Online rape and death threats against women shouldn't be written off as normal, says Barbara Ellen
PUBLISHED: 11:10 16 November 2016 | UPDATED: 11:22 16 November 2016
Gina Miller is just the latest woman to find that a high public profile comes at a cost: a deluge of rape and death threats. Barbara Ellen, on the most depressing of modern social developments
After successfully challenging the government over triggering Article 50 without a parliamentary vote, investment fund manager, Gina Miller is one the most significant people in Britain right now.
As if the bleeding obvious needs pointing out – Miller is also a woman. Therefore, with depressing inevitability, Miller has received numerous appalling rape threats (including gang-rape threats) and death threats (including threats to hang or behead her). Some of the threats are so extreme that Miller is considering reporting them to the police. As much as this is sickening, is anyone really surprised? If the answer to that question is yes, then where have you been lately?
This time the female-targeted vitriol happens to be Brexit-related, but that’s not always the case. It’s sad but true that violent, extreme and obscene insults and threats aimed at high profile woman have become borderline “normal”, to the point where it would be almost remarkable if they didn’t occur. It’s as though people hear about a woman saying and doing … well, anything at all (but especially something they don’t agree with), and they instantly threaten to attack, rape or kill her. Sometimes just the fact that a famous woman continues to exist seems to be enough.
This behaviour has gone beyond being widespread, it has become normalised, even to the point of being ritualised. While Noel Gallagher once joked that a rock star wasn’t really famous until they had their own stalker, for women, this has been twisted into a new dark reality. One, where, these days, for the high profile outspoken female, a deluge of rape and death threats almost serves as an introduction to public life, a messy online “blooding” – a sign that, hey baby, you’ve arrived!
If all this has an appalling effect on the targeted individual (and why wouldn’t it?), it affects wider society too. Somewhere along the line, people seem to have become desensitised – to have lost their sense of shock about rape and death threats, online or otherwise. I first noticed this last year when Labour MP Jess Phillips received online rape threats for making a throwaway disparaging comment about International Men’s Day – by which I mean, I noticed my own bizarre under-reaction to the news.
I wondered at the time, how did we get here - where a woman could be graphically threatened with sexual assault, and everyone, including myself, just shrugs it off and lets it go, writes it off as “normal”? When of course it isn’t normal, it isn’t even the new-normal. It is by definition completely abnormal, not to mention sick, twisted and repellent. It damages and degrades not only women, but all human beings, to attempt to downplay this quintessentially 21st century horror.
Maybe some people are thinking, “It goes with the territory”. But what “territory” would this be? Margaret Thatcher was a highly divisive prime minister and doubtless she received her fair share of “hate mail”. However, did this include threats from ordinary British citizens to gang rape or behead her - and not just from the odd psychologically disturbed individual, but from hordes of them in a deluge of highly explicit missives?
Others might argue that people such as Miller need to toughen up if they wish to be in the public eye. While I’d agree that, on one level, we appear to be living through “hyper-sensitive” times where certain personality types are almost hunting for opportunities to be offended, what relevance does this attitude have here? What exactly is there to “toughen up” about, when strangers are openly stating that they want to see a living breathing woman hanged, or sexually assaulted? When only a mere few months ago, MP Jo Cox, was tragically killed in broad daylight, how could Miller be expected not to take such threats seriously, to dismiss them as someone just venting, or “being a bit gobby”?
Obviously men in the public eye get threatened too, which of course is a disgrace. However, generally, men seem to get provoked in quite a different way. Whereas men might get routinely threatened with violence, it would still be fairly unusual for them to be threatened with the kind of extreme sexual violence that has been aimed at Gina Miller.
Yet this seems to be the “lot” of the high profile woman. Not only must women in the public eye be threatened with grotesque and sickening forms of physical violence, there must also be a quasi-pornographic flavour to the threats. In fact, forget that “quasi”, because it’s just straightforwardly pornographic isn’t it? If someone has actually gone to the trouble of writing down a threat to sexually attack a woman, it’s pretty clear that they’re actively enjoying the image and the thought. And as well as enjoying making such threats (usually sat at their laptops in lonely rooms, like the big brave soldiers they are), they’re also enjoying the damaging effect that the threats are having on the person they’re aimed at, and the fear and anxiety they’re causing.
In the swamp-like chaos of the online world, whether these threats are made just by men, or rather a large majority of men, remains unclear. While it’s presumed to be mainly men, ultimately, it matters less which sex is doing it, than the fact that it’s being done. Saying that, a particularly hot and smoky circle of hell must be reserved for any woman who physically threatens another woman, never mind wishing rape upon her. These women are not only hounding other women, they’re colluding and conniving with a growing malignant sub-culture which is primarily concerned with stamping women down. Why else would such effort be put into effectively muzzling women such as Miller for the “crime” of standing up for what she believes to be right? Clearly, the ultimate goal is to make a public example of the likes of Miller, in order to cow and intimidate all strong, principled, vocal, high profile women into a state of fear, paralysis, silence and inaction. A case of, “Take one uppity bitch down, take them all down”. The oldest trick in the misogynistic book.
Is this another direct effect of Brexit? It would be tempting to say so, especially in the light of the wave of racist and other ugly threatening behaviour that followed in the wake of the referendum. Yet in this instance, Brexit appears to be a more of a symptom or, if you will, an excuse. Nor could this gruesome phenomenon be entirely blamed on technology. While the internet lends anonymity to an extent, so too did poison pen letters in “yon olden days”, and there weren’t that many of them. Likewise, while using the internet is ludicrously easy, how hard really was buying a stamp?
Let’s face it, while the nature of the internet plays its part, this collective hounding of high profile women seems to be a generational phenomenon - collective being the operative word. After all, these don’t come across as the kind of threats that people make hoping that they will be a lone voice - unique and special. On the contrary, these are the kind of threats made by people who expect to be one of many, who are thrilled to be part of a baying mob – even more than thrilled, they are emboldened.
This is what Miller has been dealing with, and she deserves our respect and sympathy whatever she decides to do. Not just because of her astonishing achievements in court, but also because she’s yet another woman in the public eye being given the modern equivalent of a good old fashioned witch-dunking – the difference being that these days the woman must sink or swim in a watery hole of rape and death threats.
What’s disturbing is not just that all this has becoming so toxic, but that it’s become so ordinary, so entrenched and routine. In some sick way, the people doing it might even think they’re paying Miller a weird kind of compliment. Their way of saying, this is what happens when women become well known in the modern world, this is their initiation ceremony, their not-so-”golden hello”. Well, on behalf of Miller and all women like her, it’s time to call a halt. If this malaise is primarily a generational thing, then it’s time for this generation to “own” it - and to loudly say “No!”
Barbara Ellen is a columnist for the Observer. She has also written for NME, The Times, Mail on Sunday, Elle, Marie Claire, Grazia, Loaded, GQ and Mojo