Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gendering public space: Battle is joined online

Gendered control of public space has long functioned as a way of marginalising women and enforcing hierarchical power structures that privilege the masculine. In medieval Europe such control was often institutionalised, with town regulations dictating curfews while sumptuary laws imposed regulations on women’s clothing. The overt threat of rape and other forms of sexual violence was also used to deter women from going out in public without a male escort – usually a husband, father or brother who had legal and moral authority over them.

We might think, ‘phew, thank god we’ve moved on from those bad old days’, but this article makes me wonder (yet again) how much that is really the case. Linked on Digg, Fast Company’s story about the most influential women in Web 2.0 drew comments from the dismissive (“there are no women on the web”) to the outright hostile, with crude sexualised insults being the order of the day. The aspect that bothered me most was the barely veiled masculinised aggression, the attitude that ‘this is OUR space and if you women dare to tread here, you will get what you deserve’.

I’m tempted to say Digg represents the atypical views of an insular community of techy geeks who are externalising fears about their own sexual and social inadequacy, but I don’t think it’s as simple or as isolated as that. I’ve seen this type of behaviour on a number of blogs I frequent run by women historians (for example, the excellent Historiann: History and sexual politics 1492 to the present). It seems that simply stating one is a feminist is an intolerable provocation for the men (presumably, from their screen names) that occasionally turn up there not to engage in reasoned, intelligent debate, but to insult and bully in an attempt to silence.

How did this happen? It seems that in the virtual public space of the twenty-first century, women are having to fight the same old battles to be heard, to be respected, to be taken seriously and to be safe from sexual harassment and aggression that we have had to fight over centuries in the real world. At first, the realisation depressed me. But depression was quickly superseded by rage. The web and its new crop of social media tools offer enormous promise
to promote human rights across national borders and to give the voiceless a place to speak out. But this promise isn’t going to be realised if we back down in the face of aggression - whether overt or implicit - from those who would seek to replicate in the virtual world the same inequities and barriers that we are struggling to dismantle in the real world. If as a female, you’ve met with this type of silencing tactic online, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience. And regardless of your political position or your gender, if you witness this sort of behaviour being used to try to exclude people from a virtual public space, don’t let it pass unchallenged.


Digger said...

I've been on the receiving end of the silencing treatment. By another woman. On a feminist blog. I got attacked for things I never said and don't believe, accused of being a man-troll, and had my response "explained away" that I was just upset about something someone else said in another post (which I hadn't followed).

I certainly didn't expect those kind of attacks in that particular forum, but there you go.

I don't wish to give this particular group any public press, but I'd be happy to forward a link to the conversation via email.

Bavardess said...

Hi Digger, thanks for stopping by. The silencing treatment is disturbing, especially on a feminist blog. It is so frustrating to try and counter it online, too, as you can get trapped in loop where you're unable to clearly articulate in writing what you mean to say (or people willfully misunderstand you/misrepresent what you're saying).

The History Enthusiast said...

I had a friend (who I know IRL) do something similar on a post I had a while back about feminism and male privilege. It got a bit nasty.

LAMBCUT said...

For better or for worse, crude sexualised insults are part of the bloggosphere's vernacular. Check out right wing feminist blogger Cactus Kate and her ilk. The correctness or otherwise of insisting on sanitised discourse is worth pondering.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for your comment, Lambcut.

It’s not “sanitised discourse” I yearn for so much as sane discourse – that is, engaging intelligently (and passionately and even fiercely) with the content of an argument rather than attempting to silence people with empty polemic, personal insults and threats. To passively accept ‘this is how it is so get used to it’ seems rather defeatist to me. ‘What is’ doesn’t define ‘what could be’ or ‘what should be’. If we accepted that, the vote would still be the exclusive privilege of white male landowners and people would still be getting chucked in prison for publishing anti-government newspapers. The status quo doesn’t change until it is questioned and challenged.