On shutting up

Warning: Contains sexism and strong language

I came to an uncomfortable realization this week, watching yet more women in the public eye being bombarded with threats of violence, rape and murder for having something to say, and for saying it. It’s becoming a depressingly familiar routine: a journalist, academic, celebrity or ordinary woman expresses an opinion, rebuts an argument, or simply writes something about her life and experiences, then is met with a tide of misogynist abuse so vitriolic that I struggle to think of any plausible comparison. Even paedophiles don’t seem to attract such unrestrained hatred.

There is sometimes a bonus layer of irony when a woman speaks out about this abuse, and then is met with a fresh barrage of it, so hurtful, intimidating and downright frightening that she ends up surrendering: closing her Twitter account (as did the woman who started the #yesallwomen hashtag last week), changing the subject, or just shutting up altogether. I have endless admiration for the women – Laurie Penny, Stella Creasy, Caroline Criado-Peraz, Mary Beard, Jack Monroe, and many many more – who have stood up to the abuse, often at considerable psychological cost, and who continue to make themselves heard, despite receiving almost constant threats. A lot of women wouldn’t have the courage to do that. I am one of them.

You’ll know, if you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, that I’m not short of opinions, arguments, or righteous feminist rage. Occasionally I’ve used the platform I have to give vent to some of this, as when I questioned the sexist assumptions surrounding women’s sport, or condemned the endemic societal homophobia that meant Graeme Obree couldn’t come out until he was 45. Oh, and there was that time when I encouraged everyone to boycott Knog, because of their sexist packaging. There’s a lot more where that came from. At least a couple of times a month, I am so outraged or inspired by something I’ve read in the news, or picked up on the grapevine, that I spend the whole day riding around town drafting my response, turning the sentences over in my head, refining and polishing my argument, sifting out the best examples and case studies to punctuate my premise, planning out the opening swoop of my first paragraph and the devastating rhetorical blow of my closing remarks.

But I don’t write it, and I don’t publish it. It’s only just occurred to me to wonder why. And I find that it’s not quite fear that stops me. It’s knowledge. I’m all too aware of what it’s like to be subject to a relentless, many-voiced tirade of abuse that I don’t deserve, and have no means of stopping, because that’s what I have to deal with every day on the road. Perhaps this is the most plausible comparison.

Laurie Penny writes that:

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.

And a cyclist, or at least a female courier, would appear to be the opinionated mini-skirt-wearer of road users. As soon as she heaves into sight, the stiff upper lip relaxes, and traditional British passive-aggressiveness dissolves into vociferous and unbridled rage. I have never quite ceased to be surprised by this – by how differently people will treat you when you’re on a bike compared to how they’d react if you stepped on their toe on the tube, or jumped the queue in Starbucks. To use the most recent example at hand, yesterday afternoon a driver was unable to overtake me for a few seconds, because of an oncoming vehicle in the opposite lane. When he finally did pass me I caught a glimpse of his face, roaring with wordless anger behind his windscreen, both hands off the wheel as he gesticulated with what seemed like almost uncontrollable fury. Thankfully, all his windows were closed, so I couldn’t hear what he was yelling at me, but here are a few more examples, off the top of my head, of things people have shouted at me recently:

“Fucking prick!”

“Stupid fucking bitch, don’t you fucking touch my car!”

“STUPID FUCKING CUNT! I’LL FUCKING RUN YOU DOWN!”

“If I see you again, I’m fucking killing you.”

I’ve been called every obscene name I can think of. I’ve had my appearance insulted in every possible way. I’ve been subject to appalling sexual innuendo and insults. I’ve regularly been on the receiving end of actual threats of violence, and I’ve lost count of the number of drivers who have deliberately swerved their cars in my direction, or even, once or twice, driven into me.

When I tell people this, they advise me to ignore the abusers, or ‘be less sensitive’ (which I am already trying to do, constantly, every day, with only limited success), or reflect that at least I know that I’m in the right and these drivers are in the wrong. Unfortunately that doesn’t give me any comfort. Knowing that a driver is in the wrong doesn’t take away the overwhelming fear I sometimes feel that one of them will carry out his threats. It’s not a big city, when you spend 50 hours a week riding its streets. A driver who yells at me on Clerkenwell at 11am might well spot me again on Park Lane at 2pm, and run me off the road. He knows as well as I do how unlikely it is he’ll be caught, and how easily he could claim it was all an accident if he is, that I had ‘come out of nowhere’, that he had tried to avoid me, that it was really all my fault.

