This week in online harassment...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Speaking out about online harassment constitutes "over-reacting" for some. So how far does it have to go before it becomes worth bothering about? 

In recent weeks the long-running debate about the way women are treated online has finally hit the news, with bloggers, journalists and public figures from numerous countries weighing in on how much of a problem it is.

Plenty of discussion has also focused on how it can be stopped - although many of the women involved in the debate have been subject to further blog posts and comments telling them they're "over-reacting" and that misogynist abuse online just isn't that much of a big deal.

While almost everyone I know has welcomed this mainstreaming of the issue, it has of course meant that we've all become very familiar with the term "gaslighting" - the way people undermine what women are saying by telling them that they're being "emotional" or "hysterical" or "over-sensitive".

And so considering that pointing out online abuse seems to be such an "over-reaction" in the eyes of many, something we ladies simply need to "man up" about, I was interested to learn this week of a particularly unpleasant case of online misogyny not being that much of a big deal at all.

Misogynist-baiting blog Manboobz tells us that one of the more high-profile men's rights websites is offering "bounty money" to anyone able to track down the personal details of a group of Swedish women who have made a video they don't like.

The women posted an admittedly ridiculous video on YouTube over a year ago, advertising a theatre production based on Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto and showing the shooting of a man, followed by a victory dance by the women.

So it's publicity for a play, which isn't, you know, real. Like countless other plays and films produced every year that involve scenes of murder. But the guys at A Voice For Men see it more as a call for women to enact killing sprees directed at the opposite sex and have acted as they see fit, calling for those who are involved in the video to be publicly shamed. This includes:

"...asking for the full legal names, home addresses, places of employment, email addresses and contact phone numbers of the women and man who produced and starred in the video described above."

All just a bit of fun, right? Actually, no. Not when men's rights activists are involved. Stumbling across their websites is a discomforting experience. Many of these sites try to maintain a veneer of "reason", but you never have to read very far to realize that they're beloved hangouts of individuals who really do despise women, or at least all women who don't fit their ideal of feminine behaviour and let them treat them as they wish. Even when the contributors to these sites attempt to discourage completely vitriolic comments and attacks, you're going to get readers who can't help themselves.

It's also telling that they want to publish the personal details of the women on a site called "Register-Her", which purports to reveal the identities of women who have "falsely accused" men of rape. If that's not an encouragement to disturbed individuals looking to go on the rampage, I don't know what it is.

And that's why stuff like this - demanding that people track down the personal information of women so it can be publicized online - isn't just a bit of fun. It's encouraging the unpleasant people who frequent men's rights sites to intimidate and harass women, intruding into their personal lives, all because they've produced a satirical play.

In recent weeks some bloggers have spoken out about how worried they have been by threatening emails from people who have found out their addresses or information about their families. It does happen – and we all know that on the internet, you really don't have to look far to find people who will do genuinely disturbing things.

A writer at A Voice for Men has already been contacted by a Swedish journalist who seems concerned about what's going on. The writer himself seems more concerned about Sweden supposedly being one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to oppressing men, so I can only guess he missed the memo regarding that whole "countries with the highest quality of life" thing.

Another day, another example of women being targeted for harassment.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via screaming_monkey's Flickr.

Sunday linkpost/final thoughts - Christianity/gender edition

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A lot of discussion has come out of the issues surrounding gender equality and Christianity raised by various posts published in the past week - from different perspectives (which is good) and bringing up different points. I have collated the ones I have read here  for future reference and for anyone who hasn't seen them yet.

Vicky Beeching - Christian feminism is not an oxymoron

Krish Kandiah - Women, men, church and Twitter

Goannatree - The F word; or, I don't have to be a feminist to object to sexism

Elizabeth Esther - A necessary anger

Lay Anglicana - Aristophanes was the original complementarian

James Prescott - The masculine/feminine balance

Girltaristhan - Can I be a Christian and be a feminist?

Jo Royal - The one where I 'come out' - Part One and Part Two

and from me - Gracious debate, tone arguments and silencing, followed by Gracious debate part two - the silencing around gender issues

If you have a post to add to the debate, please comment and tell me!

The posts and discussion I have read and been a part of this week have raised two issues that warrant further exploration:

1) Masculinity and femininity in relation to the Bible. Can we interpret scripture to understand that a "Godly" man or woman should have particular traits, interests and personalities as well as "roles". To what extent is 21st century teaching on this informed by cultural gender stereotypes and expectations? And should we be looking to the men and women of the Bible for pointers on the right sort of "masculine" and "feminine" behaviour?

