Caroline Criado-Perez experienced a severe level of cyber-harassment during the summer of 2013 after campaigning to have Jane Austen featured on English bank notes from 2016.
While her campaign was successful, the abusive messages Criado-Perez received caused her to temporarily disable her Twitter account and, sensationally, landed some of the abusers in jail.
Trolling is all too common, especially towards female activists in the fight for gender equality. The question of what the internet is doing for feminism is an interesting one. Is the internet a globally unified platform which enables feminists to share their issues, concerns and campaigns? Or has the internet become a force which effectively diminishes and demeans the women’s movement? Artefact explored the issues with Criado-Perez.
Has the internet been a positive force for women in the fight for equality?
The internet has been a brilliant thing for women actually. It’s enabled more women to speak up in a way they never have before.
You don’t need anyone’s permission to start a Twitter account or open a blog, and start writing. So I think overall it has been great and I think the reason that there has been such a backlash and so many attacks is more to do with the fact that women are getting so much from the internet and we’re doing so well. There are certain men who find that really threatening and that is why they attack women like this. So in a way we’re kind of victims of our own success.
Late last year the womenagainstfemisim.tumblr.com blog went viral when girls posted their views on why feminism isn’t for them. There were views such as ‘I don’t need to victimise men’, ‘I was raped by one man not men’ and ‘I enjoy being feminine’. What is your opinion on this blog?
They show a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism. Feminism isn’t about victimising men and it isn’t about saying all men are rapists; however, it is about saying that the vast majority who do rape are men and questioning why this is.
It’s about equality and I think it’s very sad that many women are still so scared of the fight; as if they feel they are asking for too much and wanting to reject the notion of equality. I don’t find it that surprising to be honest. We live in a society where men have the power and women don’t. It is quite natural for women to want to appease men by saying: “I’m fine, I don’t want to challenge you.” It shows that we still have a long way to go.
Not all the threatening messages you received were from men, abuse also came from women who called you an attention seeker. Considering that you’re fighting for female equality, did the comments from women hurt more than the male threats?
The male comments were definitely more frightening. I just find it sad when women behave like that. This is something that feminism is trying to tackle. The reason women turn on each other is because we’re given so little room that we tend to hustle in this tiny little space and end up turning on each other.
There have always been stories about women being awful to each other at work; as if it’s innate with women and we are incapable of getting along. This is on the contrary to the idea that actually, there’s so little room for us at the top, women fight to get to there. Women think it’s unrealistic to take the place of a man so they see themselves in competition with each other for little scraps of food that are left over – instead of saying to men ‘give us our fair share’.
How important do you believe it is that people hear about the cyber–harassment you’ve endured?
I think it’s important that people know what women face. Most people are really shocked when they hear what was actually said to me, the threats that were actually made. The internet has shown, if anything, how far we still have to go. It enables people to say things that they wouldn’t necessarily say face-to-face and haven’t been saying face-to-face for decades. It’s important to show the reality so people know exactly what we’re dealing with.
What do you think ought to be done with the law in relation to cyber–harassment?
It would be good if law enforcement actually knew what Twitter was. I was having to explain to police officers how Twitter worked and they were the ones investigating the crime! It really didn’t give me a lot of faith in their ability to investigate.
Social media companies could also be doing more to protect users and make it easier to block and report people. However, this is only going to be temporary, like sticking plasters. What we really need to do is investigate why, as a society, there are still so many people who are scared of women having a voice and using a public platform. This is what it’s about. Until society can get over its fear of women this abuse is going to keep on happening. Law enforcement are only ever going to be playing catch up.
Did you notice a pattern with the type of men who were sending you hateful messages?
No not really. They came from all walks of society it seemed. Some of them were fathers, some had daughters, some had jobs and some didn’t. There were no obvious connections between them except that they were all male. “Feminism isn’t about victimising men and it isn’t about saying all men are rapists.”
“Feminism isn’t about victimising men and it isn’t about saying all men are rapists.”
One thing I did notice, in terms of the content, was that they were all very fixed on saying ‘shut up.’ This made it clear that it is very much a fear of women’s voices. They would talk about slitting my throat and shoving their dicks down my throat and would say that women who talk too much need to get raped. ‘Shut your whore mouth,’ was one such insult.
These insults were entirely focussed on making me shut up – which I found interesting. It wasn’t just ‘I’m going to rape you’ or ‘I’m going to kill you’, it was ‘I’m going to rape you and kill you unless you shut up.’
