiny!” these men cry, and run to their meninist battle-stations.

2) These particular men are ones who benefited from the patriarchy. They liked their role as the provider – they felt very comfortable in it. It gave them purpose, made them feel strong and, well, ‘masculine’. They liked being able to marry a woman who perceived her entire purpose in life to be serving him, living only for him. When feminism comes along and tries to take this away from them, or at least make them question it, they don’t want to lose it. They claim that feminism is stripping them of their freedom, when the only freedom they’re losing is the freedom to oppress women.

So these men go forth, they bash feminism, they demand to have their misinformed voices heard. And some women do hear them. They hear men telling them that feminism is an evil, it’s a ‘cancer’, one that will take away their own rights and their own freedoms. And I hate to say that these women want to impress these men, but one thing that the patriarchy does preach to women is that they should strive to be accepted by men. So they say that they “believe in equality” (because they do), “but they aren’t a feminist”, because feminists are evil. Feminists want to take these men’s rights away. And these men are more important to please than anyone, according to the patriarchy.

I am uncomfortable with saying that the only reason that a woman would say “I believe in equality, but I’m not a feminist” is to impress men, however, so I offer another explanation: because in our still-patriarchal society, men still rule the world. Men who benefit from the patriarchy are in our media, they release our movies, they write our news reports – they’re everywhere, and they’re always so eager to give us their opinions. And particularly if you do not go out and research feminism for yourself, there are only so many times that you can hear a man say “feminism is evil” before you start to believe it, no matter how strongly you believe in equality.

And this, my friends, is why we need feminism. This is why I am so hesitant to allow the feminist movement to fall away into this alternative movement of ‘equality’. Because the very voices that are telling us that feminism is evil are the ones that feminism is fighting against.

So let me end this rant with this proud declaration: I, Ciara, am a feminist.