Online misogyny is currently hitting the headlines, with prominent women columnists testifying to an unrelenting tide of sexually motivated aggression. It’s a narrative with which I have an enormous amount of sympathy, for as a female blogger I find that my comments box fills up with remarks of a sexually abusive nature with alarming alacrity.
Comments tend to centre around my personal appearance, which, somewhat paradoxically, is apparently both repellent and inviting of sexual advances. I am quite clearly sexually frustrated and repressed, they suggest, and in need of a therapeutic sexual encounter, one that will have the effect of relieving my obvious sexual tension and have the added desired effect of altering my abhorrent Catholic views on the nature of sex and sexuality.
Sexual violence is a prominent feature, either to myself, or even more shockingly to my children; a comment received last week stated that it was a great shame that my children had never been sexually abused, which was obviously required in order to make me understand the severity of the clerical abuse scandal and make me understand the iniquitous nature of the Catholic Church.
As a Catholic blogger, I experience something of a double- or even triple-whammy effect. The abuse I receive is centred around my faith, my gender and to a certain degree my marriage. At the time I started blogging and engaging in online debate I was married to a vicar, which held a certain fascination. I was seen as a symbol of the Christian establishment and thus a legitimate target for attack. Whereas the headlines have been focused around male misogyny, my robust defence of Catholicism and in particular of Catholic social teaching has meant that the misogyny has emanated from all quarters – men and women alike.
Whereas the threats from men have been articulated using the language of sexual violence, women have equally not been averse to threatening physical violence of a different nature.
A woman hoped that I would fall victim to a backstreet abortionist’s rusty scissors. Another woman asked that God might strike me down. Another wished for my death in childbirth. And yet another expressed a hope that my children would be removed from my care and placed in the care of a homosexual couple as I am clearly inflicting psychological damage upon them by a process of religious indoctrination.
This isn’t simply a narrative of women under attack from men; any woman with strong counter-cultural views, such as Catholicism, comes under attack from her own kind. Some of my most pernicious opponents who have threatened a disproportionate real-life response due to a divergence of opinion have been women, with one particularly enraged individual threatening to ring up my husband’s former bishop to report slanderous allegations unless I halted pro-life work, and whose version of feminism didn’t encompass exercising any compassion or charity towards a heavily pregnant woman.
Male Catholic bloggers do testify to a certain amount of aggression and strongly worded opinions, littered with ad hominem attacks, but none that resort to threats of physical or sexual violence or involve their family. Male bloggers do not, on the whole, tend to attract insults about their personal appearance, which is a regular feature of the negativity from both sexes. To insult a woman’s appearance and comment on her attractiveness or desirability is designed to strike at the core of her femininity. In
a society in which women are actively encouraged to sexually objectivise themselves and in which women still tend to be judged upon their physical appearance, a comment designed to tell a woman how ugly she is, is an attempt to marginalise and dismiss her as being of little value or worth.
I have had something of a mixed response to my reported online abuse, which featured in the New Statesman and the Observer. Other women bloggers, such as the noted libertarian Anna Raccoon, have viewed it with incredulity and reported that they receive very little in the way of contrary opinion, let alone highly personalised invective. Her opinion was that women should simply grow up and take it as being an inevitable part of the online discourse. Interestingly enough, various bloggers of a liberal bent, who had previously thrown accusations of attention-seeking or pity-seeking when I had vocalised hurt, were suddenly overcome with concern when the abuse was viewed through the filter of misogyny. The feminist bloggers who initially expressed solidarity chose to whitewash or ignore my inclusion in the initial story as my narrative did not fit neatly into the idea of male aggression, given that I had been at pains to point out that some of the misogyny had stemmed from those in their clique. A few of the comments following on from the New Statesman suggested that in many ways I was responsible for any negative or violent reaction due to my homophobia and offensive views on IVF.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to online abuse. Misogyny is no doubt one of them, as is an anti-Catholic sentiment. But it is misleading to spin either of these into a single narrative which seeks to present either women, or Catholics, as unique victims. Many women and many Catholics are able to engage in online discourse with little to no harassment. Equally, there are many male writers who attract opprobrium, but this tends to be less violent and vitriolic in nature. Though David Starkey, for example, attracted a lot of negative attention in the summer due to perceived racism, he did not report receiving threats of violence. Those of us who are subject to online harassment seem to possess a unique combination of features that provoke strong polarised reactions.
It is difficult to pose any realistic solutions that do not impinge on our diminishing religious freedoms. Catholic social teaching is counter-cultural and therefore we should all be wary of advocating legislation which would define the right not to be offended or extend the definition of hate speech.
One solution would be to assume a cloak of anonymity, something to which I have given considerable thought.
The reasons why my identity is transparent are twofold: first, taking responsibility and ownership for my blog means that I am also forced to behave charitably towards those with whom I disagree and not resort to cruel insults or barbed impatient retorts, a trap that besets all bloggers. Second, I began to blog, not only as an outlet but also as a means of apologetics and evangelisation. I am read by a substantial number of non-Catholics, so I wanted to transmit my ordinariness and my foibles, to be a human face while putting forward the case for the Church, to encourage and inspire other ordinary Christians.
“What did you expect?” is a common refrain. I am still unable to answer that question with any clarity. Freedom of speech includes the right to freedom from illegal harassment or aggression. The Public Order Act states that it is an offence to “display any writing… which is threatening, abusive or insulting”, hence my blog comments are highly moderated and appropriate action is taken where necessary. All of us who engage in online activity must ask searching questions and ensure that we behave in a manner worthy of the Kingdom.
To accept the premise that only those who are emotionally robust enough to withstand the cruelty that may result from voicing opinions should be allowed to do so is to contravene Gospel principles, as it denies a voice to the weak. All of us must work then to make the internet a reflection of the Kingdom and a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.