A lot of what I read online and in books about "Biblical" masculinity and femininity is heavily based on cultural expectations and stereotypes. I don't believe this is correct or helpful and actually think that we shouldn't be defining desirable and "Godly" personality traits, interests and lifestyles according to gender when they don't really have anything to do with whether one is male or female. Many other people take a different view. But what is very apparent to me is that a lot of people want to know what "Biblical/Godly" masculinity and femininity actually look like - and apply this to their lives. Personally, I'm not that fussed any more. Godly behaviour and personality? Yes - this is something we should all be striving for. Godly gender stereotypes? Not something I'm looking to implement in my life. But for some, it may be helpful to their situation or issues they are dealing with. So do we need a new conversation, a new approach to this? One that is less narrow-minded and more accepting of differences? One that doesn't attempt to tell us that Genesis 2 gives us a picture of man's "inherent strength" and woman's "inherent softness" (because let's be honest here, it really, really doesn't)? It's something I would hope to explore and discuss more in the future.

2) Working together despite difference to address issues of injustice. Something I've seen agreement on this week, from both sides of the debate, is that global gender inequality IS a justice issue and IS important. In my own contribution to the debate I wrote about wishing that comment threads on gender equality would stop boiling down to the holding open of doors and portrayals of men in television adverts for cleaning products as if that's all this issue is about. I don't think you have to believe that women can be pastors, or want an end to "traditional" roles within the family, to have a heart for global women's issues. Thankfully, the discussion has been steered away from trivial things. Some of the things I have seen people discussing in that respect are sex trafficking, rape and access to education. It would be great to see more of a "cross-party initiative" on these issues taking place, in the interests of both combating injustice and also working together to understand each other more.

Gracious debate part two - the silencing around gender issues

Monday, 14 November 2011

On Saturday night, when I was mulling over all this and deciding how I would tackle it, I realised I was going to have to split my thoughts into two posts. Tone arguments are one thing, but that day Vicky Beeching had just posted something brilliant and I saw that I needed to discuss the obsession with "being gracious", silencing and shaming as it relates to discussing gender issues, particularly as I had been in London at FEM 11 that day and the subject of women receiving abuse online has been a hot topic recently.

As I mentioned in my previous post, all Christian bloggers fall victim to readers' preoccupation with tone, but none more so than women when they discuss gender issues and/or feminism, which is such a loaded word for Christians that many don't even use it, even if it's a label they claim for themselves privately. In the post linked above, Vicky mentions that she was excited by all the tweets about FEM 11 appearing in her timeline on Saturday but decided not to retweet any of them because of the reactions it would probably set off among some of her followers.

What I said in my comment on Vicky's post and what I feel is something really important to consider here, is that as Christians we need to look past stereotypes and media hype and analyse the real issues at hand without resorting to uninformed attacks. When people judge us and our faith based on negative or untrue stereotypes, it makes us annoyed. When they take the actions of a few Christians (the antics of Westboro Baptist Church members - or any other hardline right-wing Christians - spring to mind here) and act as if the rest of us are all the same, it's frustrating. The same applies to feminists and those who believe in gender equality. It's disheartening when people dismiss our concerns or silence us, using clichés and misinformation to do so.

Firstly, it's important for Christians to understand that the feminist movement is wide-ranging. I cannot begin to describe how frustrating it is when someone mentions the word and readers immediately start qualifying it only in terms of a woman's role within the church and the family, or otherwise in terms of sexist television adverts, holding open doors and giving up seats. Don't begin to dismiss our work as unimportant and "outdated" until you know the many issues we work on and how they might affect women worldwide. Secondly, read a decent definition of radical feminism and make sure you use it correctly. Thirdly, consider what you're really doing when you say you don't believe Christians can sign up to the concept of gender equality because of the actions of a few "extreme" feminists. You're still following Jesus despite the actions of Fred Phelps, aren't you?

In my comment on Vicky's post, I highlighted a few of the issues related to gender equality:

"Equal pay. Racism. Poverty. Violence against women and girls. Trafficking. Under-representation in public life, politics and senior positions in business and decision-making jobs. The sort of future available to today's girls and their aspirations. Issues surrounding motherhood, income and the workplace. All this cannot be ignored while the discussion is reduced to simplistic statements about 'anger' and 'feminism going too far'."

