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Cybersexism is out now!

It’s out! It’s out!

Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on The Internet, my new book for Bloomsbury, is out now. You can buy it here. If you don’t have an e-reader, you can download a free Kindle reader for your computer, phone, or really any other device. 

The book features interviews with Clay Shirky, Helen Lewis, Maha Atal, Leigh Alexander, William Gibson and other folks who ought to know about how gender is working on the internet right now. It’s about fucking, feminism, gifs, trolling, the roots of geek misogyny and the future of sex. It’s a timely ebook extract from my bigger book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, which will hit shops next year.

I’m in Sweden right now, for a digital media conference, where I spoke with Kate Miltner and Anita Sarkeesian about online harassment- what it is, how it works and why it lowers visions. You can watch the videos from that here, but they come with a trigger warning, particularly the last one, which is where the audience started tearing up.

On bomb threats and boredom.

Last night I went for dinner with a friend, M, who is one of those women who can’t walk down a street without being hassled by men: cat-calling, making bizarre animal noises at her, professing undying love or threatening rape. This is a daily reality for many of us, but with M it’s on a whole other level of threat awareness. Just strolling home with her feels like walking through an enemy camp. We were talking, naturally, about the situation for women who have an online presence in the UK right now, and how frightening and relentless the sexist bullying is getting, and M asked me how I manage to continue to write, given that I’ve been dealing with all this bullshit for more than three years now. I asked her: how do you continue to walk down pavements in public? The answer is: M walks with her hips swaying and her head held high. Because she knows she has a right to the street.

On Monday, I received a bomb threat. This has been happening to several prominent British women journalists and politicians recently, and I suppose it’s some sort of dubious distinction, but it didn’t make it any less frightening and enraging to have to call the police and then find somewhere else to stay for the night. I’m lucky in that I live alone and have relatively little trouble grabbing my go-bag and sleeping on a strange sofa; I know that at least one of the other women who received these threats has a disabled child, and I can only imagine the hassle and stress she went through.

I have a few friends who live nearby, but for some reason, the person I called instantly was somebody I know from online dating, somebody I used to sleep with casually and don’t anymore. He was out with his new girlfriend that night, so offered me his room. I knew instantly that that was where I wanted to be, by myself; it’s a room I used to feel very safe in, where nothing was ever demanded of me except what I wanted to give. His housemate let me in, and I rushed upstairs, shut the door, and took the enormous Jedi-warrior bathrobe that I used to mock so horribly off the hook. I made tea, took off my clothes, wrapped myself in the Jedi robe and sat cross-legged on the bed. I wrote the column I had due for the next day. I felt like nothing could touch me. 

Right now it’s pretty scary to be a woman who makes a public spectacle of herself in Britain. By ‘making a spectacle’, I mean ‘daring to have an opinion in public’; the piece I wrote in 2011 about a woman’s opinion functioning as the mini-skirt of the internet is relevant here. Twitter is also in total meltdown as various camps of campaigners tear chunks out of each other, and it’s upsetting to see. One of the bizarrely modern headaches I’ve had lately is the ongoing, extremely public feud between my current editor and my ex-girlfriend over intersectionality issues, a fight which I’ve had to scramble to avoid because it’s a huge helping of fuck no. There is a deep well of unkindness, of recrimination and refusal to listen, bubbling up online right now in my communities. It is disturbing, and it’s exhausting.

When I’d finished my column, my eyes swimming with tiredness, I posted on Facebook: I need clear space to write. The past two years have been a litany of online attacks and British media bearpit bollocks and the energy I’ve wasted on the mental overheads has been enormous. I don’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to be a writer and a campaigner, I didn’t ask to be a scapegoat and a target, and I didn’t expect it. It’s a curious lonely place to be in and there’s nothing anyone can really do. I’m still here and still fighting but I don’t want to have to fight like this. It’s boring.

