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.

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The Hatred of Femininity

Misogyny: (noun) the hatred of women.

In our society, misogyny can take many forms. It can come in the form of gender-based violence, like rape or domestic abuse. It can come in the form of social exclusion or hostility in certain spaces, such as cat-calling – especially if that cat-calling turns into threats, insults, or anything else that makes them feel unsafe in a public place. Or it can come in the form of constantly assuming the worst of women – thinking that they’re to blame for rape, thinking that they’re too delicate and too vulnerable to hear certain truths, thinking that they’re too emotional to do anything right.

Misogyny is something that is still very much alive today, and it is a very serious problem in our society that we cannot stop talking about. But the sort of misogyny that I want to focus on today is not simply the hatred of women, but rather the hatred of the feminine – because while these two issues most certainly connect and stem from the same issue (as I said, misogyny), the thing about the hatred of the feminine is that it affects all of us.

Because as much as femininity is something that gets assigned to straight women most frequently, that does not mean that only women are capable of femininity. They really aren’t.

Gay men, for example, are frequently represented as feminine in our media. They are represented as feminine so often, in fact, that some people have begun to shun this representation for being ‘stereotypical’, favouring the more invisible image of the masculine gay man (this can sometimes be referred to as effeminophobia, or discrimination against effeminate gay men). But feminine gay men most certainly exist as well, and they deserve a chance to see themselves not only represented, but represented well, and as much as feminine gay men have gotten a bit of the former, they haven’t always gotten the latter.

One example that we might all be aware of is the representation of feminine men in Disney movies. While not necessarily gay (or not openly so, anyway), many of the male villains of Disney cartoons are rather feminine – the Pocahontas villain Governor Ratcliffe styles his hair in two pink bows and carries around a small dog, the Peter Pan villain Captain Hook is highly emotional and dresses very flamboyant, the Aladdin villain Jafar has his eyeliner game on point. And why is this a reoccurring theme with male Disney villains? Well, in my opinion, it’s because, while Disney isn’t outright trying to say that femininity (and male femininity in particular) is wrong, they are trying to use these conventions to convey certain misogynist messages. We as the audience are supposed to read these men as being silly, vain and greedy because they are outwardly feminine. These villains are more easily detestable because they remind us of feminine aspects.

Disney will sometimes even use these aspects in their female villains as well. Honestly, think about it – when Ariel first meets Ursula in The Little Mermaid, she is applying her lipstick and fixing up her hair, and in One Hundred and One Dalmatians Cruella de Vil’s greatest downfall is her obsession with fashion.

Which brings me to another issue in all of this – it is not only women and men who receive scorn and hatred if they become classified as ‘too feminine’, but hobbies and interests as well. We as a society tend to regard the playing or watching of sports, a masculine pass-time, as worthwhile, something that builds character. And yet, watching fashion shows or reading magazines is regarded as silly and frivolous. Fixing a car is a useful skill to have, whereas sewing a dress is kind of cool if you can do it well, but not really useful unless you can make some good money at it. And don’t even get me started on the way that we as a society look down on chick-flicks for being stupid, unrealistic, and vapid, whereas action movies are awesome and full of fun car chases and explosions.

Especially if someone identifies themselves as a masculine person, it is a very common narrative for them to completely reject feminine pass-times. We have all heard about the very stereotypical set-up of the masculine boyfriend complaining loudly as his girlfriend drags him, kicking and screaming, into Sephora, while women are frequently expected to sit there quietly and watch sports with their boyfriends, even if they don’t like them.

Now, at this point you might be asking: so what? Why does it matter that people tend to look down on femininity? Well, it matters because, to some extent, we all have some aspect of us that is feminine. Not just straight women. Not just gay men. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. And this societal rejection of femininity as a valid option in our lives forces us to make one of two choices: we can continue to act feminine as accept that a side-effect of that will be that people will see us as vapid, silly, stupid, frivolous, etc., or we can reject the feminine parts of ourselves and act masculine, neither of them really works for me.

The latter option forces us to shave off parts of ourselves, to never be our complete self because society tells us that we can’t be. The latter option leaves holes in our identity, leaves parts of ourselves unexplored and unfulfilled. And when it comes to the former option, here’s the thing: I am very feminine. I like to do my hair and my make-up. My favourite movie is a love story. I dress very flamboyantly, I move very flamboyantly, and when I talk, my mannerisms are very feminine. And I am not stupid, silly, or frivolous. I do not appreciate being called stupid, silly, or frivolous. I refuse to live with that title placed on me by others, and I refuse to let others place that title on others like me.

Femininity is not a weakness; femininity is just a different way of being, and a perfectly valid way of being. The only reason why we tell our daughters that they’re frivolous for liking the Notebook, our sons that they can’t wear a dress or make-up, is because femininity is frequently assigned to women, and societally speaking, we do not like women. We think women are vapid and silly and overly-emotional, and so we think that anyone like them are the same. And it should probably go without saying that this way of thinking is misogynist and wrong.

