Be a woman with opinions on the internet, goes the saying, and prepare to trade in your comfort, safety and self-esteem for an endless drip feed of abuse, threats and insights into the innermost thoughts of misogynists and mansplainers alike. While this very blatant assertion of power against women who dare to challenge a sexist status quo is nothing new, being reduced to a bubbling, mascara-stained mess over the words of a faceless egg might be – but only because their words feel all too real against the backdrop of a society where 1 in 4 women will be victims of sexual violence and where 2 a week will be killed by men (statistics from Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid).
The vitriol of these harassers is but one facet of an insidious and far-reaching rape culture, a set of structures built to trivialise gendered violence so that we don’t have to call it what it is – a systemic abuse of power that keeps society weighted in men’s favour. But they’ve got competition, and it comes in the form of real men with names and faces and ‘manners’. With articulate and rehearsed arguments about why rape culture campaigns are all just a big over-reaction. With cries of ‘Not All Men!’ and assurances that a power imbalance sustained by violence is but a figment of our imaginations. Someone should break the news to those eggs.
The readiness of these (Not All) men to impose themselves uninvited in feminist conversations about sexual violence speaks to a new coming together of enemies who previously wouldn’t have been caught dead sharing the same discussion spaces. Because while this epidemic of violence against women and girls is as old as misogyny itself, how it plays out on social media is something new entirely. The double-edged sword of the share button in its various embodiments empowers women and activists to quickly and easily raise awareness, show solidarity and gather support – but just as quickly and easily, their opponents can add their two cents’ worth to any conversation, usually reciting the rape culture litany as they do so: blame the victim, minimise the assault, perpetuate a myth or two, and be logged off and back at your spreadsheet in time for the end of your lunch break.
Where social media is a vastly powerful tool for campaigning and awareness-raising, it also has a huge amount to tell us about how little we understand rape culture as a society, and how much men have invested in perpetuating its existence.
Central to rape culture’s enduring popularity is the peddling of myths around everything from what ‘typical’ rapists and victims look like down to the very definition of consent. Take the case of footballer Ched Evans, for example, a man who has always admitted fully to the events of the assault he is convicted of, but is entitled enough to want to bicker over the legal definition of rape. Despite this background, his fans will genuinely trawl Twitter for his name, ready to breathlessly pounce in at any mention of their hero and valiantly defend his honour, usually by nobly slurring his victim or bravely linking to some laborious bit of dusty legislation which they would never know about were they not so intent on clearing the name of an actual convicted rapist. How did rape culture get to be so normalised that people are happy to put their names and faces to such a thankless cause?
If Ched Evans gets proved innocent after all the shit he got I hope the bird has to do time or she dies, id prefer the latter— - (@ManLikeSam) October 5, 2015
Always thought Ched Evans was innocent . I mean why would you brag about being raped on social media . #innocentuntilprovenguitly— Chris Logan (@chriscufc19) October 6, 2015
New evidence that could've helped ched Evans defence case... So that means he's innocent! She should be named and shamed #slut— Harry (@HMJNEWMAN) October 5, 2015
The answer lies far beyond social media, tangled up in power structures and historical subordination and the usefulness of violence in retaining dominance at all costs, but its incarnations are infinitely shareable when boiled down to 140 characters or a 6-second Vine filmed with a selfie stick. After all, Dapper Laughs talking down an iPhone lens about women ‘gagging for a rape’ is only ever but three clicks away from the kind of Snapchat stories and video screenshots synonymous with Steubenville – its one-word signifier itself a testament to our hashtag culture – which were scrutinised and critiqued with Twitter as judge and jury, pondering over whether the victim had somehow, in all her unconscious mystery, asked for it. Some women are just gagging for a rape, after all.
But if social media shines a light on just how widespread rape culture and its defenders are, its also an infinitely powerful tool for forcing the glare back onto them, exposing the harm they cause and how pathetic it all is at its core. Women continue to defy these desperate pleas for us to stay in our places by carving out social media platforms and using them to shout even louder. Hashtags such as #IBelieveHer, rallied in the face of every all-too-common newsworthy assault, and #WhyIStayed, aiming to bust myths about the ease of leaving an abusive relationship, both garnered huge support and created communities of solidarity in spite of geographical borders. Much of this support is from women who previously would have been shut out of traditional activism by any number of barriers that should never have excluded them from having a voice.
With eggs coming at you from one side and apologists from the other, sometimes just staying online is an act of rebellion. For those about to tweet, we salute you.
Main image © iStock/BrilliantEye