Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments.
The MTR blog is fast becoming something of a shrine to the work of prolific and award winning blogger Meghan Murphy. Here’s her latest, from Canada’s Globe and Mail.
Meghan Murphy is a Vancouver writer and journalist and founder of the website Feminist Current.
Talk about “safe spaces” has been spreading amid a high-profile series of incidents at universities in North America and Europe, leading many to argue that today’s students need to develop thicker skins. These debate-free zones are presented as a way of protecting individuals from potentially traumatic experiences, but the reality is much more pernicious – and the issue extends far beyond campus politics.
We’re not talking here about the kinds of private spaces that allow individuals to organize, heal or meet among themselves on their own terms. Female victims of rape and abuse, for example, need access to “safe spaces” that are free from men and abusers. People of colour should have every right to meet privately among themselves. These are basic tenets that marginalized groups ascribe to when struggling against systems of power. But these are limited, designated spaces – it’s another thing altogether to appropriate wider public places or events, college campuses and public social-media forums, such as Twitter.
As a feminist, I understand that ideas and words are not harmless. But the recent pushback hasn’t targeted people pushing racist or misogynist doctrine. Instead, people are arguing that the very act of questioning positions they consider to be “right” constitutes hate speech. Academics and journalists, even ones who are advancing long-standing feminist and anti-imperialist arguments, are finding themselves blacklisted because their ideas challenge a liberal status quo.
There are a number of recent examples from the prostitution debate alone:
English journalist Julie Bindel was removed from a London panel discussing a documentary about a prostitution survivor because of protests by groups that want to legalize the sex industry. (Ms. Bindel advocates for the Nordic model of law, recently adopted in Canada but opposed by many mainstream feminists.)
After Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote an article condemning the sex industry as “the quintessential expression of global capitalism,” the organizer of a Vancouver conference about “resource capitalism” was threatened with a boycott if the journalist’s keynote speech – scheduled for delivery Friday night – was allowed to proceed.
Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show at Goldsmiths, University of London, was cancelled last month due to complaints about her position on prostitution. Ironically, it was free speech, not prostitution, that was to have been the focus of her show.
The Cambridge Union was asked to withdraw its speaking invitation to feminist icon Germaine Greer, who was accused of “hate speech” because she said she wasn’t sure she believed transphobia was a thing.
It’s not just campuses, though, where people are using the “safe space” concept to silence those they disagree with. The Block Bot is an online incarnation of “safe space” – it’s a website whose service aims to protect Twitter users from “trolls, abusers and bigots.” Put aside the point that any Twitter user can already block anyone they wish at any given time – the way the application has been put into effect shows that its professed purpose does not match its actual impact.
Rather than weeding out users who aim to harass or threaten, the application seeks to compile a list of political dissidents, labelling users who step out of line with a variety of slurs. I myself was added to “Level 2” for expressing polite disappointment that a sexual-assault centre had taken a position in favour of decriminalizing the purchase of sex.
Thousands of others, including noteworthies such as New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis, physicist Brian Cox, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, are listed on the Block Bot – guilty not of trolling, harassing or abusing but of having opinions “blockers” disagree with. The entire site, as a result, has recently faced libel warnings.
What’s troubling about efforts to silence those whose beliefs we find distasteful is not just the implications of censorship and libel, but the dishonesty of it all.
Claims that particular conversations or debates will cause us to “feel unsafe” are, in these contexts, little more than an excuse to shut down dissenting points of view. It puts those dissenters in the awkward position of having to dispute their accuser’s mental stability or claims of emotional trauma instead of allowing them to respond to the real issue: political disagreement. You can argue with someone who says “I want to ban this particular speaker from a panel because I disagree with her position,” but it’s more difficult to challenge someone who says “This person makes me feel unsafe.”
Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn’t support critical thinking.
It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line. This is ironic, because many of those under threat of being silenced are people who are speaking out against abuse, harassment and violence. While some may hold “controversial” opinions about how best to do it, they are just that – controversial. Throughout history, our heroes and radicals have held controversial opinions. How often do tepid opinions and fearfulness change the world for the better?
It’s time proponents of this kind of “safe space” start being forthright in their accusations. It’s okay to disagree, but not to frame differences of opinion as abuse. Those working to silence the disagreeable might imagine the day they question peers themselves, then ask whether they are prepared to choose between silence or blacklisting.
Dr Helen Pringle (long time collaborator and contributor to Big Porn Inc) and talented emerging young writer Laura McNally, who I’ve published here a number of times before. Both are contributors to the new Connor Court title Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism’ edited by Miranda Kiraly and Meagan Tyler. I had the pleasure of attending the Melbourne launch earlier this week and will run some extracts soon.
