This week, Helen Lewis-Hasteley posted at the New Statesman the words of seven women speaking about the abuse they’ve received online. That’s spawned a huge conversation, a #feministwishlist hashtag and a lot of other posts, much of which Helen’s rounded up here.
I think I was 12 years old the first time someone on IRC told me explicitly what they’d like to do to me, sexually, then swore at me when I told them I wasn’t interested. I learned, fast, that if I wanted to be taken seriously or heard at all – if I wanted to ensure that random, entirely unsolicited, often threatening sexual advances wouldn’t happen – I’d best pick a male name, online. Or at least be gender neutral. Being female meant I was fair game. It sometimes seems that in 15 years not all that much has changed.
I have maybe half a dozen online pseudonyms I’ve used at various times. There’s one in particular I’ve been writing, commenting, talking under since I was 12. Nowadays I don’t use it much, now I speak under my own name here and on Twitter, but when I’m not pseudonymous I speak about different things. I’m mindful of what I’m saying, not just for what it is but also for the reaction it might provoke. If someone wanted to track me down, it would no longer be particularly hard, with this open identity.
I am lucky, and often thankful, that the pseudonyms I use have never – as far as I know – been linked to me. I won’t repeat the abuse I’ve gotten under those other names, because I barely had the spoons to deal with it the first time round and I’m damned if it matters what the exact words were, anyway, and because it could open floodgates or let people link those identities to this one.
And in deciding that, I know in my bones that I’m setting myself up to be dismissed, to have my experiences belittled because I choose not to share them explicitly, to be called a liar or worse; that’s the kicker, you see, that eventually you know in your bones what could be coming, so you self-censor.
Some women speak and continue speaking, whether they are abused for it or not. For some women, who speak and are abused, the price for speaking is too high and silence is the only choice that lets them protect and care for themselves. For others, the existence and the experiences of those women is enough for them to decide, consciously or otherwise, that the risks of speaking will always outweigh the rewards.
And for some, like me, a partial silence descends.
I weigh words. What’s safe, given how easy I would be to find in real life, and given what I can cope with on a given day. How much of myself to reveal while pseudonymous, which details to fake and which to hide. It is laughable to suggest that identity online is uncomplicated in such circumstances. Either I can be myself, or I can speak without fear. I am uncomfortably constrained in both skins.
This is how bullying works. It’s how hate speech works. The abuse doesn’t even have to be directed at you personally – just so long as people are being torn apart for having a characteristic that you share, you may welll be worried about being torn apart for the same reason. Not just women, either – the mental health blogging community is 99.9% pseudonymous, for instance, with very good reason.
I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.
All these arguments are bollocks. And I’m bored of hearing them. And maybe saying so will put me in danger, maybe it’ll mean a threat or a few abusive tweets or maybe just an argument I’d rather not have to have. But I’m fed up of being told how we ought to moderate our behaviour. All these options just end up with us being a different sort of silent. I’d like us to be free to speak.
Maybe it’s just me. But somehow, after this week, I doubt it.