You can like romantic movies, and get shit done. You can know all the latest fashions and be a total boss. The two things are not mutually exclusive, and we need to stop treating them like they are.

Why We Should Talk About Free the Nipple

Hey guys; I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re nearing the end of July now. And maybe this isn’t exactly something that I have the best experience with, seeing as I spend my days in my dark and dank, cavern-like basement with only my computer screen for light, but I hear tell of the myth of summer, this time when the world gets very, very hot, forcing people to strip down and wear fewer clothing.

And, okay, maybe I’m not entirely familiar with the concept of sun or beaches or swimming or going outside, but I am familiar with the strange sort of controversy that exists around this concept of wearing fewer clothing – a controversy that really exists every day of the year, thanks to women who insist on breastfeeding their baby (as though that was what boobs were meant for or something), but which gets more and more prevalent during the hotter months of the year.

And one of the main reasons why I’m aware of this controversy from my cavern-like basement is because of the Free the Nipple campaign.

Started in 2012 after a few incidences where women in the United States were charged with indecent exposure and public indecency for appearing topless in public (including in states like New York, where such things are supposed to be legal), the Free the Nipple campaign describes itself as centred around the idea of gender equality. Perhaps most notably, the equality that they take a special interest in is a woman’s right to take her shirt off and walk around with her tatas out.

And, I mean, sure. Why not? I mean, summers get hot, and ever since the 1930’s, men have had the right to walk around and make us all feel like we’re seeing way too much of their torso, so why can’t women have the same right? In fact, it might even make more sense for women to have the right to be publicly topless than men, because (as I briefly touched on before), women with babies often need to breastfeed them, and this involves exposing a boob or two. I mean, what else are we going to do with those breastfeeding mothers? Make tired, stressed-out women who have already pushed a human being out of their vagina hide away in the Bathroom of Shame while all of their lucky friends without children just go on with their lives? I mean, what sort of sense would that make?

So, yeah, let’s make this legal! Let’s fight for police to recognize our right to bare the boobs!

Except, this is already legal in many places in North America.

Despite this campaign’s beginnings in legality, you’d be surprised by the amount of places where it’s technically legal for women to walk around topless. In the United States, individual states have the right to dictate the legalities around female toplessness, and though these laws change frequently, you’d be surprised by the amount of states where boobs are actually legal. And then we have my country, Canada, wherein it’s actually legal for women to walk around topless almost everywhere – including and almost especially in my own province, Ontario.

Look, I know I just said that I don’t really get out much, but if this was the case, then you’d think I would have at least seen one public boob. But I haven’t. In fact, if I didn’t know that female toplessness was legal where I live, I wouldn’t have even guessed it.

I still see women covering up their boobs, all throughout the hot summers. I still hear about mothers who shock and gasp at a woman breastfeeding in public because “think of the children! What if my little Timmy sees a boob! A boob!!!!” And in fact, although I’ve never actually seen this mythological creature known as the publicly topless women, I’ve still heard people make snide comments about them when they see pictures – comments like, that’s disgraceful, and that’s so weird, and why doesn’t she respect herself and put some clothes on, and, at their most dangerous, she’s just asking for something to happen.

So if, legally and technically speaking, female toplessness is the same as male toplessness, why isn’t it treated the same?

Well, it’s because, societally speaking, female toplessness isn’t the same as male toplessness.

A lot of this comes down to the way that we tend to think about women and women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are often viewed as sexual objects in a way that men’s bodies aren’t. Technically speaking, breasts are just another part of the body – about as sexual as hands are, but the difference is that hands occur on every body, whereas breasts tend to grow most commonly on people who are assigned female at birth, and therefore, as a female body part, they are viewed as inherently sexual. It doesn’t matter that they can function also as food for babies, or as odd bags of fat that cling to your chest; they’re female body parts, which makes them sexual, which makes them bad, which means that you have to cover them up, no ifs, ands, or buts about it!

When a man appears shirtless in public, it can be for a lot of reasons. Maybe he’s hot (temperature-wise, I mean), or maybe he got his shirt dirty, or maybe he doesn’t own a shirt; who knows, really? When a woman appears shirtless in public, people will automatically assume that it is for only one reason: sex. She is ‘inviting attention’. She is ‘opening herself up’ to being leered at, to being flirted with, to being assaulted; if any of that happens to her, then she may not even be viewed as the victim, but as the cause. She has a female body that she isn’t ashamed of, which immediately means that she’s promiscuous, that she’s a ‘whore’, that she has no self-respect (and by the way, why would being promiscuous necessarily mean that you have no self-respect anyway?).

Except they’re just boobs. They are not inherently sexual. They’re body parts and little else, they say nothing about us and mean nothing.