When you reduce the concerns of the women's movement to holding open doors and adverts for cleaning products, believe me it grates - as if these are somehow examples of gender equality having gone beyond all acceptable limits, ruined the lives of women and emasculated the world's men. Similarly, it grates when people talk about gender equality as a concept promoting the establishment of female superiority over men and even doing away with them altogether. Look past your own front door and remember that people who aren't western, middle-class churchgoers have problems too. You see some people say that all these problems aren't what we should be concentrating on, as Christians. That they're not issues discussed in the Bible, so concerns about them are purely "cultural" and "of the world". Maybe that's true, for them - but some people happen to feel convicted about gender issues.

When they do, and especially when women do, it's important not to dismiss this, shut down the debate and label their conviction as "hysterical", "emotional" or "ranting". Nine times out of ten when I see a woman told she's "ranting" in a blog post she's simply expressing a strong opinion, or saying that she thinks something is wrong. When the popular male bloggers do this, it's unusual for someone to pull the "emotional" card, let alone the "hysterical" one (are people still holding on to the old definition of "hysteria" as health problems caused by the womb?). Treating a woman as your equal online doesn't involve using this sort of language, even as a "last resort" when you are frustrated or don't know where to take the debate. As a fellow blogger said on Twitter at the weekend:

"We are unfairly criticized when we are simply calling crap crap."

Unfairly criticized because according to gender stereotype, as women it's our job to put up, shut up and keep sweet lest we be told we're "out of line" or labelled "harpies". And it really is as simple as that. No matter how much some people believe they treat women well and respect them, the stereotype creates an underlying, uncomfortable feeling about how we should be regarded for speaking out about something.

Some time ago, a man responding to a blog post of mine said that he felt the issue of gender equality was not a crucial one (and therefore not one worth spending much time discussing) because it was "not a salvation issue". But know this: I have read the accounts of women who have lost their faith because of issues of gender and the church. I know women who have turned away from God because they cannot see how they can reconcile Christianity with calling themselves a feminist. I have heard the accounts of women who have been incredibly burned by the church and its attitude towards their gifting and their opinions. For these women, gender equality was - is - a salvation issue.

And when women talk about their own experiences with gender inequality - in or outside of the church, they might have painful memories to share. I know that I certainly have painful memories about gender inequality to share. According to those who enjoy silencing, tactics, we should be sharing these stories without emotion or a sense of injustice (and we all know that God hates injustice), because that would be ungracious and make us seem bitter and negative.

If those readers with their tone arguments were in fact correct, just asking for an end to injustice nicely, without being critical, would have done the job years ago and no-one would still have to question rape conviction rates or women bearing the brunt of poverty. Telling us that "things would be different if today's women were just happy to be women" (meaning content to live according to traditional gender roles) doesn't help. It's incredibly patronizing for a start - and yet again it's a "solution" that applies to a narrow range of issues - women's role in the church and family, yes, but not even a thought for the others I mentioned above.

As I said in my previous post, no-one should be resorting to bullying or un-Christlike behaviour. Caring deeply about an issue - and expressing a sense of injustice about it - is not the same thing.

Gracious debate, tone arguments and silencing

Sunday, 13 November 2011

It started with a couple of tweets from me, aimed at my Christian friends and fellow bloggers.

"To what extent do you think talk of "being gracious" is used to silence and shut down debate, particularly when it comes to issues involving women and the church?"

I asked this because, to put it bluntly, I am sick to the back teeth of seeing comment threads on blogs overtaken not by discussion of the issues at hand, but by discussion of whether or not the post and the tone used by the blogger was "gracious" enough, or "negative", or "bitter", or "Christlike". I believe we are called to Christlike debate. But I also feel that this obsession with tone is a classic derailing and silencing tactic, which at best comes across as patronizing - and at worst, incredibly unpleasant and shaming.

For those of you active in the feminist blogosphere, the term "tone argument" will probably be a familiar one. It's the argument a reader will make when telling the writer that "If you just expressed your feelings in a nice, polite way, others might listen to what you're saying". It's also the line that a reader will use when telling a blogger "Thank you for expressing your feelings in such a measured and rational way - so different to all those angry, aggressive bloggers". We Christians have our own equivalent of this. But the Christian tone argument favours a particular word - one which is fast becoming one of my least favourite words ever.

