Twitter, trolls and the rise of casual sexism

The Times, Tuesday 30 July 2013

A woman who campaigned for female figureheads on banknotes has received abuse and rape threats. Why aren’t I surprised, asks Joan Smith

Wolf whistles, Pirelli calendars, patronising remarks about women not knowing anything about car engines – it’s all in the past, right? Women of all ages can walk past a building site without a single shout of ‘nice bum’ or ‘cheer up, love’, and not just because their employers are so proud of belonging to a civil contractors’ scheme. That kind of behaviour is seen as cheesy and old-fashioned, the kind of thing you might see in re-runs of Sixties or Seventies sitcoms. It’s so rare, in fact, that I have to assure friends who’ve been wolf-whistled in my street that I don’t live next to one of the last unreconstructed sexists: the culprit is actually my neighbour’s African grey parrot.

At one level, I’m cheered by all this. I’m glad that my god-daughter, who’s in her 20s, doesn’t seem to regard the street as an obstacle course of sexist cat-calling in the way I did at her age. On occasion I took my life in my hands, once telling a bunch of jeering football fans who surrounded me on an escalator at Euston station where they could put themselves. Of course I was a veteran by then, having first encountered casual sexism at primary school (they started early in those days). ‘You can’t do that, you’re a girl’, piped a classmate as we waited in line to see teacher. He was lucky I was only nine and not yet versed in the language of feminism and patriarchy but it got me in practice for the astonishing assumptions I encountered at work. One boss told me quite seriously that women were better suited to boring jobs (I actually had more qualifications than he did).

So here I am, hoping against hope that casual sexism is a thing of the past, and then I get a nasty shock. Take the end of last week, when BBC presenter Colin Murray was warming up the audience in the run-up to the Anniversary Games at the Olympic stadium. Musing about the qualities which would make the ultimate athlete, Murray came up with the stamina of Mo [Farah], the speed of [Usain] Bolt, the leap of [Greg] Rutherford and the bottom of Jess Ennis[-Hill]’. Forget the gold medal, the woman’s only there for her shape – and this from a man who left Radio 5 Live after hosting a discussion about ‘turning’ gay racing presenter Clare Balding. Murray’s remark about Ennis-Hill recalled John Inverdale’s comment about this year’s Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli, whom he disparaged on air as ‘never going to be a looker’.

Both these incidents prompted a storm of indignation and rightly so. It confirms the sad fact that casual sexism hasn’t disappeared, it’s just migrated from the places where it used to be endemic. It’s shocking on TV precisely because it’s been to some extent rooted out of organisations and institutions, most of which boast in mission statements about their commitment to gender equality. These days it’s found new outlets, flourishing on the internet where men who dislike women hide behind anonymity and encourage each other to greater excesses. Cyberspace has become a kind of virtual building site where girls and women have to negotiate the equivalent not just of wolf whistles but a barrage of sexist abuse.

I used to be astounded by this, but now it’s become horribly familiar. Here’s just one recent example: when I took part in a discussion on Sky News last week, a male viewer sought out my Twitter account so he could call me a ‘stupid bitch’.  That’s not on the scale of the rape threats received on Twitter last weekend by Caroline Criado-Perez, after she ran a successful campaign to persuade the Bank of England to keep famous women from hstory on bank notes. It happens just about every time I appear on TV, wen a proportion f the male audience is usually moved to make gratuitous comments on my hair and clothes.

I have never gone on a social networking site to tell a total stranger I don’t like his shirt. But women who appear on TV are regarded as fair game, as the Classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard has discovered. When she appeared on Question Time at the beginning of this year, Beard was subjected to a torrent of abuse which she described as ‘truly vile’, including discussions of her pubic hair. I worry that this climate of sexist slap-downs will make women in their 20s think twice about putting their heads above the parapet.

It’s already having an effect, I think, on the way younger men treat women. The posts to Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism Project ( have included one from a 14-year-old schoolgirl who’d been told ‘all I’m good for is cleaning, cooking, and blowjobs’. What’s happening, I think, is that the never-ending discussion and denigration of women’s sexual parts is encouraging men in their teens and 20s to assume they have a right to control their girlfriends’ bodies. At the launch of my latest book, a young woman spoke about a boyfriend who’d pressured her to have her pubic hair shaped – and even suggested she have surgery on her vagina. Sensibly, she decided to change her boyfriend.

The sad truth is that misogyny, as fast as we’ve expelled it from one area of our lives, has popped up somewhere else. It’s almost as if it’s been privatised, moving onto social networking sites where some men post what would have been their innermost thoughts a couple of decades ago. I wish they’d stayed there; wolf whistles, it turns out, weren’t even the half of it. Casual sexism is still with us – and nastier than ever.



Comments are closed.