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Social media abuse is a sign that the feminist project still far from finished

Social media abuse is often personal, sexist and wounding. Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Social media abuse is a sign that the feminist project still far from finished

Social media has revolutionised how we communicate. In this series, we look at how it has changed the media, politics, health, education and the law.


Social media is notoriously uncontrolled, with millions of online postings, often unfettered and anonymous, creating multitudes of hostile, gendered abuse. The prevalence of trolling is causing considerable concern, with women seeming to cop the worst of the abuse. It is often personal, sexist and wounding. The nastiest of these are often directed at women in power or those deemed to be feminist.

Julia Baird sees trash-talking trolls as feminism’s “final frontier”. Quoting Clementine Ford’s book Fight Like A Girl, Baird’s urgency seems to come from claims these activities discourage women from taking on public life and speaking out. Another excellent article covering these issues was Michelle Smith’s essay for The Conversation.

While I have also received my share of mindless, hurtful commentary, I think there is a wider issue at play. To me, this abuse is evidence of a deep, underlying misogyny in public commentary that will not be fixed simply by women speaking out.

As a sociologist, I think the flow of nastiness is not from mainly uninformed individuals, or fringe groups with outdated viewpoints. The general macho, aggressive tone and content of the abuse are so similar and widespread that they are likely evidence of a serious backlash and rising hostility to any meaningful sharing of gender power.

The second wave women’s movement had considerable successes in improving women’s status in the last century. But this seems to have stalled in its aims of changing macho male dominance and defining what matters.

Long after both Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch identified the problems, power is still defined in male terms. Women who bid for it are often unfairly judged against this.

So, the question is whether these social media posts are just revealing residual hostility, or is it the warning sign of a concerted feminist backlash? It may be the changes of the last two decades have undermined radical feminist expectations of further change by our accepting limited sharing of the status quo. We may in fact be stuck in groundhog days of macho domination.

The flow of aggro on social media suggests the bid to remake gender power relations so we can stop being the “second sex” has stalled, and we remain the “other” as defined by men.

So, rather than just empowering women to ignore trolling, or fight back against the trolls on their terms, we need to look at why there is such a high level of machismo online. Muttering about patriarchy is not enough, nor are approaches to control trolling and violence against women that assume these are short-term deviations from the norm.

We need to look again at the root causes, and reframe our arguments in contemporary terms. Rather than focus our efforts on helping victims and punishing individual perpetrators, we need to tackle the problems that are embedded in macho power structures and dominant paradigms.

Essentially, we need to focus on making men focus on their masculine excesses, not to help us, but because such changes are necessary to improve their lives. Rather than assuming the problem is ours because we fail to conform to their assumptions, we need more men to recognise the seriously inbuilt macho bias in almost every field of endeavour.

It’s not all men that accept the bias, and there are many who object. But the indications are that these views are widespread and may be increasing.

Why do so many men and boys think it’s clever, funny, amusing and somehow satisfying to put sexist, mindless or even violent comments on social media? Why do other men not see these views as a collective problem?

We need to ask serious questions about the way our society socialises boys and men that makes too many of them feel inadequate and aggressive towards females. We need to understand how the worst, most-aggressive trolling correlates with the continuing, intransigent and perhaps increasing level of violence against women, from intimates and strangers.

Young men in surveys reveal their views on their right to control and punish women are troubling, as is their support for gender inequality.

Rather than assuming social media vitriol is confined to reviving and continuing sexism, we need to explore how these views may be part of the wider backlash that is appearing in many western countries. As the rejection of centrist governments spreads, ideas of fairer, more diverse societies are under attack with rising populism, fundamentalism and false nostalgia for past virtues. The Trump example shows gender issues can also be involved.

So, “fighting back”, even if it empowers “a girl”, may be too limited a response, albeit sometimes satisfying. There are two arguments against such tactics: one is we accept masculinised parameters of the fight; the other is that most men who are anti-feminist enjoy making us angry.

So, what do we do? If we continue just to react, we play the game according to their rules. Let’s ask why the insecurities of so many men are undermining social wellbeing and reset the agenda, rather than asking powerful men to do it for us.

The continued high prevalence of violence against women and the increasing hostility to women who are outspoken or in the public view suggest we are still dealing with the effects of continued masculine dominance over almost everything.

Just because women have more formal legal rights, more access to paid jobs and more of us are sharing the male power troughs, does not mean the revolution has been won.

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