Disempowered Men? Tanveer Ahmed and the ‘Feminist Lynch Mob’
Dr Helen Pringle
…In Australia, this month, a man claimed that he too had been lynched. On 14 March, The Spectator even supplied a picture of the lynching to accompany the first-person account of the victim. The Spectator cover cartoon shows a man of colour swinging from a branch, complete with “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth” of the “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” lamented by Billie Holiday. The lynched man is surrounded by foul-mouthed women, with burning torches and a pitchfork. Like the inscription on the back of a lynching postcard, The Spectator cartoon comes with a caption, so that we might not mistake its meaning: “Lynch mob-ette: Feminists did me in, says Tanveer Ahmed.”
Inside The Spectator, Tanveer Ahmed provides an account of his own lynching…Ahmed presents his account of his execution under the sub-heading, “Despite being a pin-up boy for the White Ribbon movement, I made the mistake of attempting to explain male violence.”
Ahmed was an Ambassador for the White Ribbon campaign against violence to women when he published an article in The Australian on 9 February entitled, “Men forgotten in violence debate.” The title almost makes it unnecessary to read further to grasp the striking new “argument” being made: that men are “disempowered,” with the perpetrators being the same “mob-ette” of radical feminist harpies circling the poplar tree.
Unfortunately, Ahmed’s argument in The Australian was by no stretch original – not only was it a tired reiteration of cliches, but those cliches were not even his own cliches, having been lifted in part from the writings of other “disempowered men…
In his Spectator attempt at an apologia, “Lynched by the feminist mob,” Ahmed mixes his metaphors with abandon in order to explain his plight:
“I have been considerably disempowered after writing about male disempowerment. Wading into the treacherous, virulent, oestrogen laden waters of modern feminism I have learnt that the gender wars are seen by many as a zero sum game, much like poker or derivatives trading.”
As he waded, Ahmed says, he was “treated to an orgy of abuse, threats and complete mis-representation.” Nurses at his hospital took him aside to ask him how he was doing, articles and letters were published on the net in support of him, unnamed (because trembling presumably) academics approached him on the sly to share how difficult it is to speak openly about “this issue” and Dr Ahmed was invited to speak at a Toronto conference “all expenses paid.” …
The Spectator editorial (“Lynch mob-ette”) commiserated with Ahmed’s fate at the hands of “an angry, vocal, left-wing group of ‘celebrities’ within the bosom [sic] of the local [feminist] movement.” According to the Spectator editorial writer, Ahmed had been “lynched on social media, to the point of threatening his career” by such “oddities.” Ahmed himself writes that he was so cowed by “the totalitarian character of the entire episode” that he packed his white ribbon away and “resumed writing prescriptions for psychoactive drugs” at his psychiatric practice. Hard times indeed.
This rhetorical escalation by Ahmed and the Spectator on his behalf goes beyond absurdity into the realm of the grotesque. Words like “totalitarian” lose all meaning when applied to criticism made of a rather dull kind of “argument” about modern masculinity (a predicament that certainly deserves a complex and thoughtful analysis). The completely inappropriate use of such words reaches beyond this one little corner of right-wing looniness, however, as the increasing use across the political spectrum of terms like “crucifixion” in response to criticism illustrates.
However, there is a particularly egregious wrong-ness in the use of the word “lynching” as a response to criticism. This wrong-ness comes from the freight that the word carries because of its entanglement in a history of sustained racial terror…
For Ahmed and The Spectator now to present his predicament as a lynching, both in words and in a captioned picture, is shameful. In Ahmed’s case, there is no “blood on the leaves,” there is no “smell of burning flesh,” no torture, no execution, no terror. There is only the hum of the Airbus taking off for Toronto, with a successful doctor onboard, “all expenses paid.”
But words still have meaning, to which they can be recalled. The history of lynching places on us an ethical injunction to precision in our use of the word. And no man was lynched yesterday. Read full article
Gender Neutrality or Enforcement? ‘Safe Schools’ isn’t as Progressive as it Seems
…Those who subscribe to queer theory would argue that this simply represents progress. From this perspective, gender is inherently fluid and exists in multiple permutations. Queer theory has now gone mainstream, ushered in from the fringes of the academic world to the core of the childhood education system.
For example, Safe Schools utilises definitions like this: “sex is your physical aspects (i.e. your wibbly wobbly bits) and gender is how you feel in your mind in terms of masculine and feminine.” Quite apart from the incorrect description of genitals – one that is advised against by health professionals – the idea that gender is a feeling is highly questionable. In fact, the idea of feminine or masculine thinking has long been disputed in the research.
