Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet, by Laurie Penny, Bloomsbury Publishing, Kindle edition, £1.49, ASIN: B00EO24J3O
In a recent high profile case of online antifeminist rage, Caroline Criado Perez received rape and death threats and hundreds of abusive tweets and emails after she led a campaign to have more women featured on banknotes, an affirmative action that offended the meritocratic ethos of online geek culture. Anita Sarkeesian sparked such anger among male gamers when she made a vlog series criticising sexist stereotyping in video games that to prove her wrong they made a game in which players could punch Sarkeesian’s face until it was bloodied and bruised.
Optimistic sentiments that began with Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and the utopian cyberfeminists of the 1990s continue today in TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks and egalitarian utterances from Silicon Valley, but it is increasingly hard to ignore the fact that the online social world, having promised to liberate us from every imaginable tyranny and inequity, has also produced a disturbingly vicious culture of misogyny.
Twitter personality Laurie Penny is among the women to address this, in her new eBook, Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet. Along with the end of gender, early cyberutopian writers predicted the end of hierarchies, industry, nationalism and even economic crises. With so much of this utopian rhetoric still common today, from tech entrepreneurs to hacktivists, the extraordinary online viciousness toward women raises all kinds of potentially troubling questions. Because at the centre of this new online war is not the usual cast of social conservatives but rather a transgressive subculture that embodies many of the internet’s most celebrated radical qualities: free access, user-generated content, anonymity, an anti-celebrity, anti-hierarchy ethic and absolute freedom of speech. Sadly, Penny is not troubled enough to engage with any such questions. Instead she blames the misogyny of geek counterculture on a host of unhip and easily mocked caricatures: conservatives, jocks, tabloids and traditional mainstream masculinity.
The online phenomenon 4chan/b/, which has its roots in earlier geek subcultures and which Penny has often praised, has created hacker groups like Anonymous, whose Guy Fawkes mask became the central symbol of the #occupy movement, but it is also the place where major attacks against prepubescent girls and feminists are regularly organised, revenge porn is standard, and terms like “cumdumpster” form part of a slang and style that has spread far beyond the site itself. Its misogyny and its misanthropy spring from the same anti-mass culture sensibility that despises an increasingly feminised and popular internet, once ruled over by subcultural male geeks and now flooded with selfies. Penny seems to wish to divert attention from the real source and nature of online misogyny in her book because ultimately, she shares most of its cultural politics.
The book’s approach belongs in the tradition of post-left anarchists like Hakim Bey, once criticised by Murray Bookchin for “lifestyle anarchism”, with a focus on networks and temporary sites of transgression. It is written in the style of 90s utopians like John Perry Barlow, who celebrated the end of all things material, and cyberfeminist Sadie Plant, who believed that the anarchic anonymous world of the internet would blur gender boundaries and create an environment for women to flourish and to be free.
Although she more or less admits at the outset that transgressive, irreverent, geek spaces like 4chan are at the heart of contemporary online misogynist culture, Penny proceeds throughout the rest of the book to characterise the problem as a conservative throwback. “Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch that women had no idea how much men hate them. Well, now we do. […] We can observe men speaking about us as they have for centuries when they thought we weren’t watching.” Are we really to believe that in the dark pre-internet past men talked amongst themselves about how they wanted to decapitate and anally rape women with kitchen utensils? Or that they would refer to women as cumdumpsters? Are we really to believe that the geek misogynist style accurately represents mainstream masculinity or, to use David Cameron’s phrase, “the bad old days of the past”? The bizarre implication of this statement tells the reader something about the writer’s view of humanity but little about humanity itself.
Women have been reporting this kind of behaviour since the mid-90s and have consistently described it as coming from geek subcultures in which conservative moral values or mainstream tastes are as unwelcome as feminism. Stephanie Brail documented her online harassment and stalking by Usenet geeks after she sparked a “flamewar” when she defended riot grrrl music in 1996. Around the same time Netta Gilboa, a tech writer, described the hacker culture of the day: “Not that many women frequent the [hacker] underground … At times the men get in a mood and kick all the women off the channel … Most of the women have been stalked on and off-line by at least one hacker.”
