In the following essay, author, columnist, and critic, Clementine Ford, speaks out about the online abuse and harassment she’s received over her career, simply for being an outspoken feminist in the media. While examples of this level of trolling may be quite triggering to some (be warned), they’re far from unique. And they need to be spoken about, if we’re to really change things.
“It’s really a Shame that a man wasted Sperm on a low life Cunt like you! Should’ve masturbated into the toilet!”
This was tweeted at me sometime in the early months of 2016. It’s fairly typical of the kinds of messages men send me on the internet, most of which follow a basic format involving equal parts sexualized insults, the arbitrary use of random capitalization and at least one reference to jizz.
The tweet was sent late at night, but of course the beauty of online misogynists is that they keep no formal hours. Whether mid-morning or midnight, you can always entertain a slight frisson of hope that one might pop up to let you know you’re a diseased sea creature with a floppy vagina, and that this is the real reason you hate men.
What I loved in particular about this tweet was the vaguely dystopian future it seemed to point to. Was sperm really approaching such short supply that cis men needed to carefully pick and choose where they expelled it lest they be guilty of endangering the species? Just think of all the other things my father could have done with his precious deposits if he hadn’t wasted it on a low life Cunt like me!
He might have created some edgy art (it was the eighties, after all) or used it to fertilize a tree. Perhaps he could have ejaculated into an envelope and sent it to an unsuspecting lass alongside a note calling her a “fat-arsed whore who can’t get laid,” coincidentally pre-empting Twitter in the process. So many opportunities to really honor the liquid gold floating in his junk, and he wastes them on making a wretched life like mine. What a Shame!
“…you can always entertain a slight frisson of hope that one [troll] might pop up to let you know you’re a diseased sea creature with a floppy vagina, and that this is the real reason you hate men.”
Of course, I’m not meant to laugh at this. No, I’m meant to read it and feel humiliated and small. I’m meant to think of myself as a dirty piece of shit whose lack of value is so profound that even a puff of air vaguely infused with DNA and shot into a toilet represents more of an accomplishment than the entirety of my sad, sorry existence.
I am meant to feel shame, and this shame is designed to silence me. I am meant to feel these things because I’m a woman with bold opinions about men, patriarchy, and the structural oppression women suffer because of both these things.
Men have been trying to force me to feel this shame for the better part of the last decade. Long before we constructed lives for ourselves on social media, I was reading emails from men obsessed with the state of my genitals, the instability of my mental health and the apparently deep and traumatizing lack of attention I’d received from men my entire life, starting with my father. My first real taste of it came in my twenties after I wrote candidly about having had two abortions—hark, a harlot!
Afterwards, I was steamrolled by an onslaught of emails and online news comments about how disgusting and inhuman I was. Yes, for the crime of writing openly about a procedure that one in three women will have, I was besieged by a tsunami of misogynist abuse. I was a slut, a whore, an ugly cunt who needed to learn how to keep her legs closed, selfish, irresponsible, stupid, a murderer, a baby-killing sow, a fat slag, and so on and so on.
“I am meant to feel shame, and this shame is designed to silence me.”
One memorable exchange in particular involved a guy who wondered how someone as ugly as me could have found one man willing to fuck me, let alone two of them. Another agreed, stating I was “uglier than a dead dog on the side of the road” and calling the very fact I’d had sex at all “a miracle.”
My work as a feminist writer and speaker in Australia is often pointed to as evidence that I “put myself in the firing line.” This is true, but only because it’s still considered an act of recklessness for women to challenge misogyny and the men who not only perpetrate it but also benignly benefit from it. When I publicly condemned a major Australian breakfast program for blatantly victim-blaming women who had been subjected to image-based exploitation (more commonly referred to as “revenge porn,”) I was rewarded with thousands of death threats, rape threats, and comments about the paucity of my own naked body.
I was told then (as I am frequently reminded of now) that I have nothing to worry about in regards to this “mythical” rape culture—because I am too ugly, too fat, and too grotesque to rape, and that this is probably the reason I’m so mad about it in the first place.
“It’s still considered an act of recklessness for women to challenge misogyny and the men who not only perpetrate it but also benignly benefit from it.”
In contradiction to this, men continue to share their fantasies with me about how I might be sexually tortured. One told me to “sit on a butcher’s knife” so that I “will never reproduce.” Another mocked me with, as he put it, my failure thus to have had “a mammoth cock pierce on through [my] virgin smelly anal passage” and attributed this to how deeply unattractive I was.
Under the subject heading “PIG DOG CUNT,” a man sent me a long and detailed email about how I should be strung up like a pig and raped with a baseball bat covered in barbed wire. Months after this, I would see another man comment elsewhere that this sort of description was brilliant and exactly in keeping with his own sense of humor.
The truth about sexist trolling
This desire to humiliate women into closing our noisy, inconvenient mouths is one of the major motivations of abusive men who troll women on the internet. Online abuse is designed to silence, but also to confound. Patriarchy in part maintains itself by constantly shifting its goalposts. If women complain about the excessive cruelty used against us, we’re accused of being “too sensitive”—of being oversensitive babies who crumble at the first sign of opposition or, as it’s so often falsely referred to, “debate.”
We’re told to toughen up and be more like men, all of whom are apparently super great at laughing at themselves because they’re not as easily offended as us baby-women and this is what allows them to appreciate all the razor sharp edges of a rape joke.
The fact is, women who put ourselves “out there” in a way that even remotely challenges the status quo have always been subject to a backlash from men outraged that we won’t keep our place.
The fact is, women who put ourselves “out there” in a way that even remotely challenges the status quo have always been subject to a backlash from men outraged that we won’t keep our place. The intensity of that backlash is undoubtedly compounded by the sheer magnitude of the online space, but it all spawns from the same place: A terrified, rage-filled insecurity about how potent their masculinity really is, and fury that women will no longer mitigate these feelings by subjugating ourselves to male authority.
It can be frightening to confront the face of this rage, and to be bombarded with the words it spits at us. There are days when we want to disappear under a blanket, to close our ears and eyes to the onslaught of horror that awaits people who try in whatever way they can to make a difference to this world.
I wish I could do my job without having to deal with the army of irritating locusts that descend whenever a woman mentions the wage gap, or the fact that we should be allowed to walk down the street at night without gripping our keys tightly between our fingers.
Sometimes, it feels like it would be so easy to close all your social media accounts. To button your lips, slap on a smile and decide to just be “nice.”
But trust me—from someone who has heard every insult, threat and form of sexualised abuse you can imagine—nothing hurts more than the feeling of participating in your own silencing. The vitriolic, toxic, bilious response to those of us who speak up in favor of gender equality and liberation is scary, but it’s not the reason we should be quiet.
It’s the evidence we are winning.
Clementine Ford’s first book, FIGHT LIKE A GIRL, is out now in the US via Oneworld Publications.