If you want proof that boobs are sexualized to a ridiculous extent in our society, as well, then look at some of the responses to the Free the Nipple campaign, which include certain men claiming that boobs ‘belong in pornography’, and that if a woman earns the right to walk around with her tits out, then he should have the right to walk around with his dick out. In our society, a woman’s nipples are so intensely sexualized, that some men do not even see them as being the same as the nipples that they have on their own chests, but rather equate them to being the exact same thing as genitals. In our society, female nipples are deemed less of a body part, and more of a tool used in pornography to get men off.

And if Free the Nipple proves anything, it’s that this needs to change.

That’s the beautiful thing about all of this being societal too; this can change. Right now, it isn’t common or, in some cases, even safe for women to walk around topless, but that might not always be the case. With campaigns like Free the Nipple, we can keep talking about this, keep supporting women who want to go shirtless, keep pointing out how ridiculous it sounds to claim that female nipples belong in pornography and male nipples belong at the beach. And the more that we do, the more that people will begin to change their minds, and the more that society will change as a result.

So even if you aren’t comfortable baring your breasts this summer (and trust me, I get it if you aren’t), don’t forget about the women who are, and the women who are trying to be. Support those women, and talk about those women. Make those women normal, because someday, they might just be.

 

We Need to Talk About Catcalling

Earlier today, I was walking home from the movies with my mother. We were talking about the movie, having fun, not thinking about much at all, when a man across the street from us began yelling. I wasn’t paying much attention to him because he was across the street and I really didn’t care, but I could tell that he was yelling at us.

I ignored him. I continued on my way, talking about the movie with my mother.

And then the man crossed the street and approached my mother and I. He made a couple of uninvited comments on our appearances and we ignored him, just started walking faster. It didn’t take us long to pass him by, but he continued yelling at us, making comments about tattoos (which both my mother and I have).

At that point, we stopped ignoring him. We turned into a more residential area, one that would have been a little easier to find help if we suddenly needed it, but that was a bit out of our way, and we continued walking quickly. I kept looking back over my shoulder, because at that point, I didn’t care about being subtle. If he figured out that he made us uncomfortable, then good! He should know! But I wanted to make sure that he didn’t continue following us, and he did make the same first turn as we did, but upon us making the second turn onto another residential road, he left our field of vision and stayed there.

My mother and I continued walking through the residential area for a little while, and then once we felt a bit more comfortable, we returned to the side of the road, because that was the quickest and easiest way for us to get home. A moment later, a truck drove past us, and a man leaned his head out of the window and screamed at us: “Fuck you!”

The two events in succession made me a little bit angry, making me think about the way that women are treated in public spaces.

Keep in mind, there was absolutely no way that anyone could possibly depict any of this as being our fault. We were leaving the movie theatre in the middle of the afternoon. We were not drunk, we were wearing our everyday yoga clothes. The only possible “crime” that we could have been committing at the time was being two women who were occupying a public space.

And this is not the first time that things like this have happened to either me or my mom. The two of us go for walks frequently, and this has resulted in the two of us racking up quite an impressive amount of stories about men who have uninvitedly made comments about us in public, stories that range from being approached by a man in the rain, who then proceeds to make very sexual comments about my mother’s body, to a man making actual cat noises at us while we walked.

And don’t get me wrong: I am fully aware that not every man harasses women on the street (and that’s exactly what this is: harassment. It is harassment when a man verbally insults you and/or makes unwanted advances toward you), the fact that it is not every man does not at all improve the fact that it is every woman. This has happened to me frequently in my life, and it has happened to every woman that I have spoken to. In fact, it’s so common that I’ve even heard some women joke about it, regarding it as something that is simply to be expected.

But why is it so common? Why does every woman become subject to being commented on and yelled at in the street? Well, for this I propose two reasons:

  1. The reason why men do it: because they can. Because it makes them look aggressive, heterosexual, and masculine in front of all other men. It has nothing to do with the woman at all. If it did, they would get out of the car, stop yelling, be respectful, and have an actual conversation with her like an actual human being, but they don’t care about her or what she thinks about them. They just want to look tough to those around them, and they aren’t thinking about the potential costs that it would have on the woman, including but not limited to: feeling uncomfortable, feeling unsafe, feeling objectified and dehumanized, feeling as though this is somehow your own fault and that you did something to invite this. But none of that matters, right? So long as everyone knows that you’re a big man on these streets.
  2. The reason why it’s perpetuated: because no one stops them. In some cases, it’s difficult for women to respond to these men because they just leave so fast, whether they be in a car or simply passing by – like the man who yelled “fuck you” at me and my mother. But there are other cases, like the man who followed my mother and I on the street, where they give you every opportunity to respond, but frequently, women just… don’t. We have been socialized to just keep walking, just ignore them. They’re just being dumb guys, and boys will be boys, so why get mad at them? Or, in other cases, women don’t want to respond, because if you make them angry, that might escalate the situation and they might try to hurt you. Which only further proves my point that this scenario goes much further than a simple ego boost for the man: it is based in fear for the woman. In this scenario, the man in question is proving his masculinity by causing a woman fear. And that, to me, is not masculinity.

