I like to run. When I started running semi-seriously, I would go out in the evening for a couple of miles of huffing and puffing – sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. I usually ran two or three times a week, and (this is an estimate because I never kept a diary of it) once or twice a fortnight my run would be attended by some form of moronic heckling.
Sometimes, that meant a car horn beeping as the vehicle came up behind me. Sometimes, a driver or a passer-by shouting something leery or critical. Bizarrely, a pizza delivery moped once made two circuits of the park so the kid riding it could bark – proper, gutteral dog barks – at me and the friends I was running with.
At first, I would ignore this stuff furiously: I was plenty embarrassed about running anyway, and didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself. But I got increasingly confrontational, flicking the Vs and hollering swears down the street after the perpetrator. If I made a fuss, maybe the idiots making these comments would be embarrassed into never doing it again. And anyway, I felt slightly better venting some of my anger and anxiety back at the aggressor than I did swallowing my humiliation and grinding out the rest of the route with tensed shoulders and clenched fists.
Then about a year ago, I stopped getting any kind of harassment while running, because I stopped running at night and started going out in the mornings instead. There are lots of reasons why running in the morning is a good thing: I never run out of time to exercise, it helps me wake up, it means I get more daylight in winter.
And I don’t get hassled. My runs are uninterrupted by appreciative honks or “helpful” comments. The shift from late to early wasn’t caused by the harassment, but its absence reinforced the change. A few of my male friends and acquaintances have experienced similar abuse. “Being female” isn’t a necessary criteria for being insulted by strangers. But my feeling is that being female increases the volume of the abuse and the likelihood of it being sexual.
Online, I’ve also received a certain degree of hassle. Compared to the rape threats and hatespeech described by Helen Lewis Hasteley, it’s been mild stuff: suggestions that my haircut is an affront to gender roles, the odd person surmising that I need to have more sex, and so on. Sometimes, it’s someone saying, “Ah, but you are interested in [insert principally feminine interest here], therefore your opinion on [insert subject under discussion] is wrong.”
Mild, but still unsettling. It’s a form of commentary calculated to make the recipient feel physically self-conscious and a bit humiliated; a way of announcing that your words and ideas are disposable, but your body is now up for debate. I would say it’s a silencing tactic. It works, too. I’ll tackle Twitter trolls and make spirited replies to abusive emails, but ultimately, I only have so much time and energy to give to my online life. How much of that do I want to spend bridling against other people’s contempt?
Not, it turns out, very much at all. When it comes to sitting down and writing a blog post, there are many occasions when I’ll weigh up the likelihood of it attracting such comments, weigh up the amount of time I would need to dedicate to dealing with them, and decide that actually, this blog post could bear not being written.
Again, “being female” isn’t a necessary criteria for being abused by strangers. But it does seem to induce a change in the volume of the abuse (you get more of it) and its character (it’s more likely to be sexual, or gendered). Not everyone is willing to believe that this is so, of course, and among all the dismissive and evasive responses that Lewis Hasteley refers to in this follow-up blog post, one in particular struck me like a kick in the head:
I had a friendly disagreement with the Guardian’s James Ball, who noted that internet commenters will find any perceived weak spot and attack it ruthlessly. “When netizens want to get personal, they hone in on any easy target: race, age, class or — of course — gender, that might get them a rise,” he says. “Even middle-aged white men (debatably the least persecuted minority out there) are susceptible to abuse — ‘what do you know about anything, in your ivory tower?'”
Put by Ball, this presumably means that gender abuse is nothing special: your sex is just one more vulnerable point for spiteful and aggressive types to have a jab at. But if we move one stage back in this reasoning, the really outrageous thing is that race, age, class and gender are considered “weak spots” at all.
Being female is something that can be used against you – as in this disturbing Chortle piece on the heckles suffered by women comedians. There are some people, and too many of them, for whom identifying a writer as female is enough to discount her words. There are others for whom identifying a writer as female makes it necessary to silence and belittle her by any available means. And it’s because those people exist that women bloggers and journalists need to resist the respite of strategic silence, and write as if our attackers didn’t exist.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; WWII propaganda poster by Nina Vatolina, 1941