Book review: Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet

While activist and author Laurie Penny was writing her latest book, part of her time was spent in a safe house — a necessary precaution after she and several other female journalists in the U.K. received death threats on Twitter.In grisly emails and malicious messages too numerous to count, Penny has been exposed to the lurid, grotesque rape fantasies of tormentors anonymous and named.

Against the misogyny rampant in mediated space, Penny pushes back. In her new ebook, Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet (Bloomsbury, $1.99), she offers a mode of resistance — a manifesto of inclusion for free expression in networked publics.

Penny aims to destroy the idea that degrading women on networked media ought to be tolerated or normalized. Cybersexism, an extended essay pulsating with righteous fury and reasoned reportage, does this by first collapsing the false dualism of “online” and “real”:

“The internet is public space, real space; it’s increasingly where we interact socially, do our work, organize our lives and engage with politics, and violence online is real violence. The hatred of women in public spaces online is reaching epidemic levels and it’s time to end the pretense that it’s either acceptable or inevitable.”

Penny defines cybersexism not as an inherent feature of networked media, but rather as an offshoot of political oppression and sexist power. While she notes that the humiliation of women is nothing new, “the specific, sadistic nature of online sexist and sexual harassment is unique, and uniquely accepted.” For Penny, comment sections , blogs, game forums and social media have acted as both progressive social frontier and misogyny’s lasting stronghold.

Cybersexism reveals a number of ways in which women are discouraged from speaking about political issues online, especially issues of gender. Penny recasts the events surrounding Reddit pariah “Violentacrez” (Michael Brutsch, a Reddit moderator who was unmasked after years of posting pedophilic, misogynistic content) and Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” (a worthy project to discuss sexist themes and design in video games and gaming culture).

Where redditors defended Brutsch’s right to free speech and Twitter users personally attacked Sarkeesian for her feminist agenda, Penny counters. “These people talk unironically of their right to free expression whilst doing everything in their power to hurt, humiliate and silence any woman with a voice or a platform, screeching abuse at us until we back down or shut up,” she writes. “They speak of censorship but say nothing of the silencing in which they are engaged.”

The relentless abuse aimed at Sarkeesian, especially on Twitter, demonstrates the gap between the enforcement of anti-harassment policies and misogyny’s implicit impunity. Not long after Sarkeesian’s “Tropes” project debuted, many Twitter users trained their gaze on another feminist activist, Caroline Criado-Perez. After she successfully lobbied the Bank of England to feature a woman’s face on the new £10 bill, Criado-Perez was besieged by rape threats on Twitter. Twitter responded only after Sarkeesian and Criado-Perez provoked the company and a petition circulated in support of greater user protections. The company introduced new abuse reporting features and bolstered its moderation staff.

The Twitter example is instructive: To close the chasm between espoused gender equality and the tacit acceptance of sexism, women and their allies must bring attention to the heinous ideologies that attempt to mute them. This is especially important in networked publics where old, banished hatreds flourish.

The patriarchy Penny wishes to topple pervades not just media and language, but the structures of the economy. Penny introduces Kate Losse, an early Facebook (s FB) employee. Losse worked at the company for five years, in roles including Mark Zuckerberg’s speechwriter. She believes that Facebook’s stash of intimate pictures of women is key to understanding the company, as is the unnoticed role of underpaid or free labor by women on social media. In Losse’s critical review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she describes Sandberg’s book not as a path to feminist empowerment and workplace equality, but as a push to make women more amenable to tech’s capitalist machine. It’s surprising how little prominence criticism like this achieves.

Daring in style — fluttering from explanatory journalism to lyrical reflection to pistol-cocked cultural critique — Penny sustains a provoking discussion that is rigorous and kinetic. She smartly observes that patriarchy, not the surveillance state, is the original panopticon. And she condemns those prejudiced naysayers who think all of this is innocuous: the ones who accuse feminists of harboring sanctimonious “butthurt”; of not “just dealing with it;” of being dumb women who continue to talk.

As with older forms of publics and public space — the office, the press, the legislature — traditionally male subcultures must be pried open, torn up and radically changed. Cybersexism recasts the enduring feminist project onto the novel development of web culture. Penny isn’t fighting for some genderless utopia, but for a place where women and girls can be heard, fully human, and themselves.

Hamza Shaban writes about technology, web culture and media studies. Follow him on Twitter @PlanetHozz.