Catcalling is an issue that people have been talking about more and more frequently lately, but as the fact that it happened to me and my mother twice today proves, we need to talk about it more. We need to make people aware of the way that it affects women, because I don’t think that a whole lot of people are aware. I think that the majority of men who do catcall do it without even thinking about how it affects the other party. But it most certainly does affect the other party, and we need to stop ignoring that.

And as much as I previously pointed out that, at the time, my mother and I were doing nothing that might make someone perceive that we “deserved” to be followed by some creep who kept yelling at us, and then yelled at by another man, I still don’t care if we did “deserve” it. Even if it was me and a friend walking to a bar, completely drunk and practically naked, we still do not deserve to feel unsafe in a public space. We should be allowed to walk from point A to point B without being harassed or dehumanized. In my opinion, that should simply be a basic human right.

Why We Still Need Labels

I have a lot of labels to go by.

I am a woman. I’m bisexual, I’m white, I’m cis gendered. I’m able-bodied, but I am not completely neurotypical, as I have dealt with anxiety and depression.

And, admittedly, some of these labels get exhausting to live with sometimes. Just today, I thought about sitting down and writing something feminist, to which some part of my brain responded with an endless groan and the question, “do I have to be a woman today? Can’t I just be a person, without any concern about rape culture or objectification or whatever the topic of the day is?”

And I don’t think I’m the only person who has felt this way either. You see this opinion pop up constantly on the internet, though perhaps not always from the specific group of people being referred to.

For example, whenever a movie studio makes a big deal about outing a character as gay, you tend to see a plethora of reactions, and one that always makes its appearance is the question, “why does this matter? As long as the character is good, who cares who he sleeps with?” And although I am not trying to condemn the people who say this, I do want to point out that the majority of people who hold this opinion are straight people who have not experienced what it is like to be LGBT+.

Another example of this that I’ve seen is the internet’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Many people (and primarily not black people) saw this movement and felt offended by the name, offering up the question, “don’t all lives matter?”

When questions like this are asked, I feel that it comes from a very similar place as my own internal grumbling about writing something feminist: they’re tired of dealing with it. They’re tired of people segregating themselves under different labels, of feeling as though one person is different from the other because of their race or their sexual orientation or whatever the case might be. They just want all that to end and for people to just be people already, not a label.

And trust me, I get it. I do. The fact that all these different labels exist in our world is exhausting. But there is one glaring problem that arises when you suggest that we should just label everyone as people and move on with our lives: society doesn’t work that way. We are still living with huge imbalances between people that will not get fixed if we don’t address them.

Yes, all lives matter, but Black Lives Matter was created for a very specific purpose – to address the fact that black people in America are killed by the police at an alarmingly high rate, and that needs to stop. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to bring attention to something that specifically affects black people, and if we are ever going to find equality, we need to talk about that. If we continue to ignore that issue, then cops are going to continue to brutalize and kill black people because no one is telling them that it’s wrong.

Yes, at the end of the day, who cares who that character in the movie wants to sleep with – he’s a fictional character and none of us are sleeping with him anyway. But at the same time, it matters that he’s gay – especially if it’s in a genre that doesn’t typically feature LGBT+ characters or if he’s the lead in a mainstream movie. It matters because gay characters are too rarely seen in mainstream films, or if they are seen, they’re sometimes delegated to minor characters or stereotypes. It matters because the invisibility of LGBT+ characters in mainstream media leads to a generation of LGBT+ people who have internalized that there is something wrong with them, that they shouldn’t be seen, or even in some cases, that they don’t exist. And if we don’t make a big deal out of the fact that this character is gay, if we don’t celebrate and encourage it, then Hollywood is not going to get the message that we want to see more LGBT+ people represented in our media, and thus, nothing is going to change for LGBT+ youth who need to have their existence validated.

And as much as it might get exhausting from time to time for me to talk about feminism, it’s still something that I need to do, because if I don’t, then I’m part of the problem. I’m sitting back and allowing these injustices to my gender to continue on.

Don’t get me wrong – I am in full support of getting rid of labels someday and forming a society that does not even notice our differences, but the key word there is someday. We just aren’t there yet. Systemic sexism still exists, systemic racism still exists, systemic homophobia still exists, etc., etc., and if we are ever going to actually end it and form a society where we can all just be people, we need to address that. Because until we end these issues, we are not treated as just people – our lives and experiences are still determined by the labels that we have no choice but to live under.