Other topics to which children will be inducted through Safe Schools materials include the use of plastic surgery and hormone treatments to change gendered appearance, as well as how girls should bind their breasts if they aren’t comfortable about them. Not only does this promote dangerous practices, but it also has the potential to normalise body dissatisfaction within an already vulnerable demographic – all in the guise of “progress.”
Far from being progressive, such campaigns seem somewhat counter-productive. If gender neutrality really is progress, why the focus on classifying gender? How can such programs neutralise gender and yet simultaneously name, categorise and even medicalise it?
Gender itself is a sociological category, a concept designed to examine broad trends between the sexes. Yet it is now erroneously applied to children who are expected to understand and embody a theory usually only the purview of researchers. Suddenly we must scrutinise, analyse and even pathologise natural child behaviour as “gendered.”
While this focus on gender appears to be celebrating diversity, it may actually be doing the opposite.
Many people are indeed diverse and non-conforming, and ending discrimination around difference is worthwhile. But there is no consensus in the research on whether putting children into gender categories is helpful or simply premature and possibly disruptive. Theories about gender are dubious at best. As the Safe Schools program demonstrates, many theories still fall back on the archetypes of “feminine” and “masculine” traits, which have long been discarded in the research.
… Accordingly, 51 gender categories are now prescribed for children to choose from. Facebook has followed suit, offering these 51 gender options to users.
Indoctrinating children into these new “gender” categories is not going to resolve stereotypes. In fact, this may merely create a more exhaustive range of gender classifications within which the stereotypes continue to exist. This is not gender neutrality, but gender enforcement.
This may create more confusion, more anxiety and more pressure for children over an issue that is not their burden to bear. Stereotypes need to be done away with and diversity needs to be accepted. If we truly want to be progressive and neutral about gender, perhaps we would be better off just letting children be children. Read full article
On March 5 the Senate Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs held a roundtable on surrogacy. Myf Cummerford was conceived in 1980 using an anonymous sperm donor, part of the AI program at the Royal Woman’s Hospital. She wants the committee to consider the experience of herself and thousands like her.
I’m a donor conceived person and a mother.
The sperm used to conceive me was sold for $20 in 1977. My parents didn’t just bring me home from the hospital, they bought me from the hospital.
While it might make us feel better to pay Australian women for their wombs and reproductive capacity instead of disadvantaged women overseas, it is no less exploitative. The only difference will be that the economic, social and psychological circumstances that lead an Australian woman to offer herself to the surrogacy market will be much less visible.
We are not paying a woman for her time and inconvenience. We are paying her first and foremost for the child; the risk that she undertakes and the effects on her physical and mental health are secondary issues.
There is a good reason prostitutes don’t have sex with strangers for free. And there is a good reason few women are prepared to be altruistic surrogates.
Compensation acts as the primary incentive for the woman to engage in providing a product for the consumer, however the true price of that product can never be paid or valued in monetary terms. The long term, omnipresent (often quiet and unacknowledged) subsequent loss incurred is borne not only by the woman but her existing family and ultimately the innocent child she delivers.
Why are we rewarding the people who choose to break the current domestic law by exploring permitting and regulating commercial surrogacy here?
If the only real answer to that question is because people are going to do it anyway then we should also legalise human trafficking, slavery, child prostitution and all the other practices that commodify human beings and their bodies. No one is going to die because they don’t get the baby they want, but someone might if they do, indeed they already have.
It’s entirely possible that by opening up a commercial surrogacy market here the overseas market will respond by cutting the cost of using a surrogate there. Which will do nothing to stop people using “cheap” surrogates and only make it even worse for those women (and their families). Let alone what that would mean for the child created.
We should not be sanitising this practice, we should be sanctioning it. I’m sure the exponents of commercial surrogacy attending the roundtable (Committee’s report and transcripts) discussion today will make a florid, superficially reasonable case for permitting commercial surrogacy in Australia. I sincerely hope you don’t listen to them.
Myf’s bio: In 2001 after being told of my DC status I searched for my donor and was ultimately successful in meeting him (and establishing an ongoing relationship) thanks to an article in The Australian newspaper. I have been actively involved in advocacy in this area for 14 years, primarily for the people created via these practices but also donors, surrogates and parents because their interests are also being exploited. I’m an atheist, feminist, democratic socialist, human rights and equality supporting realist who is just yet to hear an argument convincing me any of this is a good idea.
The 2015 National Conference for Donor Conceived People will be held in Melbourne June 27. More details.