Faced with the difficult proposition that the root of online misogyny can’t be traced to something like Toryism or neoliberalism but instead might spring from precisely the anarchic anonymous online geek cultures that Penny herself has spent years praising, she simply repeats – as if it will become true through repetition ‑ that the problem is a hangover from the old conservative non-digital world which the liberating power of the internet has yet to correct: “We have a brave new world which looks far too much like the cruel old world” which “recreates offline prejudices” […] “Although the technology is new, the language of shame and sin around women’s use of the Internet is very, very old.” And so on, and so on.
She asserts that, “The gender revolution and the digital revolution are happening together, and they scare the same people for the right reasons.” But who exactly does the digital revolution scare? IBM? Google? As Jodi Dean has argued, the digital revolution does not scare the gatekeepers of the dominant ideology of our time. On the contrary it is precisely an expression of the nature of contemporary capitalism, with its post-industrial aesthetic, dotcom neoliberalism, aversion to old hierarchies and embrace of participation and self-expression. Is the state afraid of the digital revolution? Maybe. But as Evgeny Morozov has argued, states are also now able to gather more information about dissidents from looking at their social media accounts than they used to obtain through torture and elaborate spying missions. The misogynist geeks are certainly not afraid of the digital revolution; nor are they “afraid” of the advancement of women ‑ they simply despise it.
She insists that the mainstream social media platforms are “terrified not just of pornography but of sexuality in general”. Unless Silicon Valley has been infiltrated by Calvinists, this supposed fear seems like another way to distinguish what is cool and edgy from what is conservative and square, even if it means flying in the face of all empirical evidence. If capitalists ever saw inculcating or defending conservative moral values as part of their mission, they haven’t done so for some time.
“One of the upsetting things about the way nerd culture has been incorporated into the mainstream” Penny writes “is the subsumption of many of the radical, egalitarian impulses of traditional nerd culture into a stereotype.” But the radical credentials of “traditional nerd culture” are highly questionable. Not only has the misogyny of online geek and hacker culture been documented by women on the receiving end of their attacks for decades, its roots lie in the back-to-the-land Californian counterculture, as Fred Turner has documented, in which women often played a highly traditional and subordinate role. It was influenced by figures like Ken Kesey, who articulated much of the counterculture’s loathing of the symbolically feminine taming influence of suburban domesticity, conformity and mass consumer culture.
The sexual revolution of that period bred a kind of radical misogynist fellow traveller, who was emphatically on board for the project of increased female sexual availability. Now, as boys raised on casually consuming extreme hardcore pornography with previously unthinkable levels of cruelty and humiliation of women turn out to be less than gentlemanly, feminists often find themselves in an awkward position, unable to coherently make judgments on moral terms lest they appear conservative.
When we look at the major social media corporations, organisations Penny describes as “terrifying”, their platforms are not only dramatically more popular among women than the misogynist geek gutter but they have also enabled women to do something concrete to address the attacks. Leveraging their own profit motive against them, feminist campaigns have succeeded in getting Twitter and Facebook to take some measures to address extreme misogynist imagery and threatening behaviour. This would be unthinkable in the structureless tyranny of supposedly radical anonymous non-commercial spaces like 4chan.
Penny has expressed disdain for mainstream cultural tastes throughout her career and has claimed that “it’s page three, not online porn, that is the real threat to women” and in this book looks on in horror at those “skimming lazily over whatever propaganda the red tops are peddling that day in the guise of news”. This recalls the reaction of Nietzsche and others to the rise of mass literacy and mass culture in their time: “they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper”.
She claims, despite the increasing feminisation of the tabloids and their audience, that the trend of tabloid misogyny is “only becoming more pronounced as the internet undercuts its bottom line. Tabloids are now relying more and more on lazy sexism to sell papers and the news economy of misogyny is more pernicious than ever as it is experienced in real time online. The woman hatred of the popular press is in no way separable from the sexism of amateur blogs and web forums: plenty of sexist trolls have regular gigs as print columnists and the commentariat still behaves like a frat club. Meanwhile tabloid misogyny such as the Daily Mail, as bad as anything you’ll find on Reddit, legitimises the danker, more covert troughs of gynophobia online.” But the misogyny of Reddit and the lulz culture of 4chan are utterly unparalleled in the print world and is of a demonstrably different nature.