Not giving up comes at a cost. I haven’t yet flounced off Twitter or made any sort of dramatic, public exit from the spaces in which I work and receive abuse, because I don’t think that my doing so would help anyone. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seriously considered just kicking it in for the good of my mental health. Imagine that you’re a professional dancer and you have to dance down a street where men are screaming abuse at you, throwing things, leering, sending threats. Do you stop dancing, even if you know a little part of your soul will die if you do? No, fuck that. You keep on dancing; even when your bones ache and your head rings from the relentless cunt bitch stupid girl attention seeker sellout whore. You keep on dancing, but there’s a cost. Don’t ever imagine there’s not a cost

I don’t make it easy for myself. I know that. Not only have I not shut up about women’s rights over the past three years like people want me to, I’m in the middle of writing a book which talks openly about sex, including my own experiences. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that I’ve a slightly adventurous sexual history and am an active member of the queer and poly community in London and elsewhere, and I know that those who are seeking to attack me are probably going to find that out at some point; I’ve been threatened before by people who wanted to release details and/or pictures of me as a half-naked teenager, and I know it’s going to come out at some point; I want to be in control of when and how that happens. I’m not ashamed in any way, not of my life choices and not of my decision to keep on talking. 

But the energy it takes to carry on is enormous, and becomes self-reflexive: you write and speak just in order to keep on writing and speaking in adversity. This is no way to be creative; it is no way to sustain a writing life. It makes me angry, and I want it to stop so I can get on with all the other work I want to do. I do not want to be known as the girl who gets a ton of flak for speaking up; I want to carry on saying things that have relevance, even if only to a handful of readers scattered across the world. I’m bored of this, and I’m angry, and I want it to stop. Also I am considering buying my own Jedi robe to wear whenever I open Twitter. That’s all.

In these Sour Times: Islamophobia and the Woolwich aftermath

Three days ago, a soldier was murdered in Woolwich by two Islamic extremists carrying knives and meat cleavers. The entire country went bananas. That night, there was a rally in Woolwich town centre by the English Defence League, whose status as the drunken fantasist Mr Bean of fascists hardly makes them less frightening to the local people hiding in their homes whenever they have one of their sick marches. In the past few days, there have been at least 162 Islamophobic hate attacks in the UK, and nine mosques have been targeted with knives, petrol bombs and graffiti. That’s a 900% increase, according to the tracking group Tell Mama UK. Petrol-bomb attacks on mosques are not reported as terrorism, though. Nor are individual acts of anti-Muslim violenc We are expected to understand this quasi-organised campaign of fear as something else – as a ‘backlash’.

Whatever ‘terrorism’ is, it’s up to the state to define. It’s up to the government to define whose brutality is tolerable, and it’s up to the press to define whose ‘extremism’ is a threat to national identity, “an attack on everyone in Britain” (thanks Theresa May) and whose merely an overzealous expression of public sentiment. Two weeks ago a Muslim man was murdered in Birmingham by two white men with machetes, in an act of brutal, bigoted extremism that mirrored what happened in Woolwich, but that wasn’t deemed ‘terrorism’ – it was hardly even news.  The cabinet has yet to respond to the sharp, staggering uptick in racial and religious violence; one can’t help think this might have something to do with the fact that the Tories recently took a hammering at the polls from UKIP, a xenophobic, anti-immigrant party whose core demographic isn’t miles away from the profile of EDL sympathisers.

I have written before about the EDL and how frightening they are, and how their leadership’s claim to be less than staggeringly racist is nonsensical . Right now I’m supposed to be sitting indoors writing a book about something completely different, but there’s nothing more important happening in my country right now than this throat-hardening descent into bigotry. I want to be very clear about one thing here:

I am not terrified of Islamic extremism.

I’m not terrified of it, and I refuse to pretend I am out of politeness. Nor do I consider the attacks in Woolwich a threat to the British state, any more than I would consider some poor bastard ranting in a hospital wing about how he’s the King of England a pressing threat to the British monarchy.* People do not generally overthrow their governments because a madman with a meat cleaver tells them to.  Of course, I feel sorry for the family of Lee Rigby, who are having to watch graphic reconstructions of the bloody murder of their son, husband and father plastered all over every paper. However – perhaps this makes me naive, but it’s how I feel – I am still not terrified of militant Islam. On a day to day basis, it’s something I worry about far less than I worry about being mugged or stabbed, living as I do in one of London’s knife-crime hotspots.

What does terrify me – what frightens and appalls me – is the way this country is sliding into prejudice and violence, the way that ordinary people are turning on each other whilst the state quietly blows on the coals of race hate. I am terrified of what I see Britain becoming.