I wrote earlier how the sex industry went into overdrive over some fair questioning on ABC Lateline last week. The industry’s meltdown over the program demonstrated how hostile it is to any light being shed on the realities of the business of sexploitation which profits from the bodies of women. This blog post exposes the facts about the Scarlet Alliance, which receives Federal and State Government grants to address trafficking – which is funny if it wasn’t so sad – Scarlet Alliance doesn’t even believe in trafficking. It doesn’t even think brothels who sell trafficked women should be penalised, and wants no organised exit programs for women who want to get out of the industry. So why are out taxes propping them up? The money should be diverted into services that actually help real women rather than benefitting the brothel owners, pimps profiteers and vested interests of the prostitution trade.
The Scarlet Alliance/Sex Worker Collective’s Misogyny. Why They Should Not Be funded.
March 16, 2015
I have appropriated the pimp lobby’s red umbrella to fight for the Nordic Model.
Perhaps everyone who actually cares about women in prostitution can use this as a profile pic- although, I realise my creation is not very pretty. I have no sympathy for the Scarlet Alliance and the whole red umbrella collective crying how oppressed and stigmatised they are. They never helped me, and as evidenced below, they never will help anyone trying to leave the industry. Too much money to be made trading in human beings. They are among the scum of the earth and treat prostituted women like shit. But don’t take my word for it- here are just the facts.
“Evidence of SCARLET ALLIANCE’S opposition to Federal Government Policies to stem Human Trafficking
1. Opposition to exit programs
Scarlet Alliance publicly opposes exit programs to support trafficked women wanting to leave the sex industry.[i]
2. Denies the reality of human trafficking for sexual exploitation
Scarlet Alliance refuses to acknowledge that sex slavery exists and claims that leaving prostitution is an individual decision for which there should be no government intervention.[ii]Scarlet Alliance’s policy is to have “sex work” considered equivalent to any other professional occupation.
3. Opposition to making debt bondage an offence
Scarlet Alliance is opposed to debt bondage being an offence under State Government crime legislation[iii]
4. Opposition to any controls on prostitution
Scarlet Alliance opposes all laws, regulations, rules or policies for the sex industry.Yet it asserts that the safety of “sex workers” should be prioritised over all industry or community concerns.[iv]
5. Opposed to penalties for knowingly using trafficked women:
The Scarlet Alliance is opposed to criminalisation of intentionally, knowingly or recklessly obtaining sexual services from trafficked women.[v]
6. Opposes penalties for brothel owners knowingly using trafficked women:
Scarlet Alliance has publicly declared its opposition to any form of sanction or penalty for brothel owners who knowingly engage and exploit trafficked persons.[vi]
7. Opposes police checks on brothels
Scarlet Alliance has declared its opposition to giving Police a more flexible right of entry to legal or illegal brothels.[vii]
8. Opposition to any kind of police involvement in policing of prostitution.
It believes that police should be removed from any administrative or regulatory role in the sex industry. This belief makes mockery of the fact that Scarlet Alliance also claims that people “working” in the sex industry should be afforded police protection.[viii]
9. Opposition to police giving trafficking a higher priority
Scarlet Alliance is opposed to police being trained to be more aware of the signs of human trafficking and giving it a higher priority.They are also opposed to increasing public awareness about sex trafficking and sexual slavery.[ix]
10. Claims human trafficking is a myth
Scarlet Alliance claims that trafficking is a myth produced by media hype, anti-trafficking and anti-slavery organisations[x]. It believes that anti trafficking raids have forced “sex workers” “underground”.This position makes a mockery of the fact that Scarlet Alliance contributed to the development of the Guidelines for NGOs Working with Trafficked People.[xi]
11. Opposition to provision of refuges for trafficked women
It beggars belief, but Scarlet Alliance is opposed to the establishment of appropriately funded refuges for trafficked women, and they oppose assistance and support being provided to victims of trafficking.[xii]
They oppose these services to victims lest attention be drawn to the evil of human trafficking which, in turn, would make it difficult to argue that “sex work” is the equivalent of any other professional occupation
12. Opposition to public awareness programs for clients of prostitution:
Scarlet Alliance is opposed to any advertising that alerts purchasers (johns)and prospective purchasers (johns)of sexual service to the existence of the crime of sexual trafficking.[xiii]
It wants the public to remain in denial about the existence and magnitude of sex trafficking on the grounds that this would give a bad name to “sex work” in general.
13. Opposition to anything that hinders the promotion of sex work
Anything that hinders the promotion of “sex work”.[xiv]
Wants to promote sex work and 457 visas for sex work.
