A Pox on the Patriarchy
On Friday, I deactivated my twitter account. It wasn’t a decision I reached carefully, after thought and consideration. It wasn’t intended as a statement. I didn’t even really intend for people to take much notice – to that end I sent out a tweet about a minute before I deleted to explain that it wasn’t permanent. Unfortunately, that tweet wasn’t around for long, because I only left it up as long as it took for me to perform the deactivation. Perhaps what I should have done was waited about an hour, for word to get around. Perhaps I should have anticipated that the media would pick it up, that people would start talking about it. But I didn’t, because I wasn’t thinking about the consequences. I wasn’t thinking about anything much. All I was doing was trying desperately to find a way to make the fever-pitch screaming that was going on in my head stop. All I was thinking was that everything needed to stop. And this was the only way I could make it happen.
It hasn’t worked out quite the way I planned. The media has got hold of the story and, without speaking to me (admittedly this is partly my fault for not wanting to speak to them) have written about it, drawing their own conclusions about my actions, and about my reasons for those actions. It has re-awoken trolls, abusers, harassers, and the growing mass of people who’ve come to hate me for motives, feelings and a personality that they have projected on to me. It’s inspired them to find other ways to contact me to tell me about these opinions, these projections. It has become a talking point, with many people presuming to hold forth on why I’ve done what they think I’ve done. And so, since people are talking about this anyway, I’ve decided I want to explain what I’ve done and why I’ve done it – that way, if discussions and judgments have to take place, at least they can be based in reality.
Let me take you back to Thursday. Thursday was a day when I turned on twitter in the afternoon, to find that my twitter mentions had flashed back about three weeks, and were full of graphic and violent rape and death threats. This awakened a weary horror in me. It seems that I will never be free of this. That I just have to learn to live to dread my emails, my letters, my social media messages. Yes, I can shout back. Yes I can report to twitter and the police. But I can never unsee what I’ve seen. I can never go back to a life where I haven’t read daily threats about my throat being slit, my genitals being mutilated, my body being burned, and my vagina being speared with a pole, a knife, a poker, a cock, another cock, more cocks, hundreds, thousands of them. Those images are with me for life. That hatred is in my soul, it’s in my body. It’s in my mind. And I carry it with me everywhere. So Thursday’s stream wasn’t shocking. It was exhausting. It was something that weighed me down – just that other bit more. It wasn’t something that would drive me off twitter. These men would never drive me off twitter. I feel nothing but contempt for them. I want to stand up to them, make them face me, make them look me in the eye. I want them to have to hear, read out in my voice, what they said to me. I want them to imagine this read out in their mother’s voice. I want them to feel shame, horror and hatred. I want them to look at themselves, and I want them to dislike what they see. And more than this, I want them to see that they are weak. Their actions are the actions of contemptible cowards. Their actions are beneath humanity. They are beneath me. And it is for this reason, that they will not break me. They will never break me. And I want them to know that too.
But another thing happened on Thursday. When I went to report the new threats, I found an email from a police officer asking me to read over and approve a statement. This statement confused me. It was about a man who had set up multiple accounts to harass and threaten me. But the statement seemed to suggest that this man had only sent me two relatively innocuous tweets. Over the course of the afternoon, and some painfully slow email exchanges, I became seriously worried and distressed. I worried that I had been told I didn’t need to record all the evidence, only alert the police to users that were concerning me; this no longer seemed to be the case. It seemed that unless I personally had the evidence, there was none. I worried that despite being told only to alert police of particular users, I had sent over more evidence anyway; it seemed that they didn’t have it. And I despaired that despite the trauma of seeing these threats the first time, despite the fact that I had just received a stream of more threats, I was going to have to trawl through everything again, looking for specific threats from specific users. I felt abandoned, I felt desperate, and I felt overwhelmed.
So I took to twitter to vent. To express my frustration, my anger, and my disbelief. And in return, I got a lot of support. But I got something else too. I got people who told me not to feed the trolls (again) – that my actions provoked the attacks. I got told not to be so emotional. I got told not to shout, not to swear, not to react. I got told not to send public tweets. Every piece of my behaviour that could be singled out and analysed, was. It was analysed, it was judged, and it was found wanting. And once this decision of my inadequacy had been reached, the judgment was relayed to me. Over, and over, and over again. For twenty-four hours, until I shut down my account. Sometimes, maybe even often, well-intentioned. But also piously, sanctimoniously, patronisingly. And relentlessly.
I was not new to this. It had been going on for months. It had been going on ever since I decided to take such a loud and public stand against the routine abuse that women face online. I hadn’t been prepared for it then – and I wasn’t prepared for it now. I knew about “don’t feed the trolls” – who doesn’t? Does anyone really think I haven’t come across this smug little piece of advice before? But I wasn’t prepared for the grip this dogma – and it is dogma – held over people’s attitudes. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that that grip was so strong that it would compel thousands of people – strangers – to get in touch with me, and tell me how to behave. That what I was doing was wrong. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that its strength was such that it would cause people to forget their sense of humanity, and ignore a victim’s pleas that they stop, that they leave her alone, that they stop imposing their views of what was right, over her sense of what she needed in order to cope.
