Nov 17 2014


A couple of days ago everyone on twitter (and off) was very excited: ESA landed a probe called Philae on a comet shaped like a duck. I was going to write about the appropriateness or otherwise of ESA project scientist  Matt Taylor’s shirt – it featured quite a few scantily-clad ladies.

On the face of it the story should have been: man wears offensive shirt on TV, people point out that it’s offensive, man removes shirt, man apologises. That is what happened, Matt Taylor seems a nice enough chap who made a mistake which he rectified and gave, what I’d consider, a proper apology.

The moment has passed, better writers than me have written a lot about the incident, but it has highlighted a theme.

The women that said the shirt was offensive received a torrent of abuse, including threats of sexual violence, and the men who did exactly the same thing didn’t. Friends on twitter did experiments where one (male) tweeted exactly the same thing as his (female) partner and got completely different responses: immediate abuse, continuing over 48 hours in the case of the woman, very little for the man. I’ve been moderately vocal and received pretty much nothing in terms of abuse, certainly in the first instance. It’s all very well saying that people should report abuse then move on, or that the threats are empty. But overwhelmingly it is women being threatened, not men. Twitter’s reporting mechanisms are restrictive and they appear unconcerned. And a threat is empty until it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

Several women I know simply don’t comment on “contentious” issues online because they know what response they’ll get. And this happens again and again and again and again and again and again.

Over the last few years on twitter I’ve come to realise that women lead different lives to me, they experience a whole bunch of things that I’ve never even contemplated as a risk. Since I joined I’ve learnt of:

  • the woman stuck in a pub toilet with men outside threatening to gang rape her;
  • the woman who cycles to work in London who gets groped and catcalled on a regular basis;
  • the women who never finished their PhDs because their male supervisors considered them to be sexual prey;
  • the women in science communication who were never quite sure whether whether they were published on merit or because the editor of that website had designs on them;
  • the women who don’t go on scientific field trips because basically they are too dangerous;
  • the women at conferences who think carefully about getting into a lift alone with a man;
  • the woman that won’t walk along the canal towpath in broad daylight;
  • the woman who wants her named removed from a football ground if they re-employ a convicted and unrepentant rapist and gets rape threats in return;
  • the woman who was sexually assaulted on a train;
  • the women who said it would be nice to have women on banknotes, and were threatened with rape;
  • the woman who supported immigration on Question Time and received abuse, and a bomb threat;
  • the woman who was going to give a talk about the portrayal of women in computer games but was cancelled because of the death threats made against her and the audience;
  • the woman who has suffered domestic violence;
  • the women who were groped by a senior party official, who never showed any remorse when uncovered;
  • the women who doesn’t wear headphones in the street;
  • the woman who gets followed on the London Underground;

Some of these are high profile public incidents, others are not but they are all women doing ordinary, unexceptional things. They’re spread over a number of years, and I follow a fair number of people. But nevertheless, regardless of public statistics, they are something that never impinged on me in the past.

I didn’t like the term feminist because it always brought to mind those women that told me everything men did was wrong but now I realise I was wrong. The feminists are the people that speak up and say “That thing you are doing is wrong“, the women in that group are attacked mercilessly in a way the men aren’t. I allowed my impressions of those women to be dominated by their attackers.

Apologies for being so slow on the uptake, I’m trying to do better in future.

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