I did not expect my interview with Laurie Penny to make me to yell at my computer screen — just once — with this half-gasp of anger, relief and determination. I did not expect her new book — “Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet” — to hit so close. But it’s the story of many and possibly most of us who live in public and exist openly online.

From massive aggression towards women in tech or games or politics, to routine sexual shaming, to particularly malicious, stalky schemes from creepy individuals — we’ve all witnessed or experienced cybersexism to some degree, some more than others. I’ve been reading her column at the New Statesman for some time — about censorship, surveillance, the objectification of women by conservative media (not online pornography) and about carrying on after getting a death threat.

Laurie’s book is about real geek culture, “incriminating” images, inclusivity vs. misogyny, survival and success. It’s quick and brilliant, witty and on point. You’ve heard most of what she says before, but she has a way of making it ring as an anthem, of climbing deep into the center of the heavy dark thing and kicking her way out with you.

In our chat, we talked a bit about one of the many groups marginalized by mainstream net politics and culture — young teenage girls, specifically, girls who are just learning who they are and doing it publicly, about the pitfalls of that identity building and about those that wish to tear it down. The “patriarchal surveillance” that directed “proper” female behavior for centuries — and kept us from voting and reading and fucking — is now being used to target us as individuals and in general, to keep us from being active online. It’s really fucking common. But the internet is not some big, scary place we wittle girls shouldn’t “go to” or we’ll get hurt because come on, we’re asking for it.

But it is full of idiots and creeps.

But that’s ok. Bring it. 

From “Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet” :

Perhaps one reason that women writers and technologists have, so far, the calmest and most comprehensive understanding of what surveillance technology really does to the human condition is that women grow up being watched. The gender revolution and the digital revolution are happening together, and they scare the same people for the right reasons.

Sometimes it seems that you’re “going” “on” the “net” as a woman, you’re coming with baggage. 

Yes, or baggage develops therein. For teens right now, almost all of their social world has developed online. There is no “real world” to distinguish from “the digital world.”

What would be your advice to teenagers who are starting to build and compound their “digital” identity? And conversely, what is the best damage control if it goes not exactly as you plan?

Oh man, this is so difficult. Because the advice you want to give is “build a strong public identity,” but actually part of being young is not being sure who you are, and part of the joy of the net is that it gives you space to explore.

In all seriousness, there’s more pressure on women, particularly young women, to do that brand-building, online and AFK. You’re engaged in a process of constant marketing where the product is you.

Say, someone’s sent a sloppy photo of herself to someone, a photo now physically, psychologically outdated. A girl shouldn’t instantly doom her life or career with some imaginary ticking grenade or scarlet letter, you know?

Completely. I used to do burlesque as a teen. I’m pretty sure pictures of some of my more ungainly stage moments will come out at some point. I can’t plan a career based on keeping my tits off the internet.

Let’s talk specifically about men that target women who don’t “deserve” to be doing something public, to be doing it well: Do you think that they troll, threaten and stalk because it’s a part of a “digital” culture that nurtures this behavior or because if there is something wrong with those people specifically — sociopathic tendencies, forceful sadism, delusional self-conditioning, inability to cope with the realities of actual or imagined relationships with people? Is it the internet that enables them to commit acts of harassment more easily punishable by law offline? In a sense, is it nature or nurture? 

Look. The internet makes dicks out of us all, but it means that for a few people, the perceived costs of extreme douchebaggery are far lower than they would be otherwise. But that sense of inviolability is beginning to erode. Men — and I do believe that it’s mainly men, even though I’ve had troll encounters with women and others — are beginning to realize that there are actual consequences to behaving like this. It’s happening in “the real world,” too. Comedians now think twice before making rape jokes. Tech conferences think twice before lining up scads of all-male panels. And it’s happening because of the internet. I think.

I love reading about the vigilantes, the doxxers fighting against the anonymity of abusers online. It makes me optimistic that the aggressors will the so-called real world consequences of this — not just the “victims.” I hate that word.

Me neither, but I understand why some people claim it. Historically, the police have been far less effective at this sort of thing than a broad change in culture. Putting pressure on law enforcement to act is, of course, part of that change in culture but, for example, I got a bomb threat lately, and amidst the epic shitstorm of abuse and trolling that’s been an overheard of my career in the past few years, that’s the one thing I could point to and say “Yes this, this is definitely a crime.” And because there was an ongoing investigation into whoever had been sending all this to high-profile UK feminists, I called it in, but it’s far from the first time I’ve been, e.g., frightened to leave my house.

Mainly, I’m massively pissed off. But there are times when it really does affect me, and that includes professionally.

One of my least favourite things, when this comes up, is to be told I need to “grow a thick skin.” I’m a writer. A thick skin is literally the last thing I need. I can take care of myself, but the instant I stop caring about other people and being sensitive and receptive is the instant I lose my mojo. Partly, it’s the British press: There’s a real culture here of bullying and shaming within the commentariat. That’s why I like New York. You guys are kittens, really. I know you think you’re all tough.

Clearly, the laws haven’t caught up with culture quite yet. Punishing the more opulent, intimidating schemes of abuse need better legal guidelines and landmark cases. But how do you correlate that with the fact that everyone deserves the right to privacy and freedom of speech? Is justice on the net a concept?

Anonymity must be preserved at all costs. Plenty of these people take very little trouble to disguise themselves. I am extremely suspicious of anyone leaping on this trend to suggest that (a) women and kids should stay the fuck off the internet or (b) certain sites should be censored or shut down.

I have been deeply disturbed by a few of the reactions that have suggested, for example, that we use the NSA’s tracking capabilities to hunt down men who stalk and threaten women. The answer to censorship is not more censorship — it’s more openness, more talking, supporting each other to stay in spaces which have become hostile, and calling people out for shitty behaviour.

I have a lot of male friends that would agree with you, but that’s because I have great friends and coworkers. They’re not the majority, sadly.

Capitalist patriarchy hurts everyone, not just women. What I really hope is that this explosion of debate and discussion about gender and sexuality, facilitated by the internet, will give men permission to speak honestly about what capitalist patriarchy does to them.

Right now, though, it seems men only feel empowered to speak of how gender affects them when they’re directly attacking women and girls or bawling artlessly at feminists. I meet a lot of MRA’s who genuinely seem to believe that an attempt to make the world fairer for women and freer for everyone is a direct attack on men, and that calling someone sexist is worse than actually being sexist. Those are lies, and we need to stop treating them as adult arguments.

If women are shamed and harassed out of full digital participation online, everyone loses.

Do you have any legal resources — in the UK or the US — that you would suggest?
Any final advice?

There’s no one right way to deal with online harassment. The internet can also provide positive advocacy. I’ve found building support networks of friends and fellow travellers invaluable, as well as more structured groups like the Everyday Sexism project.

But none of that is terribly helpful when all you want to do is slam the laptop shut and never look at Twitter again.

At which point I’d advise a long walk, a strong cup of tea, and a healthy dose of spite.

Spite is underrated. Sometimes, on dark days when I believe every awful thing mouth-breathing misogynists say about me online, when all I want to do is give up, I remember how important it is not to let the fuckers win.






(Photo: Jon Cartwright)