That word is "gracious". What I'm seeing, on an increasingly regular basis, is an obsession that blog posts on "difficult" or "controversial" issues must be "gracious". If they are not considered "gracious" enough by those reading, everything the blogger has expressed becomes invalid. This seems to mean different things for different people. As someone on Twitter said to me, sometimes people use the word when they mean "being kind". Sometimes they use it when they mean "agreeing with me". Sometimes they use it when they mean "taking others' opinions into account". Much of the time, the extent to which someone is believed to be "gracious" is dependent on how little they seek to "rock the boat".

There was a controversial post about the role of men and women in relationships on a very popular blog a few weeks ago. The post, written by a man, generated hundreds of comments, blog posts in response - and it's fair to say, plenty of drama. What really stood out among the hundreds of comments on the post, for me, was the number of comments by fans of the blog directed towards those who had disagreed with the post, telling them how bitter, emotional and ungracious they were. Bitter, emotional and ungracious - why? Because they'd dared to disagree with a prominent name in the blogosphere? Because they'd told their own stories of how the opinions expressed in the post had caused a great deal of hurt to them over the years?

I'm pulling no punches about this: it has to stop.

I see the tone argument pulled on men, too, when they express dissent. But when it comes to being shamed for expressing disagreement, anger or conviction, women are always first in line. It's an effective way of shutting us up, you see. Tell us we're "ungracious" or "un-Christlike". No-one wants to be seen as the person Jesus would disapprove of in an argument. It's also an effective way of rewarding us, giving us a cookie for playing the good girl and not rocking the boat. When I posted those tweets a few days ago, I was thinking of a particular post written by a woman whose blog I read, a woman I greatly admire and respect. Recently she'd written a post that I could tell had been difficult to write and had stirred up a lot of feelings in her. The post received a lot of comments. Most of them at the time I was reading seemed to be focused on how "gracious" her post was. "Thank you for being so gracious in the way you have written this". You know how it goes.

I was annoyed for her. Were people engaging with the issue she wanted to discuss? No, they were patronizing her for being good enough to write the post without getting "angry" or sounding "bitter". I didn't say anything about it to her, until we were discussing all this on Twitter on Thursday night.

"I hate it when [readers] pat my head and congratulate me for being gracious..." she said.

I told her which post I knew she was thinking of. She was. And she had felt patronized. She wanted people to engage with her opinions, not tell her how gracious she had been, when as she said, "I try to be respectful in hopes that they will hear my point instead of get defensive because I was too forceful". I think that this can be a good thing to do in the Christian blogosphere. There is, sadly, a great reluctance to see someone's view as valid if they are forceful in the way they write it. And so some people choose to adapt. And of course, there is no good reason to be vitriolic towards people, or act like a bully. But you can't talk about controversial issues without some sort of disagreement happening and we shouldn't try to stamp it out when it does.

When I see another post where the comments are more focused on tone than actually debating issues, where women are repeatedly criticised for having a strong opinion, feeling angry about something or disagreeing with someone (particularly a "big name" male blogger or preacher), my heart sinks. When this criticism comes from a place of male privilege, or from the perspective of women who are reinforcing the status quo, it reinforces the position that many Christian women see themselves in constantly - that they are ignored when they speak out and that no-one shares their concerns. We all need to listen to each other and understand that there is nothing wrong with righteous anger, or feeling emotional about a particular subject. There is nothing wrong with dissenting opinion. There is absolutely no reason to congratulate someone just for being nice and making sure they don't upset anyone, if this does not achieve anything. If Jesus's ministry had not caused dissent and controversy, where would we be today?

This post is part one of two. In part two I hope to discuss how this relates directly to discussion and understanding of gender equality and the feminist movement within Christian circles. 

The image at the top of the post, from here was the first thing that showed up when I typed "gracious living" into Google Images. I thought it was quite fitting, considering the subject matter. 

Exciting times for the Dorries-approved womb (plus women and blogging)

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

So back at the beginning of September I wrote a post for Nadine Dorries, all about my womb, which I described as "just about the most boring uterus ever". Behold, it does the same thing once a month with no fuss, I said, adding that Nadine would most heartily approve because I'd never managed to "go and get myself pregnant".