I am terrified of the propaganda and the lies and the sheer momentum of the ideological shift to the right. And I am terrified of the number of angry, frightened young men whose rage is being channelled into extremism of all kinds. As actor and rapper Riz Ahmed says in his pertinent track Sour Times, which is worth watching in full:

There ain’t no super villain planning these attacks from some base. The truth is so much scarier and harder to face. You see, there’s thousands of angry young men that are lost – sidelined in the economy, at a marginal cost

The most important thing I’ve read in the aftermath of the Woolwich attacks was a Facebook status posted by my friend Ash Sarkar, a young student and activist. I repost it here with her permission:

I feel exhausted. I’ve been at work all day so the only interaction with the events of today has been through the news and social media. Like everyone else, I’m horrified at the murder that happened today. But I also feel tired, demoralised, and exhausted in advance at how often I’ll have to repeat that fact. I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed. I haven’t blocked any of you so there’s a human face attached to the group that you hate so much. You’re talking about people like me, my mother, my grandmother. I haven’t blocked any of you because I want you to know that I’m calling you out as fascists.

I hate that I’ve seen friends change their FB names to sound more anglicised: I hate that so many POC I know are rushing to assert “Britishness” as their primary identity. I hate that I feel like I have to insist on the “due process” of law (which I think is fundamentally violent and unjust anyway) because people are calling for torture. I hate trying to pretend like torture and killing aren’t things that the police do everyday anyway.

I hate that this is happening in the city where I was born, where I grew up, and that I love so much. I hate that this is occurring against a backdrop of the increasing militarisation of the urban space, the violence of dispossession and austerity. That this act of violence is seen as worse than the acts of violence that occur every day in areas left to rot, than the acts of violence committed by the British state.

Today I want to express my solidarity with Ash, with British Muslims and everyone else across the country who woke up today feeling scared and under attack, and with those organising to fight the rise of fascism on our streets. Fuck racism. Fuck bigotry. And fuck anyone who believes that violence is an answer to violence. We can be better than this – as long as we stand together.

*I’m aware, before we go any further, that people with serious mental health difficulties are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are to perpetrate it. 

Ableism and apologies

Last night my use of ableist language in a previous post, ‘Take Back The Net’, was called out by feminist allies both on Twitter and on The F Word. I think that those who called me out were absolutely right to do so – when the mistake was pointed out, I was mortified. Philippa Willitts, author of  the post at the F Word, explained that when I wrote this:

“It’d be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. Unfortunately, not only are men like White clearly at least minimally sane enough to hold down desk-jobs, their school of misogyny has become an everyday feature of political conversation online, particularly in the UK.

…It felt “like a punch in the stomach.” 

I’m sorry, Philippa. Here’s what I meant to say: the use of terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘mental’ to describe online trolls is hugely problematic. There’s absolutely no correlation between violent misogyny and having mental health difficulties. Most of the people I’m closest to have at some point struggled with their mental health, and none of them have posted rape fantasies about women online. Writing off disgusting, violent prejudice as ‘crazy’ is intellectually vacuous and perpetuates the worst sort of stereotyping. Unfortunately, that’s not what I actually wrote.

What I wrote was a crude way of describing the situation, for multiple reasons, not least because one should not need to be quote sane unquote to be able to hold down a job – that’s precisely the kind of attitude that perpetuates the stereotypes that make employers push aside the CVs of anyone with a history of, say, depression.  I fucked up here, and I fucked up doubly hard because I’ve written for mental health publications in the past. I’ve been both a carer and a person with mental health difficulties, I’ve for godssake spoken at conferences about how and why ableist language, misuse of words like ‘schizoid’ and ‘nutter’ in the media, is unhelpful. In other words, I *should know better*.
I was originally intending to simply change the wording of the piece with a note, and I imagine that’s what I’ll do if and when I’m called out with justification in future. The reason for explaining the process at more length here is that – well. Some people seem to have a big problem right now with a culture of online debate that allows those without large public media platforms to challenge those who do if and when they fuck up and play into lazy stereotypes. I don’t mean to hijack a discussion of ableism with my own hand-wringing, but this is relevant to wider issues of ‘privilege-checking’ right now, so read on if you’re interested.
This is not, as some people have already suggested following my brief apology on Twitter, about language-policing, or about letting the internet dictate what you write and think. People toss criticism at me all the time (really: ALL THE TIME) that I don’t respond to, because not all of it is meaningful and some of it is disingenuous, uninformed, or comes from a place of hate. However, in light of the “Take Back The Net” post, which was all about online ethics and silencing, I’m actually a big fan of the net culture that lets people call others out on their occasional fuckups and gives them space to change.

