i’ll feed the trolls if i want to: street harassment and online abuse
Torrents of misogynistic abuse, both online and off, is nothing new. Anybody who dares to present as female and exist in a public space is almost certainly going to experience street harassment at some point, and the age of the internet has allowed misogyny to establish itself in a new, more anonymous format. Somewhat dubiously dubbed “trolling”, the use of social media and comment forums to abuse women is rising as steadily as the use of social media itself. The recent threats of rape and violence sent to prominent women in the media, such as Mary Beard and Laurie Penny, was met with media furore, but to many of us, it came as no real surprise.
Harassment is a phenomenon that has always affected those who seem vulnerable and visible. Street harassment becomes a part of everyday life for many women at the very moment they fit some loud-mouthed bystander’s idea of a sexual being. After asking for stories through Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and my friends, I received many messages describing various incidences of harassment that people had lived through, from being called a ‘slut’ at age 12, to being followed home in the dark and having to forcibly prevent a strange man from coming into their house. Rubbed up against on public transport, cornered whilst trying to walk home, groped in clubs and catcalled by large groups – the stream of stories, unfortunately, was never-ending. While it was shocking to know that so many people had fallen victim to street harassment, on varying levels of severity and illegality, to know that not one of us is alone in experiencing it was a form of solidarity.
Street harassment is degrading. It makes familiar routes dangerous and turns hometowns into threatening, unsafe spaces. It punishes women for the crime of trying to walk somewhere without the accompaniment of sufficient male presence to ward off abuse and it is an internationally transferable intimidation tactic. One of the most frustrating aspects is the inability on the part of the victim to summon the cool, level-headed version of ourselves that responds to such abuse with quick-witted cutting responses. There are a thousand scathing remarks lying dormant in my brain for the opportunity to be used against the next obnoxious observer who intervenes on my walk home, but they never make it out – my only real reaction to being cajoled, leered and shouted at is to keep my head down, avoid eye contact and try and move away fast enough to put distance between us without attracting too much more attention. As much as I would love to be the kind of person who can tear down street harassers without batting an eyelid, the truth is that intimidation is an upsettingly effective silencer.
The internet, on the other hand, is a different matter. Online, the physical threat imposed by a harasser is gone, exposing the idiocy and pettiness of their words for the pathetic sexist mess that they are. Anonymity plays a part in this as well, as allowing people to temporarily abandon the confines of a recognisable identity and let the full extent of their hatred loose under a false name frees them of their inhibitions but also exposes them as cowards with big Women Problems. This isn’t, in my view, a reason for real names to be a must on social media platforms, as Arianna Huffington has suggested – pseudonyms have long been a way for women to enter men’s spaces without fear of ridicule, from online forums to the Bronte sisters, and to get rid of that possibility is damaging to those who want to speak up but feel safe while doing so. The only real response that the world seems to have come up with as a way to deal with online harassers spewing out their hateful bile is, instead, the simple and yet infuriatingly unsatisfying response of ‘don’t feed the troll’.
My problem with ‘don’t feed the troll’ is not that it is an ineffectual response to abuse (although it is) or even that it assumes that sending vitriolic abuse is the same as trolling (although it isn’t). My problem with it is that it is a mantra used generally by those who are not involved in what is going on; more often than not it is a comment made by someone who is not at the heart of the discussion at hand and is merely interjecting to offer their unwanted advice. My problem is that ‘don’t feed the troll’ carries the implicit message that I do not understand how people or the internet works, and that by making fun of people who leave garbled, ridiculous messages along the lines of ‘get back in the kitchen’ I am investing energy and effort into something that is essentially a waste of time. To an extent, this is true – there is no real value in engaging with some sad loser whose idea of fun is posting poorly punctuated comments about how much he hates women. But there is value in my enjoyment of it.
In the “real world”, there is often no choice but to say nothing when confronted with street harassment; there is simply no way to tell if it begins and ends with shouting or whether the result of responding will lead to pain. Silence in the face of harassment already represents to me shame and defeat – fighting back online, however trivial the format may be, is an opportunity to stick it to every perverted creep who made me shake on public transport. On the internet, I cannot be cowed into fear; to be able to mock and make fun of harassers is a form of empowerment. It allows a sense of control and lets me demean the harasser in a way I would never be able to in physicality. ‘Don’t feed the troll’ means nothing to me – it’s useless rhetoric used to shut down conversations that aren’t about debate and discussion anyway, but about playing with an aggressor. The chances to belittle a harasser in the same way that they harass women are few and far between – I would suggest to all who are willing to grab the chance to do so with both hands. Sexism is a war with many battles, not all of which are serious. If you can inject a little fun into the fight, well then, why not?
Thanks Lucy. I think you nailed it.
“But there is value in my enjoyment of it”–I couldn’t say it any better:)
I loved reading your post, and I hope to read more from you
Love from Mississippi