Scarlet Alliance wants to promote “sex work” as a legitimate occupation; it claims that “sex workers” should become entitled to 457 Visas and that brothel owners should be eligible sponsors of “migrant sex workers” (i.e trafficked women) to give more respectability to the pursuit of professional “sex work”.[xv]
Scarlet Alliance claims that “sex work” should be considered legitimate in all its forms, including brothel, private escort and street based work. No licensing model should apply.[xvi]”
So this is for anyone still wondering why they oppose the Nordic Model, which decriminalises the prostituted and instead calls the men who buy and sell us the criminals. For anyone still wondering if they have a point and if this is all about sex being taboo and “stigma” and blah, blah, blah. For anyone wondering if you yourself should oppose a model which provides exiting strategies and funding for women trying to leave prostitution .You can have a think about their ethics, their chants of “sex worker rights!”, their actual misogyny parading as some personal, stigmatised oppression from “moralists” and “rescuers”. You can have a think about how these ‘advocates’ who claim to be “run by sex workers, for sex workers”, even if they are in management positions and don’t have to sell sex at all ! treat women such as myself and so many others who actually give a shit about women. Would you call a woman entered into prostitution as a child a “Migrant Sex Worker”? And what would you give to know back then, when you were being “liberal” and “Choosy-Choice”, what you know right now?
They are calling for more funding . The Scarlet Alliance just received an extra of $960,000,(on top of the funding they have already received, which adds up to millions), for their place on a board to fight sex-trafficking.
Yes, you read that right. A group which denies sex-trafficking exists is on an advisory panel with the Abbott Government’s National Anti-Trafficking Plan.
Are you a good feminist? Bad feminist? Is it really about you?
Today the downturn of women’s rights is smacking us upside the face. Femicide is reaching such epidemic proportions that nations like Brazil are introducing special legislation against it. Australia’s rate of sexual violence has jumped 20% in a year, statistics that are reflected in a host of other countries. The global scourge of trafficking continues to reach record highs.
A whole raft of issues are affecting women now more than ever before. Yet, as the events to mark International Women’s Day in Australia showed, most of these issues are eschewed entirely by a feminist dialogue that refuses to look beyond personal choice.
On International Women’s Day the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) hosted an all woman line up to discuss feminism. Yet, in line with downplaying the crisis surrounding women’s rights, the special episode took to dividing audience members based on whether they identified as ‘bad feminists’ or not. This is a category that neither theoretically nor pragmatically exists, more in line with high school buzzwords than progressive politics.
Feminism, broadly speaking, offers a political lens within which gendered issues can be better understood, analysed and contextualised. In the past, feminism has proven to be successful in confronting a number of these issues.
Yet today, for a large part, feminism is entirely liberalized. It is less about global political issues with their gendered contexts, and more about personal choices in the pursuit of individual happiness.
Feminism has been gutted by an individualistic drive to validate lifestyles. ‘Can I wear heels and aprons and be feminist?’ ‘Is this lippy feminist?’ ‘I’m a bad feminist, aren’t I?’ Such questions opened the feminist Q&A session, a fitting reflection of the broader liberal feminist dialogue. At times, there appeared little distinction between feminism and the Cosmo fashion police.
Feminism was not designed as a personal quick fix cure all. It is not going to choose careers, fix relationships or overhaul wardrobes. It’s not going to endorse any choices, make us feel good about our new splurge or tuck us in at night. In fact for the most part, feminism will challenge, trouble and confront.
But it was meant to do just that. Feminism emerged from the consciousness of women of the liberation era, the very women that fought for women’s right to work, our right to vote, our right to not be legally raped in marriage, our right to escape violence in the home and seek refuge. Yet this consciousness is now denied as old and deemed too prudish, wrong or just blatantly ignored.
Taking its place is the shiny new liberal feminism that is far sexier, more ‘feminine’ and ultimately reinforcing of the status quo. Taking up the ‘bad feminist’ label is just one of a myriad of ways liberal feminism misses the point.
Our intensely westernized instinct to ask ‘what’s in it for me’ means feminism has been depoliticised to the point that feminism is purely about ‘personal choice’ and any ‘choice’ being justified regardless of how much harm it might cause to other women around the world.
Cosmetics that rely on sexist and racist stereotypes to sell their product? Feminism. Making pornography where women are slapped, choked and spat on? It’s been called feminism. Promoting the sex industry that is responsible for the exploitation of millions of girls around the world? That’s economic opportunism, or rather, feminism.
Activist Julie Bindel is labelled ‘dangerously irresponsible’ by feminist colleagues for criticizing pornography. As if the multibillion-dollar global porn industry will collapse under one woman’s words. The liberal version of feminism goes to lengths to deny the evidence that shows harm done to girls, women and men under these industries – to the point that feminism now defends the sources of sexism and vilifies women who speak against it.
