Challenging Online Sexism
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"Most writers," author and Harvard University alumna Sarah Sentilles writes, "are aware of author Norman Mailer's infamous dismissal of 'women's ink' as 'dykily psychotic,' 'crippled,' 'creepish,' 'frigid,' and 'stillborn' in his 1959 Advertisements for Myself, but they may not realize that opinions like these are alive and well, even thriving, today."

Figures like novelist and Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul — who openly declares that no female author is his equal — can be dismissed as outliers, but what about the subtler forms of sexism that appear in reviews and online comments?

Let's take a look at some of the different forms of sexism that women writers encounter online and in reviews, taking Sarah Sentilles' experience as a starting point. In her piece for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, "The Pen is Mightier: Sexist responses to women writing about religion," Sentilles examines reactions to her recent memoir about the dissolution of her Christian faith.

Sentilles recounts how, despite her impressive credentials (including a doctorate in theology from Harvard and more than ten years in the field) "many reviewers failed to treat [her] as a scholar of religion." Reviews were "infantilizing and patronizing" with one reviewer from the Los Angeles Times even asking, "Who really knows anything in their 20s?" [Note: Sentilles is thirty-eight].

Published print reviews are one thing, in that they normally undergo some sort of an editing process. However, on the Internet, shielded by anonymity, comments can become even more racially and sexually offensive. Laurie Penny, a prolific British writer and columnist for the Independent, knows this all to well. She writes, a "[woman's] 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."

Penny reveals that many of the responses she gets from her online pieces are not legitimate arguments, but rather sexist verbal attacks. She writes,

No journalist worth reading expects zero criticism, and the internet has made it easier for readers to critique and engage… In my experience, however, the charges of stupidity, hypocrisy, Stalinism and poor personal hygiene which are a sure sign that any left-wing columnist is at least upsetting the right people, come spiced with a large and debilitating helping of violent misogyny, and not only from the far-right.

She observes that while the Internet has become a place for dialogue and an endless source of information and opinion sharing, it also makes it easier for men to become cyber bullies. While there are people who lament over the lack of "strong female voices" in political discourse, many ignore the reality of the threats and rhetorical abuse that women face in online forums. She concludes, "Free speech means being free to use technology and participate in public life without fear of abuse — and if the only people who can do so are white, straight men, the internet is not as free as we'd like to believe."

Hannah Pool, author of My Fathers' Daughter, who writes regularly for the Guardian, writes that the online literary criticism that is couched in terms of gender or race is juvenile, offensive, and "must be publicly challenged." She asks herself, "should I really be telling trainee black female journalists that regular racist and sexist abuse is a part of the job?" In her experience, being a black female writer has entailed recieving comments related to her sex and race, not her opinions.

In order to test her theory, Pool began posting online articles, all reflecting her own opinions, via the pen name Harry Pond — a "white male alter ego." Her alter ego received no racist or sexist vitriol, and online thread participants generally refrained from insulting Mr. Pond. Pool writes,

So what's the answer?... As with all forms of bullying, those hiding behind racism and sexism online need to be publicly challenged to be dealt with: it needs to be as socially unacceptable to hurl racist or sexist abuse online as it is to shout it on the street.

Sentilles reminds women to never stop writing, regardless. She quotes the revered feminist writer, poet, and philosopher Hélène Cixous: "Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself."

I'm printing that quote up, and sticking it up above my desk. If these experiences are anything to go by, as a young writer, I'm going to need it.

Tags: comments, online, online misogyny, online sexism, sarah sentilles, sexism, women authors

    • Anna Robinson
    • Anna S.G. Robinson is originally from Auckland, New Zealand. She studied History, English Literature, and French at the University of Auckland and McGill University, Montréal. She was an intern at The Nation Institute during the fall of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaSGRob...

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