Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not Shrinking Violets

One more time, the trolls and troglodytes are harassing women on the web. This time, sex columnist Violet Blue came in for a bunch of unwarranted crap. She fought back late last week with a column that's worth reading in its entirety (so go check it out). The proximate cause of it was this chivalrous comment in an online chat about sex scandals:
"Sorry, but being an unattractive skank is not enough to make you an expert. Watching Violet is like watching the female version of Bill Gates expound on sex — something you just don't want to see. Or hear (thank God we don't have smell-o-vision!)"
Eew. Thank God we don't have to see what this guy is insecure about! Does he look like the Geico caveman? Or is he just an ordinary guy who'd be lucky to get a date with a smart, witty, attractive woman like Violet Blue who knows way more about sex than he ever will?

See? I can play that game too. But mostly, when women attack men online, we go after the substance of what they've said. We do sometimes take aim at their personal qualities, especially when they've got a long track record of assholery and dipshittery. I'm speaking now mostly about liberal women, not wingnut women, who generally inhabit a different Internet than I do.

Women aren't angels. Online, plenty of women indulge in ad hominem attacks, launched at each other as well as at men. That's part of the general coarseness and incivility that online anonymity seems to breed in people. (For a particularly vile example of this, see this comment thread at Pandagon, which in general is one of my favorite-most blogs.)

But liberal women don't generally attack people's appearance as a first or even last resort, and I have yet to see a woman threaten another poster with physical and/or sexual violence. While men, too, can take the brunt of nasty and even bullying behavior online, I don't know of any case involving a man that went as far as the death threats that dogged Kathy Sierra and forced her to quit tech blogging.

Violet Blue's response to the targeting of women online was inspired - and inspiring:
I just write and talk about sex. But every woman on the Internet gets called slutty and ugly and fat (to put it lightly) no matter what; all we have to be is female. ...

The problem is, with so many women I talk to, the trolling is effective. The number of times I've talked down a crying girlfriend after she's been trolled in her comments about being fat, ugly, skanky, slutty or stupid is higher than I can count (no matter what she writes about). Trolls watch too much mainstream porn and TV, and believe stereotypes are real; they slap us with it and then we believe it, too. ...

In Margaret Cho's "Beautiful" tour, she talks about recently being on a radio show and having the host ask her point-blank, live, on the air, "What if you woke up one day, and you were beautiful?" When asked, he defined beautiful as blonde, thin, large-breasted, a porno stereotype. Cho says, "Just think of what life is like for this poor guy. There's beauty all around him in the world, and he can only see the most narrow definition of it."

So maybe if you're a woman, you're just going to be fat and ugly on the Internet no matter what you look like, say or do. Of course, I could swap out my SFGate bio photo for Jenna Jameson's. Then maybe we'd have some serious discourse about sex culture around here.

(I quoted at length because it's all spot-on, but do read the rest here.)
Right. It's a classic double bind. If you're sexy, you can't be smart and serious. If you're smart and serious, you'd better not reveal your sexy side or you won't be taken seriously. And yet, when women don't combine all those things at once, we fall short of what Anna Quindlen called "effortless perfection."

I'm not suggesting the guys need to shoot for perfection, too. But how about we all cut women a little slack, and let us be our imperfect, sexy, smart, silly, sassy selves - out loud, in public, without fearing attacks on our person or safety.

Photo by Flickr user Lady-bug, used under a Creative Commons license.


SunflowerP said...

Good for Violet!

This is interesting in juxtaposition to what I've been semi-involved in this past week or so - I wasn't personally accused of being a 20something conventionally-sexy party girl, but since the argument was that all women who identify as sex-positive feminists fit that description, I was concatenatively so accused. So conventional vs individual sexiness is one of the themes of the week.

Lots of other food for thought here, much of which touches on things I'll probably ramble about in my LJ at some point, but that aren't "finished cooking" yet. (Which reminds me, was it you who stopped by a while back and made an anonymous comment? Not a problem if so, but I'm curious.)

I find the issue of death threats (and, particularly though not exclusively for women, rape threats) troubling. I believe - though I have no specific evidence to cite - that in most instances, the threat itself is the attack (terrorism, in the sense that it's intended to coerce through instilling fear), but one can't assume there'll be no physical followup.


Sungold said...

Hi Sunflower! Aargh. I'm not exactly 20-something either, and I don't like the labels of "sex-positive," "radfem," etc. But I think you and I are pretty close in terms of our attitudes toward sex. Maybe it's just fine to be *unconventionally* sexy, which I'm pretty sure you are. :-)

Yeah, I just visited your LJ, and crap, I sure didn't manage to get my name into my comment. LJ's system defeated me. But yes, it was me all right. It's a little disconcerting that I'm so identifiable!

I'm not aware of any online threats that have actually been carried out against women. (I'm not counting domestic-violence-type incidents, which I'm sure *do* exist, only situations like Kathy's Sierra's.)

Absolutely right - the terror is the point. This is a major problem with sexual violence in general; even those of us who haven't experienced it directly live in a penumbra of fear to one degree or another.

SunflowerP said...

You're not really that identifiable; it was a guess, part shrewd, part lucky. Though you were high on my list of possibles (along with Figleaf - the intro-text recommendation strongly suggested someone involved in WS academia in some way - and a couple of others), it worked out to a long list, because I've been commenting in a fair few places just lately.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the adjectival labels, too, but it seems like they're unavoidable. How I went from a tentative "if I'm in any 'camp' it's that one," in my intro entry, to a stronger identification with the sex-pos label, is, I think, going to be part of the Musings Part 2 post when I make it.

While I don't know of any instances of threats on blogs and such being carried out, I believe (but may just be buying urban legends) there are instances of online stalkers tracing their stalkees into "real life" - the virtual world is not as insulated and anonymous as some folks believe. OTOH, stalkers are stalkers, and trolls (terrorizing or just rude) are trolls - two different things.


Sungold said...

Yeah, there's a definite - and huge - distinction between stalkers and trolls. I do see some potential continuity from women being insulted in highly sexualized terms to their being threatened sexually, online. I don't want to conflate the two things, but the sexualized insults tend to normalize the kinds of attitudes that a few individuals may take further. Those same attitudes then also reduce the shock and empathy that a situation like Kathy Sierra's ought to evoke.

Rudeness is a different beast and seems to know no gender boundaries. I read the threads at Holly's and Twisty's blogs, and oh my - you're a brave woman to wade into this. I see such absolutism on both sides of the debate. Not in Holly - she can be sarcastic (and I enjoy that about her), but she's flexible and open-minded. However, I certainly see some of the proponents of sex-positivism making such a strong libertarian argument that there's no room for an analysis of gender politics in their worldview. And Twisty's main fault, in my view, is her absolutism. She may say now that she's not against other people's pleasure, but the first time I read her blog was during the Great Blowjob Fracas in summer 2006, and that was quite a different story.

I'll look forward to your next post!