Hyenas in petticoats

27 Mar

In November 2011, London journalist Laurie Penny wrote:

You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/laurie-penny-a-womans-opinion-is-the-miniskirt-of-the-internet-6256946.html).

Sadly, Penny’s is not a surprising revelation, given the misogynist insults female figures publicly elicit (imagine what Rush Limbaugh might have felt comfortable e-mailing to buddies in private about Sandra Fluke). But it is still disturbing. Even more so? The fact that she’s not alone. In the wake of Penny’s disclosure, the UK’s Observer noted that receiving graphic rape threats for voicing an opinion is “business as usual in the world of website news commentary–at least for the women who regularly contribute to the national debate.”

Business as usual. Since at least the 18th century, when, according to Penny, the writer and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft was called “a hyena in petticoats.”

This gender-tailored threatening and name-calling reminds me of a conversation I had with friends the other night. A man in the group was positing that there is a gender equity more or less in name-calling, in that both men and women “have” categories of slurs that pertain specifically and solely to them (“bitch” versus “dick” were his examples), including body-part specific slurs. And I disagreed.

Just because there are words to denigrate both men and women does not make those words equal. (And, by the way, what a sad version of equality that suggests: not an equality that uplifts, but an equality that drags all of us down.) Consider just for a moment the difference between calling a man a “dick” and calling a woman a “cunt.” It’s not the same. There’s a particular venom to the latter term, a taboo which gives it that much more power when it’s invoked. I would argue that the slurs for women tend, on the whole, to pack a meaner punch than the slurs available for men. And that’s not even getting into the rape threats.

While I appreciate my friend’s observation that we as a culture don’t shy away from sex-based insults for men or women (or race-based insults for people of all and multiple races), I disagreed then and disagreed now that this is evidence of sexual equality or equity. The fact is that there is no equivalent to threatening a woman with rape, or a black person with lynching. And being called a sexist or racist for saying either of those things doesn’t carry the same intent or intimidation. These are the trump cards, if you will, that reveal a tacit desire to perpetuate bigotry and keep unearned power intact.

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