I also had heard of victim-blaming. I had even seen it in action, been outraged by it, been involved in campaigns against it. What I hadn’t been prepared for was how it makes the victim feel. I had seen it as a matter of justice, as a dangerous precedent that could be set, if we think it’s OK to ask a rape victim why she had worn a short skirt, been flirty, been in that area of town, had sex before. I hadn’t understood how it makes the victim feel. How it makes them feel victimised all over again. How it was sometimes the insidious, repeated, relentless insinuations, implications, and often outright statements, that it is the victim’s fault, that their behaviour is at fault can ultimately break them down. Sap their power, strength and determination to stand up to their abusers. Send them over the edge. Render them brittle, incapable of conversation, debate, anything other than a primal scream of rage, of fury, of howling pain.
This is what happened to me. This is why I left twitter. It wasn’t because of the rape threats. It wasn’t even because of the police failures – many of which are now being dealt with. It was because of the relentless, exhausting, never-ending policing of my behaviour. The continual injunctions not to react, not to swear, not to shout, not to show emotion. To be quiet. To be good. To take it. Some of these injunctions were deliberately provocative; some of them were well-intentioned, if insensitive and even sanctimonious. All of them were unbearable.
What these well-intentioned people don’t think of, don’t account for, is the pain the victim is already in. The level to which their reaction is not necessarily about doing “the right thing” in relation to potential consequences, so much as the right thing for them. The thing that they need to do. These people don’t think of the impact on a person’s mind of living every day with the tension of wondering when the next attack will come. The sense of dread when you open your emails, when you open twitter. And what the well-intentioned people who come along after the victim snaps at the 20,000th person who tells her not to feed the trolls, who tell her, “ooh that was a bit harsh, and maybe don’t be such a sweary-Mary. He/she meant well, they don’t deserve your aggression”, do, is to add to that pressure. The pressure that made the victim snap in the first place. That sense that her behaviour is always wrong. That the only thing she can do that will make people happy is just to keep quiet, keep calm, receive all unsolicited advice in good humour. Never mind that her mind is overrun, overwhelmed and filled with pain, rage, and ultimately just a single all-encompassing scream.
All I wanted people to do was to go away. To leave me alone. But they kept coming. They all felt it was their position to have a say. Their right to tell me how to behave, how to react, what to do. They felt it was their right. My rights didn’t come into it. My right to behave how I wanted in reaction to abuse. My right to decide for myself how I should act after over a month of dealing with this. My right to express my pain, my fury, my frustration in whatever way helped me to release some of it. My right to not have those reactions policed by a thousand well-meaning darts. A thousand intrusions into my mind. And each new tweet, each new message that told me how to behave, or that my behaviour was unacceptable, added to that. And made me wonder what the mentions of my abusers were like. How many of these people telling me not to swear, not to react, where telling them not to contact me to tell me about the new, imaginative way they’d thought of to violate and mutilate my body. Not many, I suspect – if any. Because it’s easier to tell victims to shut up. Victims are nice, pliable and compliant. Abusers are scary and tough and will tell you to fuck off.
But I didn’t behave like a victim. I told people to fuck off. I called them patronising pricks. I screamed in all capitals. I swore and I howled and I shrieked. And that meant I deserved more. More policing. More chastising. More admonitions. And I just kept screaming, louder and louder, being pushed over the edge. Until I just couldn’t take it anymore. Until my mind, my consciousness, was just one, all-encompassing howling, shrieking, scratching, fist-beating, teeth-gnashing, SCREAM. And I needed it to stop. I needed silence. And pressing that deactivate button gave me that. It stopped the cycle. It stopped the hundreds of people telling me how to behave till I felt I would burst.
I haven’t gone forever. I’ve just gone until the screaming in my head stops. And until I feel I’m no longer such a focus of attention. I will be back, because I love twitter. I love my friends on there, I love the hundreds of strange and wonderful conversations I’ve had, I love hearing so many diverse and often conflicting voices, I love the debates, I love finding out about new ideas, new perspectives. And I love the its transformative power. I haven’t forgotten that it was because of twitter that I set up The Women’s Room with @planetcath. I haven’t forgotten that it was because of twitter that I was able to take on a huge public institution like the Bank of England and start a debate about the representation of women. I haven’t forgotten that it was because of twitter that I met Lucy from No More Page 3 and saw her campaign grow, and was able to help with that, or Laura from Everyday Sexism, who has made the daily injustices and indignities that make up women’s lives, visible. I haven’t forgotten any of these things. And it is because of those things that I will come back – but also because of the rape and death threats that I will come back. This is a matter of justice. It is a matter of doing what is right. It is a matter of standing up and saying no, and never letting up. It is a matter of not being beaten.
I will not be beaten by rape threats. I won’t be beaten by victim-blaming either, but it makes dealing with the rape threats so much harder. So I want to end with a message to all those who tell me “don’t feed the trolls”, to all those who contacted me, discussed me publicly at length, wrote blogs about me, told me off for losing my temper. Stop. You may think you know how it feels. You may think you know how you would react. But you don’t. You can’t know. You can’t know, because you are not me. And you have no right to add to my suffering. You have no right to intrude with unsolicited and unwanted advice. You have no right to judge me. So if you think you are a good person, if you want to be a good person, a supportive person, a person on the side of what is right, listen to victims. Listen to them by what they say, and what they imply. If a victim is saying stop, leave it, don’t carry on. If a victim is screaming, assume that they are in pain, and don’t tell them off. And never, never tell a victim how to behave. It is not your choice, no matter what you may have been through in past, no matter what your professional experience is. It is their choice. Don’t take away the one bit of control they have left.