In its bid to shake the ‘old’ ‘prudish’ and ‘man hating’ stereotypes of past, feminism has had the ultimate makeover. Like a good celebrity, feminism now brings heat rather than light to women’s issues.
Ironically, as feminism has reached its most liberal and least potent form, there is a swelling movement of young people that argue feminism ‘has gone too far’. For young women who are more likely to deal with sexual coercions that eclipse anything we have seen before this is undeniable evidence that any notion of gender equality could not be farther from a reality today.
When the question of young women sexting naked images came up in Q&A, the entire context of socialisation and sexual pressures were ignored. We were reminded it was a ‘choice’ and rebellion. This was no surprise given liberal feminism asserts that pop stars, feminist porn and ‘free choice’ for all of the above will save us.
If we acknowledge there is a war on women, then sexual objectification is it’s propaganda and both sides are selling it. While claiming to promote ‘choice’, liberal feminism has actually reinforced the sexual pressure that sees girl’s choices more constrained than ever before.
This contradictory soup of individualistic choice feminism may make bearable entertainment for women who’ve cut their teeth on feminist literature, but what message is this sending to young women on how seriously we take women’s rights?
The focus needs to shift away from what kind of dresses women like to wear, or what kind of label women like to identify with. The issue is not simply a matter of individual choices or identities.
So, are you a good feminist or a bad feminist? Is it really about you?
The sex industry’s reaction to even mild questioning of its position demonstrates how any discussion about prostitution is shut down in Australia.
When an industry is used to having its way day after day and rarely being called to account, it’s a rare moment when a serious national current affairs program such as ABC’s Lateline (welcome back!) decides to explore the realities of life for women in the industry, give voice to survivors and provide coverage of the Nordic Model which criminalises not the prostituted women but the buyers of these women, now taken up by a number of countries.(Last year, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe both passed non-binding motions on prostitution that recommended the adoption of the Nordic Model throughout Europe and France has also taken steps to adopt the same).
This is one clip of four from the Lateline program March 13. (The other interviews can be found on Lateline’s website). This extract, titled ‘Reaching out to Sex Workers’ shows Kate Connett, an outreach worker with Project Respect, on her brothel visitation rounds. As a survivor of the industry herself, Kate’s bravery is commendable. Thank you for speaking out Kate.
Lateline’s coverage was fair. Pro sex industry figures and Nordic model critics were represented. But even this mild coverage was attacked by the Scarlett Alliance and their friends especially on social media (search twitter @Lateline @Scarlett Alliance #Lateline). We need to ask why the sex work movement is so hostile to any suggestion that prostitution harms women? Looks like a case of vested interests, with the industry doing all it can to silence dissent.
The sex industry’s reaction to even mild questioning of the its position demonstrates how any discussion about prostitution is shut down in Australia.
However a new movement – led by a number of women who were once involved in the sex industry – is calling on Australia to adopt the NORDIC model. It is growing in strength daily and so many of us are hoping that a policy model which recognises prostitution as violence against women and punishes the perpetrators and not the victims, is implemented here as soon as possible.
…Hedges went on to say, “This is just an example of the utter hypocrisy of the liberal establishment which, on this issue, has abandoned poor women – primarily poor women of colour – to a form of sexual slavery and abuse.”
He calls Collis’ response “an example of how spineless and morally bankrupted the liberal establishment is, particularly on this issue as well as on many others. Every time it’s uncomfortable to stand up for something they run for the exit door. Yet they position themselves as moral or good people.”
Collective Shout activist writes on experience of virtual misogyny
Caitlin Roper, Campaigns Manager at Collective Shout, was asked to write about her experiences of online abuse, harassment and threats by the Online Hate Prevention Institute. Her piece was published on International Women’s Day.
An experience of online violence against women
Recently the prominent feminist Jessica Valenti confessed in a Washington Post article that given the nonstop harassment that feminist writers face online, if she could start over, she might prefer to be completely anonymous. The article stated that the psychological damage caused by the constant, violent and sexualized hatred is leading many women to recede from the online fight.
As a feminist campaigner who has been the victim of various online harassment campaigns by men who oppose my stand, I know what Valenti’s talking about.
I am a part of Collective Shout, a grassroots organization campaigning against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture. As a result, I have encountered the full spectrum of online misogyny: from general hostility, sexist slurs, death threats, rape threats to attempts at serious reputational damage through impersonation. The aim of the harassment is to get me to voluntarily quit the campaign.
