Content note for mentions of rape, sexual violence and online abuse.
Milo Yiannopoulos of The Kernel has written a review of Laurie Penny’s new ebook Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet. It’s not pretty, but let’s just dive straight in.
I’ll irritate most of my friends for saying this, but I’ve always found feminist writer Laurie Penny immensely enjoyable, in person and in writing.
What a thoroughly odd way to start a book review.
I say that as someone who is – or at least was – appalled by practically everything she says. Why “was”? Because I’ve just finished her pamphlet Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet, and it’s… well, it’s terrific.
Oh I see, it was necessary to qualify that you don’t hate Laurie Penny personally while pandering to your friends who are ready to kneejerk at the very mention of her name, but also make it clear that you are normally “appalled” by her work. Glad we got that cleared up. Carry on.
Yes, all of the old problems are there. There’s a bit too much sodding hysteria, too much is taken for granted and too often
“Hysteria”. Gendered word choice #1. Keep your eyes out, there are a lot of these! Hysteria is a state of uncontrollable or excessive emotion and also an outdated psychological term for a disorder that exclusively afflicted women, because it was caused by disturbances in the uterus (similar to disturbances in the Force, I suppose.) So just to be clear, Penny is not angry, she’s not impassioned and she’s not vehement. She’s hysterical. And not just hysterical, but “sodding” hysterical, because Milo has had to endure this emotional lady nonsense in the past. Moving on.
Penny fails to realise that the struggles she describes for young women aren’t much different to those men go through – or that, where they are, there are just as vicious proxies on the cock-toting side of the fence.
Because of course, young men must live with the inevitable consequences of the fact that their entire gender (across multiple cultures and nations) has been treated like chattel for most of human history and still is in many places, and – even though they have made great strides towards being recognised as full and autonomous human beings in the last century – the cultures and systems that position them as second-class citizens failed to evaporate overnight and they still have to wade through a thick residue of matriarchal bullshit on a daily basis. Makes sense. I stand with you, my equally disenfranchised “cock-toting” brethren! Bonus points for totally erasing trans* people.
But you can’t deny that the woman can turn a sentence, and that she scores a few hits.
High praise for a woman indeed – and a feminist at that! Milo goes onto acknowledge that there is truth in the assertion that young women are subject to much more physical and behavioural scrutiny than their male counterparts and that there are indeed gendered power imbalances at play in how men and women express their sexuality. But then we slide rapidly back into casual misogyny!
The simplest compliment I can pay Cybersexism is that I wish it had been many times the length, because what it lacks in rigour it more than makes up for in vivid autobiography, and I think if more people read this before taking to the internet to hurl death threats at Laurie Penny, they might, as I will, think twice before dismissing her as a hysterical spoilt brat. They might even listen to what she has to say.
I would always “think twice” before dismissing any writer as an “hysterical spoilt brat” unless she actively throws her Coco Pops at me or something. Also, the conflation in this paragraph implies that if Milo had deemed Penny a hysterical spoiled brat after all, it would somehow make hurling death threats at her more acceptable.
I’m less interested in the catalogue of abuse Penny has assembled – we all get hate on the internet –
We just need to pause for a moment here and give Milo a round of applause for what has to be one of the most impressive feats of mansplaining since that guy in Rebecca Solnit’s seminal piece on the subject. In less than half a sentence, Milo has waved his man-logic wand and dismissed the driving point of Penny’s work and all the evidence she uses to illustrate it. Then – as an aside, no less! – he minimises and universalises her experiences, thus erasing the idea that there could ever be a gendered component to online abuse.
For Milo, sifting through all those threatening violent sexual messages clogging up his social media accounts is just a regular Monday morning. Grow a thicker skin, ladies!
than I am her provocative argument that sex on the internet should not be viewed as any less real than sex IRL; that “how you fuck can be less important than how you talk about fucking”.
Perhaps for a Lefty columnist, that’s a given.
Milo is not planning to expand on his thoughts on this, just in case you wondering. He picked that quote from the end of three passionate paragraphs about romance in the digital age that – while beautifully written – do not have much bearing on the main thrust of Penny’s argument. He seems to mention it primarily so he can take a jab at lefty columnists while attempting to segue away from the actual point of Cybersexism.
I did come away with the small but significant truth that there is a uniquely terrifying, preternatural sort of impotent rage behind a lot of anonymous male commenters, tweeters and posters on the internet that makes life as a woman in the public eye especially difficult and upsetting. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that fury, and how disquieting, disorientating and disempowering it can be.
I’m glad you managed to get past all that irritating hysteria and actually engage with some of the content! Well done, have a cookie. But it’s worth noting that a significant proportion of these male commenters are not anonymous and casting them as such is part of the problem. Penny spends a deal of time pointing this out in the book you are supposed to be reviewing. Also, again let’s note word choices used to describe what women go through: “upsetting”, “disorientating”, “difficult”… we seem to have forgotten “enraging” and “totally fucking unacceptable”.
Yes, women are upset. Upset is definitely a factor. After all, reading a graphic description of how someone wants to rape and mutilate you is pretty upsetting. But women are also angry, more than angry, fucking furious that this is the price of entry for being a woman in the public eye. And a lot of women are also doing something about it. It’s not all just one big attack of the vapours.
Warning, the next sentence a huge lump of male privilege and you will need to chew it carefully otherwise you might choke.
I remain unconvinced that misogyny is unavoidably architected into anyone’s experience of the internet;
See ladies? It’s all fine. A man has descended from on high to inform us that misogyny is not an unavoidable part of being a woman on the Internet or, we can assume, being a woman in general! Milo, of course, has plenty of lived experience navigating misogyny on a day-to-day basis. Or he’s experienced the “cock-toting” equivalent I guess. Whatever. The point is that he’s unconvinced by all these women banging on about shit that has happened to them, especially since he chose to disregard the “catalogue of abuse Penny has assembled” because it’s obviously not that important.
