Non-Fiction, Short Form, Social Justice

Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet

cybersexismby Laurie Penny

ISBN 978-1-4088-5320-7

“The Internet made misogyny routine and sexual bullying easy, but first it did something else. It gave women, girls and queer people space to speak to each other without limits, across borders, sharing stories and changing our reality.”

To give the author the first word, “the feminist revolution and the digital revolution have grown up together, and both are incomplete.” In Cybersexism, Penny examines the way the two revolutions have intersected, with some disappointing results for feminism. Tim Berners Lee conceived of the internet as being for everyone, but in practice, the internet can be a very hostile place where anonymity and distance dissolve social mores about what is acceptable, leading to misogyny and threats of violence. Sharp and occasionally even funny, Penny gives a revealing introduction to the internet’s rampant misogyny. In the face of all this, Penny retains a relentless positive attitude towards the possibilities the internet offers for providing a platform for people to share their experiences, and allowing members of communities to reach out to one another across the globe.

Penny knows a thing or two about the violence that women in the public eye face. While working on this piece, Penny was staying in a safe house, after several female British journalists received bomb threats on Twitter. I wasn’t familiar with Penny’ specific story before reading this Single, and she doesn’t get into her own situation very much, but as I read up on her online while writing this review, I read a story that was very familiar, because it is one that I’ve read about countless female public figures before. The sexualized and gendered abuse faced by women who share their opinions freely online creates the kind of environment that forced Penny, and many women like her, to seriously considering “kicking it in for the good of my mental health.” Some give up and disappear because they simply can’t cope with it anymore, but for those who don’t, Penny reminds us that we shouldn’t “ever imagine there’s not a cost.” In many cases, their livelihoods come at the cost of their peace of mind.

Of course, not every woman who makes a home for herself on the internet faces the kind of vitriol discussed here. But every time one woman speaks up about her experiences, a host of others find the strength to give voice to their own, once they realize that they are not alone. You may spend most of your time, as I do, on parts of the internet that are relatively safe for women, even dominated by women, but any time you venture into a new area, it has to be acknowledged that this “could be any of us” if we anger the wrong people. But as Penny points out, this very sharing of experiences is part of the power of the internet. And given how much of our future depends on the web, we cannot afford to advise women to “just stay away” from this public space until it is “safe.”

Penny has tackled a large topic in a short work, and as such Cybersexism focuses on unveiling the issues and considering causes, but was not deeply involved with seeking solution. I’m looking forward to reading Unspeakable Things, Penny’s forthcoming book on gender and power in the twenty-first century in the hope that a longer work will allow for the space for this very talented writer to engage the issues in greater depth. Nevertheless, Cybersexism gets the discussion off to an excellent start.


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