Since the Bank of England announced the presence of Jane Austen on the new £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez, who spearheaded the campaign to put more women on UK money, has been subjected to a well-documented and much-discussed barrage of abuse via Twitter and her personal email. It’s been described as trolling, but the difference between trolls and Caroline’s aggressors is palpable. Trolling is the act of being deliberately provocative to elicit an angry response; a threat of rape is a criminal act. There exists a gulf of meaning between trolling and threatening violence against someone whose opinions you disagree with. It’s the difference between playing devil’s advocate and leading a targeted campaign of aggression and hate.
In addition to this, Caroline, her supporters, and other prominent feminists including two female MPs have been subject to bomb threats and racist abuse on the site. Twitter’s response to the tweets has grown sterner and faster over the week, but still the threats keep coming. The senders are quick to reiterate their numbers and resilience against banning, but Caroline and the others continue to pass each new tweet onto the police.
At the time of writing, two men have been arrested; the first aged 25, the second just 21. Their youth is striking – born well after the advent of the feminist movement, these young men won’t even remember a time before the UK’s female Prime Minister, much less a time when women weren’t welcome in workplaces or universities. For a generation who take women’s rights almost for granted, for those who have never had to afford it much thought, it’s a startling deviation from the party line.
For these men, the threat of violence is a means of control. Like the cases of ‘corrective’ rape seen in South Africa, the threats are a way to assert dominance over a woman who challenges their fragile, crumbling masculinity. Regardless of whether they would actually act on their threats or not, their weak self-concept and chauvinistic protection of outmoded gender relations reveals a complicated and defensive psychology.
They system they know how to operate in has failed, and the world has changed around them. Like a small child denied their own way, the aggressors respond by lashing out – in short, they throw a tantrum. Unlike a small child, though, they have sufficient knowledge of social convention to channel their rage into the most effective form and target it at the most vulnerable area. While they deny that they would actually commit rape, the threat of sexual violence is still powerfully intimidating; fortunately, the women in question refuse to be intimidated.
In response to the story, print and broadcast journalist Emma Barnett gave the aggressors the right to reply on her radio show. Her callers provided a telling insight into their mindset: they insist “she was asking for it... if you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse. It’s what you get when you are a woman shouting about something,” that “feminists like Caroline are undermining what it is to be a man” and subsequently require “sorting out”. They justify their actions by claiming “men are predators... and this is what we do... these men wouldn’t actually come and rape her. They don’t mean it. Rape is a metaphor.”
Rape isn’t a metaphor. Rape is a tool of domination, of control, of power. Rape is a taboo that these individuals have exploited to intimidate a woman who, in their eyes, has developed ideas beyond her station and must be brought back into line. As journalists, as activists, as feminists, we must resist the fear forced upon us. These threats are an attempt to control a woman who, in their eyes, has too much to say and too big a platform from which to say it. They insist feminism will change nothing, has changed nothing, but their fear is visible behind their anger and spite; in time the mask of anonymity will slip and Caroline’s opponents will stand exposed for all to see.
Behind the explicit threats and creeping menace lies another wave of attempts to discredit; the commentators, both journalists and private citizens, who insist that retweeting threats is ‘attention-seeking’ and that ignoring the problem will make it go away. Chiming in with these are the men who write long articles and aggressive tweets claiming that feminism is no threat - if this were the case, there would be no need to confront it or publicly mock it. Ignore it and it’ll go away, right?
Those with a vested interest in maintaining the patriarchal status quo have been ignoring feminism since its first faltering steps. It’s 100 years since Emily Wilding Davison fell under the King’s horse, 95 years since women were given the vote, 48 years since the UK gained its first female MP, 38 years since the Sex Discrimination Act, 19 years since rape within marriage became a crime, two years since changes to the law of succession allowed a Princess to take the British throne. Campaigners have achieved all this with tenacity, patient effort, and a refusal to remain silent. We did not submit to ignorance then, and we must not submit to it now.