Penny tells a story in which a sceptical bearded nerd at a hacker conference – a description of almost everyone who has ever gone to a hacker conference ‑ criticices feminists for making judgments about men without having all the information and is stunned into a expression of “quiet enlightenment” when Penny responds by asking if he has “all the information about himself”. She explains how she loves nerds and loves to “fuck” nerds and appeals to them that she was as nerdish and cut off from the shallow crowd and the jocks and popular kids as they were, presumably in whichever Californian high school she went to. The 4chan expression that “there are no girls on the internet” appealed to her at first, she says, because it meant being free of the girly mob, but she soon realised it referred to her too. It seems that Penny’s frustration comes from the fact that implicitly she is being left on the pile with the ordinary girls and their ordinary mainstream tastes, the kind who don’t get geek subcultures, who aren’t polyamorous and who generally lack subcultural capital.
When hackers leaked information about the Steubenville rape case, the ultimate anti-jock revenge, it was widely celebrated as a feminist act. Penny asserts: “Vigilanteism is what happens when the laws of the land are not fit for purpose. Right now the Internet is outstripping the conventional court system when it comes to digging out information about rapists and other sexual predators.” In several cases since then innocent men and women have been wrongly outed by this vigilante vanguard. Due process and the many rights won and developed over hundreds of years are dismissed by Penny’s analysis as perhaps a bit too pre-Internet. Instead, unelected vigilantes who destroy people’s lives before evidence has been heard are celebrated as the way of the future – and this from those who purport to loathe tabloid vigilantism against sex offenders. She continues, “When geeks decide to take up the cause of feminism, this is a fearful thing. The Internet is a new country without laws or borders and there is no reason for the old rules of men-talk-women-get-fucked to apply here for very much longer.” But there are laws that apply to the online world and they provide some of the few options available for women who find themselves on the receiving end of organised attacks by misogynist geeks who would rather those laws didn’t exist.
Penny seeks to align herself with absolutist free speech hacker movements and says she is against limits to free speech because that’s “conservative” ‑ which is strange given that most calls for criminalisation of speech today come from the left and are argued on the grounds of the perniciousness of sexist and racist hate speech. She claims that it is “ironic” and “deeply offensive to many, many activists” when geeks revelling in offensive speech suggest that sexist speech against women should be protected as free speech. But there is nothing ironic about it. That’s what freedom of speech as a right entails; Penny claims to support that right. You can of course be morally opposed to this aspect of geek behaviour, but that would involve engaging in judgement and defending good manners. Which is so uncool it can’t even be ironised.
Reviews have generally celebrated the book with a Wired magazine-style devotion to speed, brevity and other retweetable qualities. There is an enormous career pay-off for the fashionable pose of disrupting old elite cultural establishments that no longer exist or, in the case of old columnists and print dinosaurs, are on a steady path to being made economically obsolete. This is not radical. It is simply the shrewd new order kicking the old order on its way out.
Mainstream access to the internet provokes rage and misanthropy from subcultural geeks, a fact which even defenders like Gabriella Coleman say defines the style of online geek subcultures. The feminisation of a previously male-dominated world has undoubtedly rubbed salt on that wound. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” one 4chan troll explained to The New York Times. “I want everyone off the Internet.” Penny claims “Geeks aren’t just the problem. Geeks are also the solution.” Quite demonstrably, geeks are the problem and have defined internet culture since its inception, imbuing it with a nihilism, misogyny and a natural inclination to subcultures. The kind of intersectional geek feminism which Penny may consider an antidote regards almost the entire population as privilege-flaunting bigots and also has a culture of bullying, swarming and extraordinary nastiness online. The solution will be found in that cultural force which both Penny and her geek attackers define themselves in opposition to, the non-geek masses and their mainstream non-geek tastes, manners and values.
Angela Nagle is a researcher at the School of Communications, Dublin City University. She is an Irish Research Council Scholar and has written for publications including The Atlantic and The Irish Times.