But also, I agree. Misogyny is not unavoidably architected into just anyone‘s experience of the Internet. It is mainly architected into women‘s experiences of the Internet. But not unavoidably so! Here are a number of steps women can take to avoid misogyny on the Internet altogether:
- Hide your gender using a male-sounding username. Gender neutral usernames and profile pictures also work, because people will likely assume you are a man, because men are the default humans!
- Don’t be opinionated. Definitely don’t argue with men.
- Don’t ever imply that misogyny or patriarchy might be real things, especially not real things that impact on your life.
- Don’t “invade” male spaces such as gaming, comics, nerd culture in general, certain genres of music or mainstream sports, to name just a few examples. If you feel like you simply must contribute to these spaces, please refer to point No. 1.
- Don’t post a picture of yourself. For fuck’s sake, this one is obvious, you’re practically begging for someone to Photoshop your face into some hardcore porn and then email it to you.
- Don’t be a feminist. I mean, seriously, are you an idiot?
I think a lot of these commentators actively seek out the worst of the internet and then masquerade as shocked – or hurt – when they find it.
Certainly, in the case of Laurie Penny, Anita Sarkeesian, Caroline Criado-Perez, Professor Mary Beard and Lindy West – to name just a few – they went on a veritable scavenger hunt to find the worst abuse they possibly could. They sought it out in their inboxes, in their Twitter feeds, in the comments on their blogs, in some cases even in the letters that were mailed to their homes after their personal information had been circulated for the express purposes of intimidating them… honestly, if they’d just stop looking for all that abuse then they’d have no reason to be so outraged.
And I’m uncomfortable with the implication behind Penny’s argument, which is that women need special treatment, always a warning sign.
A warning sign of WHAT, Milo?
I cannot identify any part of Cybersexism where the subtext says that women should receive special treatment. The fact is, women already receive special treatment. They receive the super special treatment of being descended on by an army of angry men who threaten them with sexual violence every time they suggest that society might have a bit of misogyny problem. We would definitely like that special treatment to stop.
Further, I don’t see misogyny on the internet getting markedly worse: outraged female columnists banging on about their detractors’ insults are not evidence of an explosion in violent threats and abuse. Noise does not equate to research.
Yeah, I guess if Milo has casually surveyed the situation and decided it’s not getting worse, there’s no point having a discussion about it. Also, remember, “noise” – I assume by “noise” Milo means “numerous high-profile women getting hundreds of rape threats in response to their work, all of which are well-documented via screenshot” – is not research. Milo has very strict standards when it comes to burden of proof, as we are about to see.
Also, mark the language again; female columnists do not write, they “bang on”. And not about threats of sexual violence from a cybermob of misogynists, but about “their detractor’s insults”. The female columnists now sound unreasonable and the trolls positively civilised. Language, eh?
If anything, I sense the majority of trolls are getting more timid now more of them are getting outed and rounded on by attention-seekers like Times columnist Caitlin Moran.
Seriously, Milo? You “sense” that trolls are getting more timid? You literally just stated that “noise does not equate to research” but now you can “sense” that trolls are getting more timid because Caitlin Moran doesn’t like them? That’s just SHODDY.
Also, mark it again. Caitlin Moran is an “attention-seeker”. Not a broadcaster, not a critic, not an award-winning writer. Nope. Her primary credential is “attention-seeker”. She also happens to write for the Times, but we’ll lead with “attention-seeker”. Penny actually dedicates several paragraphs of the book Milo has presumably just read explaining exactly why “attention seeking” is a gendered insult. Is this actually a glimmer of self-awareness? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME IT IS SELF-AWARENESS.
But, but, but. She’s got a point. We do need to think more carefully about how women are spoken to online, even if only because men are coming across as such graceless, ungallant and unchivalrous bastards.
Because, to quote my friend Elaine, who drew my attention to this steaming heap in the first place, obviously “the only consequence of cybersexism worth talking about is how it reflects on men.”
For the record, feminists don’t want men to be more gallant and chivalrous. We don’t like those things because they are outdated concepts founded on the idea that women need special treatment because we are weaker and more delicate than men. Benevolent sexism is still sexism. And honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could think “grace” is a factor in this equation. Men who perpetrate online abuse (or who defend it as a fair price of entry for women who want to have opinions in public) are lacking in many things – empathy, impulse control, healthy avenues for expressing anger, the ability to view women as people worthy of dignity and respect – but grace is definitely a long way down on the list of personal qualities they need to work on.
To sum up my opinions on Milo and this review, well, you can’t deny that the man can turn a sentence and that he scores a few hits. But ultimately, there’s a bit too much sodding unexamined privilege, too much is taken for granted and Milo completely fails to engage with the substance of Penny’s work because he’s too busy reminding his readership that she’s “hysterical” and taking jabs at female and lefty columnists. He also does not realise that in writing this dismissive, patronising and disjointed piece of bullshit, he has illustrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is part of the problem.
This has been Takedown (almost) Thursday.
Also, get Cybersexism: Gender, Sex and Power on the Internet, because it’s brilliant and I thoroughly recommend it. It’s available for £1.49 on Amazon, and if you do not have a Kindle, you can read it in your browser.
ETA: For extra EXTRA fun, try running Yiannopoulos’s review through the Chrome extension, Jailbreak the Patriarchy, which genderswaps the Internet for you by switching all male and female pronouns and a “reasonably thorough set of other gendered words.” It’s not a perfect tool, but it certainly is jarring to read about a man being dismissed as a “hysterical spoilt brat.”