You split the men into two categories on your blog: the half which saw their comments as a game and the half who were genuinely serious. Do you think both categories should be reprimanded and receive equal punishment?
No, I think it all comes down to the same thing. The ones who saw it as a game (by which I don’t mean that they genuinely didn’t care), while they wanted me to shut up, they weren’t actually going to come and rape me. Whereas the other men were. Both groups of men wanted me to shut up and found it a problem that I’d spoken out. I think that we need to apply the same solution to both categories: we need to stop men from thinking that women who speak are a problem.
What issues do you mainly address when you give speeches at schools?
I talk more about the representation of women and why it matters. I think a lot of people don’t really understand why it matters, that should we have more women in parliament or care how women are represented by the media. People tend to think these questions are separate to the fact that women get raped and beaten.
I argue strongly that this violence against women and the way we are treated and perceived is entirely connected. We need to change the way people see women in society in order to change the way we are treated in society. And this is what I talk about.
Again, this is also connected to what happened to me online. The fact that I was being told to shut up for being a woman and that women aren’t generally seen as entitled to speak out is not a coincidence.
“Most people are really shocked when they hear what was actually said to me, the threats that were actually made.”
What is the message that you hope children will take away from your talks?
For the girls, I want them to go away believing they have a right to a voice.
When I was 11 – I grew up with two brothers – I remember realising, suddenly, that I was talking while the other girls weren’t. The boys were talking, and this wasn’t a good thing because they didn’t like me for this. So for about seven years after this realisation, I tried to shut up. It never occurred to me to question why don’t I have just as much right to speak as the boys. So it is really important to me that young girls know they have just as much of a right to speak as young boys.
For the boys, I guess that would be the same thing. I would like for both of them to recognise that women have just as much right to speak as men.
Ultimately, deep down, we still feel like a male voice is more authoritative and that men are allowed to take up more space. Both men and women believe this and it’s why women shut up and men talk over them, or even dislike the women who do speak. This is the message I always want to get across.
Do you think the abuse you and other women receive online deters feminists from fighting for equality?
Definitely. There are people who are too scared; I know this because they tell me they are and it’s a serious problem for freedom of speech. There are a lot of people self censoring because they don’t want to deal with the grief.
“I think ultimately the internet is good. It is a force for democracy and that can only ever be a good thing.”
As far as I’m concerned the only way to deal with this is to ensure that there are more women who actually speak out. Until this is just accepted as a norm, women will continue being scared to speak out. I think there are more and more women who are speaking out and the numbers are growing. I just hope that eventually there will be enough of us so it’s no longer a big deal.
“I think ultimately the internet is good. It is a force for democracy and that can only ever be a good thing.”
Not all the feedback you received has been abusive. How has the positive support affected you and your work?
The vast majority of what I received is nice, supportive and really fun. I’ve had lots of support for my campaigns. It’s a double-edged sword that I would never be without. I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to run the campaign to get a female historical figure on a bank note without the internet. It enables me to reach people that I would never have done before. I think ultimately the internet is good. It is a force for democracy and that can only ever be a good thing.
Revenge porn has become a big thing recently. Women and men are having their naked images posted online by ex-partners across websites and social media. Do you think this falls into the same field as cyber–harassment?
Yes I do. Again, it is about shutting women up and putting them in their little box. It’s telling women: ‘you’re a slut because you enjoy sex’ and that is somehow shameful. Obviously it’s not actually speech and slightly different, but it’s still about trying to make self-confident women feel ashamed.
Didn’t the second wave of feminism supposedly sexually liberate women?
That is still not the case. I have a friend who is 18 and he told me he’d slept with a girl but didn’t want her to be his girlfriend because she’d slept with him too quickly. I was really shocked.
Certainly, when I was at school, girls had reputations for sleeping around. They were seen as bad yet the boys who slept with them were just seen as players. There is no word for a male slut, it doesn’t exist; only a woman can be a slut. It’s a really antiquated notion of women.
Gender equality is still something women need to fight for, so what’s next?
My book Do It Like a Woman and Change the World will be out in May 2015.
It’s about really cool women around the world who are doing awesome shit and breaking the stereotype. The phrase ‘do it like a woman’ is a play on ‘throwing like a girl,’ which feeds the idea that doing something like a woman means either not doing it very well or that it shouldn’t be done at all.
Women are still banned from doing certain things or we’re told we can’t do it simply because of our gender. What I’ve done in the book is interview women from all over the world who actually reveal how these stereotypes are not a true reflection of what women are actually doing today.
Featured image by Pieteke Marsden