Silencing women’s voices is the straightforward aim of online misogyny. Social and digital media is where we live out our social, professional and political lives. We make friends, share personal stories, build professional networks, participate in discussions and debates, and make a case for our own rights and the rights of others. But if you are a woman, be warned. Your gender is your weakest link. It will be used against you to push you out of the online space.
Sometimes women don’t even have to be outspoken champions to be targeted. It is just enough that they are women participating in the digital space to be harassed. As this recent article exploring internet trolling revealed, some trolls are simply looking for a reason to harass you, and your gender is reason enough.
This article presents a number of different ways in which social and digital media platforms are used to insult, humiliate, threaten and harm women, and the abject failure of the law enforcement and social media platforms to recognize the real harm caused by such online expressions of violence against women.
Sexist slurs include language and name calling that is used to demean and denigrate women (e.g. bitch, slut, c*nt etc) or sexist jokes in which women are diminished to sexist stereotypes with their capacities limited to domestic labour and providing sexual gratification to men (e.g. the regularly encounted “Go make me a sandwich”, Steak and Blowjob day “jokes”.)
Sexist slurs are used to undermine women’s standing, as if being female makes them less worthy of being heard and of participating in the public sphere.
Unsolicited content of a sexual nature
Misogynistic hate speech also includes unwanted sexual comments directed to women. This can take the form of unsolicited comments and questions of sexual nature from male strangers, for example, asking about a woman’s sex life or sexual preferences. These often include unwanted sexual images from men, such as, their erect penis or images of them performing sexual acts.
These comments make it impossible for a woman who is being targeted to engage with social media without the fear that the next message they receive will be one of abuse. The aim here is to undermine women’s feeling of safety and security online, and to make it clear that women are not welcome or wanted.
Threats of rape and physical violence
Many women report frequent online threats of rape or physical violence from men. This is particularly targeted at feminist campaigners or women who speak out on other controversial issues. Some men feel so threatened by these women’s voices that they resort to threats of physical violence against them.
Threats are also made by sending women distressing images of extreme violence, and jokes and memes about beating and raping women. A recent example of this was when one of my colleagues was sent an image of her face superimposed onto the image of a dead woman lying in a pool of blood. We were, in this case, targeted for highlighting violence against women in the popular video game Grand Theft Auto V.
It is true that, more often than not, such men may not have the intention or the ability to carry out these threats. But as the Elliot Roger massacre in Santa Barbara indicates, there are a small number of mentally unstable people out there who may turn their threats to action. How is one to know when a threat is empty and when there is genuine intent behind them? Can you blame someone who is being targeted like this for choosing not to play this game of Russian Roulette and instead retreat? Such hate speech, whether made with genuine intent or not, is a silencing tactic.
Here is a compilation of some of the rape threats that I received when campaigning for Sheffield United not to reinstate the British soccer player and convicted rapist Ched Evans.
Another frightening tactic used by men is using a woman’s name and image and setting up a fake social media profile. It is aimed at causing reputational damage, social and professional embarrassment and undermining one’s campaigning efforts. This is a particularly popular option on Twitter, where setting up an account is easy but the reporting structure provides few roadways to report fake profiles and get them removed.
I have personally experienced such an attack, where my name and image was appropriated for a fake account offering sex to men online. Here are screenshots of some of what was tweeted in my name. Note the fake account’s use of a double underscore in the name, but how the comments were then Tweeted to my real account (with a single underscore) to ensure I’d see them.
Releasing private information
Another online bullying tactic is “doxxing”, which involves publicly releasing a victim’s personal information and contact details online. Doxxing has been used as a form of public vigilantism, but can also be used to target innocent victims. Women fighting for controversial causes are frequent victims of doxxing.
Imagine the distress caused to women who have their home address, their workplace, their children’s names and schools, leaked online for the express purpose of further abuse and harassment.
‘Revenge porn’ is the name given to the rising phenomenon of men releasing nude or semi-nude images of women to humiliate and punish them. These photos or videos may have been taken during a consensual intimate moment, but they are subsequently released publicly as revenge against these women when the relationship goes sour.
Equally distressing is the rising trend of uploading and sharing actual photos and footage of women being assaulted and raped online. As if being raped is not traumatic enough, these women now have to face the deep humiliation of having their rape shared publicly or live in the fear of the footage or images surfacing. Women and girls have taken their lives in the aftermath of this devastation.
Response of the Law Enforcement
As a vocal female activist, I’m used to shrugging off the barrage of sexist slurs and physical and sexual threats that I receive online. But when I found myself being impersonated online (as pimping myself), I knew I had to take action. My hands shook and I felt physically ill as I watched tweets from ‘myself’ offering to perform sex acts for strange men on the internet, powerless to stop it.
