Cybersexism by Laurie Penny

penny red
Growing up as the wooliest of wooly liberals in the 90s means that I am from a generation of men who consider that actively describing oneself as a feminist, like the statement ‘Some of my best friends are gay’, somehow illustrates the opposite. That the act of voicing something so unnecessary portrays exactly the kind of biases being opposed. We thought that the word feminism would disappear in a world where equality was the aim of everyone.

We never once considered that feminism would become a metaphor for uppityness like it has before. That however is how it now seems to be. I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked my friends (of both sexes) if they consider themselves to be feminists only to hear ‘Of course i’m for equality but I really hate these men hating feminists’. The fact that they can never name one of these men haters seems unimportant. They exist in the public perception and that is enough to render any outspoken feminist opinion as extremist.

This was reinforced to us all with the recent spate of sexual and physical threats made on Twitter directed against a number of high profile women with the unembarrassed temerity to hold an opinion. Laurie Penny was one of these women and in the face of such as an onslaught has chosen to release her new book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet.

As someone who considers themselves to be an internet native it is wonderful to read a book about online sexism by someone who intuitively understands the internet. Penny realises that online attacks are not exact analogues of their traditional ‘meatspace’ counterparts and have their own specific characteristics that need to be addressed differently. It’s this profound understanding of the internet that sets this book apart from other similar works that think that peppering their texts with a few references to the new popular social networks is an alternative to insight.

The book is at its best when it’s at its most personal. Penny tells a number of affecting stories of her own experience of abuse and harassment including one on the importance of the internet to her adolescent self. It helped her understand her own experience and, as it has done and continues to do for untold millions, allowed her to not feel so alone. One important aspect she stresses again and again is that these experiences are real. They are not the poorer companions to real life, they are just another aspect of real life.

As a former Librarian this chimed very strongly with me. I can remember homeless people learning how to access services that would allow them to turn their lives around, I saw gay and transgender people sharing knowledge about the few places that welcomed them in a largely unfriendly city and I saw older people learn that retirement did not have to result in a life of sedate loneliness. It is the importance of the internet that makes the attempts to remove the opinions of women from it all the more despicable.

Penny examines the unpleasant but undeniable prevalence of sexism and misogyny present in nerd culture in a way that I found fascinating. As someone who proudly calls himself a nerd it has always confused me why a community of outcasts should seek to exclude its own members. I have always put this down to base tribalism and left it at that. Penny however convincingly asserts that it is rather an overindulgent tolerance of any form of hateful speech so long as it comes from its members of the group. That its an embattled defence mechanism that automatically protects the group no matter who is in the wrong.

She explains that in her view the vigilante acts cyber activists that target and unmask those responsible for some of the horrible examples of online abuse arise when the laws and procedures of the ‘meatspace’ (christ I hate that term) do not function as they should online. Not many would choose to argue with that. However she doesn’t address the fact the very same methods used to target the perpetrators of abuse are also being used as tools by the abusers as detailed by Anita Sarkeesian, someone interviewed in the book, below. I think it important to recognise that the fight against this form of abuse is not an ‘us vrs them’ struggle as so many of the people who I would consider to be ‘one of us’ are on the wrong side.

Cybersexism can be read from start to finish in a little over an hour and is an extract of a full length book to be released next year. While it is definitely an intriguing read, especially at the negligible price of £1.49, I can’t help but feel slightly unsatisfied. There was so much more that I felt needed to be said that I can’t help but feel that this is more of a companion piece than a stand alone volume. So my advice would be to buy this book, and then buy the next one. It will totally be worth it.

Words by Neil McComb

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