Yet unbeknownst to me, my womb was harbouring a secret. A big (not literally), life-changing secret. One week after I wrote that post I was staring at a positive pregnancy test. It said "3 weeks +". This was not entirely unexpected; I'll add (more Dorries points for me). I was pleased I'd been out partying the weekend before and therefore had one final hurrah on the booze (that's what's known as hyperbole, concern trolls; I don't binge drink). Aside from that, I was, quite simply, freaked out. When was I going to start getting symptoms? Was I going to have hyperemesis, like my mother?

The past couple of months have been interesting. Much to my mum's chagrin, the dreaded sickness never reared its ugly head. Mostly, it's been all about complete exhaustion. I'm used to being tired - I get up at 6am, I have a long commute, a busy job, I write a lot in the evenings and I work out. If you're wondering why blog posts have been thin on the ground since September, it's because I've tended to hit "the wall" at around 2pm. For several weeks, I felt like I could barely function by the time I got home from work. I've dragged myself to the gym occasionally and genuinely felt as if I was about to nod off while on the cross trainer

I've also been dipping in to what is uncharted territory for me: parenting forums and blogs. This has confirmed what I knew already: that despite being great places for advice and support, these places often take judginess to a whole new level. If you blog about taking a "relaxed" (as opposed to "smothering and paranoid") approach to parenting, there are people out there who will email you to let you know you don't deserve to be a mother (yes, this really did happen to a friend). Let's not even go there with the monumental breastfeeding bust-up that's recently happened among certain bloggers I read.

And then, there's "mummy blogging". Or "mommy blogging", if you like. C. Jane has been talking about it a bit recently, following her talk to university students about women and blogging. She asked me if I had any thoughts about being a woman and being online. Clearly I do. At the time I'd just been to the Christian New Media Conference and had attended the panel discussion on gender and digital media. The panelists asked the audience if they felt that "blogging is a man's world" and almost everyone said "no". This much is true in the sense that women are a very visible presence online and we don't shy away from writing. Yet how are we perceived, as bloggers? This is something I've written about before and also something of a hot topic recently, as shown by this column by Helen Lewis Hasteley for the New Statesman.

"The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet's festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a Greatest Hits of insults. But it's very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. No one likes to look like a whiner -- particularly a woman writing in male-dominated fields such as politics, economics or computer games. Others are reluctant to give trolls the "satisfaction" of knowing they're emotionally affected by the abuse, or are afraid of incurring more by speaking out."

Over the last week the subject of abuse faced by women online has really taken off with discussion not simply limited to blogs or Twitter as is usually the case, but a number of articles, very long comment threads and links being exchanged back and forth across the pond. There's been a hashtag - check out #mencallmethings to see women discussing the abuse they've faced. Cath Elliott has also done a good round-up of posts on the issue here.

So we have the misogynist attacks, the insinuations that we know nothing about particular subjects, the "silly girl" and "hysterical and emotional" put-downs every time we get passionate about something. And then there's the distinct lack of sisterhood which comes hand in hand with a lot of the parental judginess I mentioned above - something I was privy to when I wrote a guest post for Courtney earlier this year and found myself being berated by other women for being "young" (and therefore ignorant) and not yet having any children, among other things. I wasn't even writing about children or parenting, yet for some readers, it was clear that as a childless woman, I was somehow deficient and not worth their time.

Courtney doesn't like the term "mommy blogger" because it always ends up having a lot of negative connotations and being associated with unpleasant and often misogynistic stereotypes. The freebie-hungry mother who's out for the giveaways and trips and products to review and nothing more. The vacuous mother intent on portraying her life - and her children - as winsomely perfect. The oversharing mother who regales her readers with every tedious detail of her little darlings' development. From the post on Courtney's talk I linked to above I gathered she discussed the commercialization of it all, the pressures of modern womanhood extending to the blogosphere and the kowtowing to patriarchy which she sees as a particular issue for women of faith, but which of course applies to us all.

I've been part of conversations where people - men and women - have pretty much spat out the words "mummy blogger", with great disgust, or otherwise used it in a mocking, smirking way. I've read mummy/mommy blogs from the excellent to the very, very bad; of course they're not a terrible thing per se. I'm not sure if I'll ever want to count myself among them, though. Because for the time being, now I'm feeling a bit better, I'm happy to keep on writing about my usual topics. You might see pregnancy-related posts (you may wish to avoid them), who knows?

Last week I had my dating scan and saw my baby for the first time. Things feel more real now, and less stressful, for the time being. And so, it starts. I am starting as I mean to go on and taking it to its first feminist conference on Saturday. Let's hope I manage to stay awake.

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