Legitimate, useful critique is not the same as hate-trolling or censorship. I know other people have different opinions on this, but personally I think that if we are to deal with either of the extremely real, pressing problems of online censorship or of harassment and hate speech, then we also need to get used to taking ownership of our mistakes.

THINGS FOR EYES 20/01/2013: Love, the left, hurt and hope

It’s been a humdinger of a fortnight for soul-searching on the left. I’ve spent a lot of time consoling friends on the phone and making tea and writing, and I feel that one good thing that’s come out of all this hurt and wrangling is that in certain communities, bonds have been reaffirmed, we’ve remembered what we’re fighting for.

Between the SWP’s rape-court scandal and Julie Burchill’s transmisogyny, I’ve been working hard in my essaying and reading this week in particular to negotiate some useful ways forward – and I’m very far from the only one. Not going to repost the original pieces because they don’t deserve back traffic, but here you go:
Firstly, I wrote some words on rape, sexual violence and how the left is being forced to deal with feminism, at New Statesman. The post that inspired this – former SWP member Tom Walker’s eloquent and principled resignation statement – is worth reading in full if you’re one of those people who doesn’t particularly want to choose between class struggle and women’s rights. Yeah, yeah, I know, lots of linkbacks to small British far-left parties. Deal with it.
Then….oh dear, then there was the Burchill/Suzanne Moore debacle, where the Guardian and the rest of the British press, and everyone else on Twitter, finally realised that transphobia is no longer an acceptable way to carve out payable rhetoric. My piece here lays down the background. Another old essay of mine, Moving Towards Solidarity (written for the F Word when I was but a wee thing of 22) explains a lot more about the history of feminist transphobia and why it’s mistaken.
All of this ties in to the hierarchy of old media, and what it does, and what it’s for, and how it’s changing. That was the subject of my column this week at New Statesman, but a more in-depth and explicitly communist discussion can be found at Novara, where I also talk a lot about how my politics have changed over the past two years.
Last week I talked about Novara, the Resonance FM discussion show on anarchism, anti-capitalism and the future of the left; this week I was on the show, being grilled about journalism by Aaron Peters and James Butler, two thinkers by whom I would be substantially more intimidated had I not shepherded both of their drunk asses home on a number of occasions over the last several years. A fun, spiky discussion on columnism and the nature and changing role of the media. Have a listen.
The original text that inspired this discussion, ‘Columnism’ by Ulrike Meinhof – an important analysis of the role of the columnist as decoy and potential political stooge – is one that’s been very important for me in my work over the past year. 

Bloody awesome Science Fiction books are like bloody buses. I finished ‘Among Others,’ by Jo Walton, which has zoomed up there into my top ten books of the past 12 months. If you were ever a child who loved SF and Fantasy, or a young girl who escaped into books, this one’s for you.
I also read ‘Intrusion’, by Ken Macleod, who would be the king of near-future dystopia if he weren’t the type of communard who would disdain such a title. I loved, loved, loved this book – it has reproductive rights, state surveillance, middle-class comedy and robot monkeys and class war. I was lucky enough to get to interview MacLeod in 2010 for the Morning Star – all his works come highly recommended.


Massively into this moving essay at Gawker by Mychal Denzel Smith ’On The Ghosts of Gun Violence’- Will be looking out for more of his work – one to watch.
Zoe Williams’ takedown of the language of ‘strivers vs. skivers‘ at The Guardian has been reposted everywhere, and deservedly so. Has anyone else noticed that Zoe Williams has been absolutely killing it recently?
And here’s Malcolm Harris in an eloquent attack of coupledom and its discontents at The New Inquiry. “Saying true love isn’t real is like saying money isn’t real, or race isn’t real, or the desire for deodorant isn’t real. You might be right in a base, materialist sort of way, but nations build policy not only on the existence but the desirability of love.”  

I saw Les Miserables twice. I cried both times and I’m not even sorry. Oh the tragic handsome student revolutionaries. In the real world, my own kharass hasn’t yet had the chance to go out in a blaze of glory on a barricade in period dress: we face the far more fearful challenge of staying united and building a future that doesn’t suck without losing our minds and letting our spirits get squashed in the process.
In related news, I’m going to be doing a helluva lot of travelling in the next month – starting with Ireland, next week, where I’m working on a story about abortion rights. Anyone who can recommend some good places to drink and dance in Dublin will have my gratitude.