I felt physically and psychologically threatened enough to take matters to the police. In response, the police officer asked me “Why don’t you just close your account?”. When I explained that I use it for my work, she pressed further- “but why do you need to use it?” The implicit assumption was that if I was being threatened, I should retreat, that it was somehow unreasonable for me to believe I had as much right as anyone to access social media (even in the course of my work) without threats.
I received no assistance from them. It was supportive twitter users who helped me to identify and report the man who created the fake account, and to get Twitter to remove the account.
The experience of my colleagues has not been any better. Talitha Stone, who spoke at OHPI’s launch of its online hate reporting tool http://fightagainsthate.com, approached the law enforcement for help when someone tried doxxing her home address at a time when she was already receiving violent death threats. Instead of helping her, the police sent her away with cyber safety pamphlets.
In fact, around the world, women reporting online threats have been told by police officers to shut down their social media accounts, use “more plain profile pictures”, ‘become anonymous.’ They’ve been told to just “stay off the internet”, even if maintaining an online presence is part of their paid employment. This is arguably the digital version of instructing women not to wear short skirts or walk alone at night.
Police gauge the likelihood of the perpetrator to carry out the threat, and if they suspect it is unlikely, they fail to proceed, despite the fact that under the Commonwealth Criminal Code it is an offence to use a carriage service (such as the internet) to “menace, harass or cause offense”. Their response to women who report such abuse demonstrates a profound lack of understanding not only of modern communications and technology, but of the impact on both life and health of ongoing harassment and threats.
Response of the Social Media Platform
In order to get Twitter to suspend the offending account, I had to provide a scanned copy of my Drivers Licence to prove I was the real Caitlin Roper. Once I had done this, Twitter promptly closed the fake account. However, there are no systems in place to prevent perpetrators from simply opening a new account in a matter of minutes, which is just what my harasser did.
Social media platforms are all too aware that people use their sites to threaten, harass and abuse other users. Recently, the CEO of Twitter acknowledged in a leaked memo that “we suck at dealing with abuse”. So why have they failed to take concrete steps to protect users? Social media platforms profit enormously from user generated content but do little to protect users from abuse and reputational damage. Why don’t they institute lifetime bans for serial offenders and those who use platforms for criminal threats and activity? Or do more to cooperate with law enforcement?
Instead, the platforms instruct victims to spend countless hours reporting abusive content, blocking harassers and going to the police. However, when you are the victim of an organized hate campaign, when threatening tweets and messages keep coming one after the other, the idea that you can simply fill out a report for each individual tweet is impractical, if not downright impossible.
The response of the law enforcement and of the social media platforms show that there is little recognition of the significant distress and trauma caused when a woman receives an onslaught of hateful, violent, sexually graphic and threatening messages, particularly on an ongoing basis.
A few weeks ago, I received a message asking me if I would prefer to be raped then murdered, or murdered then raped. I didn’t even blink. I remember wondering if the fact that such ugly threats could seem so mundane should be cause for concern. Online expressions of violence against women have become part of the territory for those campaigning for the human rights of women and dealing with this abuse surely takes an emotional toll.
Misogynistic online hate speech is part of wider cultural attitudes towards women, where offending men feel free and uninhibited in expressing their hatred and contempt for women. They behave so because they know that in all likelihood there are no consequences of their abusive and criminal behavior. The goal of this behavior is to silence women.
It takes great strength for women to persevere and continue to speak out in the face of these threats and intimidation. Women have to make choices every day about what risks to take when speaking out online. If men are not held accountable for their threatening and intimidating behavior – by the law enforcement and the private social media platforms – who knows how many women have been or will be deterred from taking up their rightful voice in the public space.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute recommends that social media companies take over the monitoring and investigation of large scale hate campaigns targeting particular users. This would remove the need for the user to make further reports, and would allow a faster and more effective response. Such response may include the banning of IP addresses used to post such abuse in addition to liaising with law enforcement agencies and pro actively providing IP addresses of abusers at the platform’s instigation.
The proposed approach would serve as a significant deterrent to abuse of these platforms, making them a safer space in which more people could productively engage. This would be an improvement for not just women, but all users, and add value for the platforms themselves.
Women should not have to make sexual concessions to have a seat in the boys club.
This morning I appeared on Channel Seven Sunrise to discuss Dr Gabrielle McMullin’s comments that given the level of sexual harassment in the medical profession and the penalties women faced when they complained, it may be better for them to submit than to take matters further. While it is good that Dr McMullin has exposed the shocking reality of gender inequality within the profession, I was concerned that her response suggested women have to make concessions rather than be treated with respect and as equals.
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