Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman...
You might assume that to provoke such a response I had said something deeply racist, incited rape or sexual violence or called for the death of a much-loved TV star. No, my ‘crime’ was to ask a man not to call a woman he didn’t know ‘darling’ during a live TV debate on gender equality.
Whatever your view on over-familiar language in political debate, I’m left gobsmacked that anyone cares enough to log on and script a tweet on the subject, let alone spend hours retweeting and favouriting others making nasty remarks too.
The overwhelming theme is, of course, misogyny. This from the original TV debate opponent:
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that Milo Yiannopoulos has direct links to the #GamerGate scandal which saw massive-scale abuse targeted at Anita Sarkeesian. The hashtag crops up repeatedly. He stirs up trouble on the internet knowing perfectly well that once he has identified a target, that individual will be bombarded with hateful messages. Bombarded is an understatement.
Retweets, favourites, replies loaded with more misogyny, and also the tactic of copying in others who will likely add to the abuse. Creating a sort of harassment chain letter.
Among the messages are of course a fair few that wish me dead or raped. Some have photoshopped images with slogans or waded through video footage to find the ugliest image of me they can. They call me ‘bitch’ and ‘retarded’ and ‘harpy’ and ‘asshole’.
A big theme is victim-blaming. I’m told that if I didn’t want this I shouldn’t have gone on TV. I’m told that I deserve punishment for things that other feminists have said. I’m told that if I complain I’m letting down feminism.
My job is another stick used to beat me. I’m told that as a comedian I should ‘be able to take it as well as dish it out’, as though comedy is some sort of psychological boxing match. I’m told as a comedian I should make a joke about it – which is rather like punching Bono in the face and telling him to put it on his next album (and that, for the record, is a joke).
More problematic are the hundreds of messages disparaging my work. Quite understandably in the 21st century, the first thing a comedy promoter does when recommended an act is bang their name into Google. There’s no way of distinguishing between a punter who has seen my show and not enjoyed it and a troll scrambling for new ways to ruin my afternoon. So my career is undoubtedly being detrimentally affected. Nasty comments have also appeared under basically every video of me online.
That makes it all the more infuriating when well-meaning individuals, from friends to the police themselves, say ‘ignore it’, ‘leave Twitter’, ‘block them’ or ‘report it’. I’m a human being; people use Twitter to communicate with me, as a 21st-century comedian I’m expected to use it to promote my work. When what I have to wade through is page after page of hate, it does affect me.
I stand on stage and wonder who’s in the audience. I find myself running home from the bus stop, checking behind me every few steps. I find myself wondering whether I’d see my would-be killer’s face or live to report them to the police. It knocks my confidence. It catches me by surprise – I google an old video clip to send to a promoter for a website and notice this underneath it.
I sit and cry for 10 minutes. You’re not supposed to admit this. This is what the trolls want. Hundreds of them are currently jerking off to this paragraph.
How can I go on using these videos to promote my work when I’m effectively sending my own abuse around to new audiences? I ring a friend and chat it through. I take a hot bath, have a cup of tea, make an extra trip to the gym. I stay out later with friends, I drink more; my social smoking habit turns into a whole pack.
Wading through it, processing what’s happening, blocking, reporting, buying a new printer cartridge, writing this article, absorb my time and my energy. All this happens while the rest of my life carries on. I sat at a funeral on Monday feeling my phone buzz with yet more hate as they read the eulogy.
About three days before this latest deluge I had an email from the police. Sadly, they had given up investigating a series of violent rape threats made on YouTube because, they explained, of ‘not enough evidence’. The threats are still sat in my inbox. The person who sent them to me appears to have been using his own real name and I could also tell from his profile, which I printed, what football team he supports. There is plenty of evidence.
I’ve reported a fair few rape and death threats to the police over the last few years. They ask me to describe the abuse – which means read it out a number of times, making sure it’s fully embedded in my head; I can recite it without notes, better than some of my own material. Then they wait a couple of months and tell me they’re not going to do anything about it. My hope that they might do something about harassment that doesn’t even describe ripping my head off and fucking my bleeding neck has long since faded.
The trouble is we seem to hold the internet to a different standard to real life. We now live significant parts of our lives online and we should have the same rights there as we do anywhere else. If Milo and 500 of his friends stood in the street and shouted these things at me we would all agree there was a serious problem that needed to be addressed. This is no different.
If any technology or legal experts can help me access justice, your help would be much appreciated. You can contact me through my website. katesmurthwaite.co.uk