I am not a bad cyclist. At worst, I make the occasional mistake. Most of the time I am yelled at for following the rules, rather than breaking them. I can’t even imagine how irresponsible a road user I’d have to be actually to deserve this abuse. But it has become part of my wallpaper – one of the daily struggles of working as a courier. You never get used to it; you just get used to dealing with it. It never stops surprising and hurting and frightening me, and on occasion it still makes me cry. Some weeks are worse than others. Once or twice it’s all got too much, and I’ve had to take a week off and go out of town to get away from it all.

And I don’t want this kind of feeling to follow me into my other lives. I love writing, and am very lucky in that I’ve only ever received about two comments that could be construed in any way as negative. Writing this blog has been one of the most positive and productive experiences of my life, and the thousands of constructive, contemplative and respectful comments and emails I’ve received have only added to that. I wouldn’t want any of my posts to go viral – that would almost guarantee that the trolls would find me, and then I’d get no peace at all. I’m happy to keep it among friends.

But it’s both shocking and sobering to consider the broader implications of this. I’m an intelligent, politically engaged, opinionated young woman, and I’ve won enough awards and received enough compliments to know that I write well. I could have a lot to say, but I’m choosing not to say it. And there are probably many more like me – invisible casualties of what people are now beginning to call our culture of misogynist extremism. It’s bad enough that those women who do continue to speak out are subject to constant emotional and psychological battering. It’s positively chilling to realize that thousands more women see this happening, and decide, deliberately or unconsciously, calmly or histrionically, to keep their mouths shut and put their energies elsewhere. We’ll never know what they might have had to say, or what it might have changed.

Leave a Comment

20 Comments

  1. john matthews
    Posted May 30, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    With the current headlines rolling around including a women giving birth while shackled, 2 cousins gang raped and then hanged and a women killed by stoning for marrying the wrong man it feels like the world is going backwards.

  2. Posted May 30, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    This post is great, it has really spoken to me. I can’t believe that we are still in a position where women go through these traumatic experiences and often their concerns are dismissed or played down. I feel like women are either told to just tolerate totally unacceptable behaviour because that is what the internet/real life is like or to shout back. I don’t feel that either of these options is a good solution. Ignoring the problem clearly doesn’t work as these men are clearly still shouting at and intimidating women and shouting back could draw the ire of a person who is already pretty frightening. It seems like we need to move the discussion from what women should do when they are yelled at, harassed or intimidated to what can we do to deter or prevent this sort of abuse in the first place.

  3. Posted May 30, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    This post made me laugh (bear with me), as i was reading it I kept thinking of ways to comment just to find you would cover that topic a few lines later and all my thoughts becoming mute.

    You do infer that you don’t have courage to speak up, but most of what you write is your opinions and you have voices a lot of concerns in posts about sexism etc. Those posts are skilfully written, maybe the reason you’re not targeted is as much how you write rather than what you’re writing about.
    Do you not see your Night of Adventure as fighting for women? Not every fight need to be saying this is wrong, it’s just as beneficial to say look at this shining example!

    Finally, you say you’re intelligent and I think that is the point. I’m in no way saying that the women who spoke out and got targeted weren’t (just unfortunate) but so far you have chosen what fights to fight well and you have the audience you have because of it. I seem to remember (correct me if I’m wrong I have read a lot over the years) you writing a post a long time ago of running into a courier who was starting out and them saying you were a role model and this made you uncomfortable, but that is an example of your influence.

    I know this wasn’t a ‘woe is me’ post but I felt like this should be said that you could easily look to yourself as being one of these inspirational women, albeit it with a gentler touch.

  4. Susie
    Posted May 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s difficult, isn’t it?

    The people who shout and scream such abuse, who threaten to kill women, who can spout such VITRIOL are frequently not the people we imagine them to be. There is a lot of snobbery about violence and misogyny, frequently making sweeping assumptions about class, culture and/or religious beliefs. Very little of that snobbery holds up.

    It should concern us all that this is behaviour exhibited in every walk of life, in every class and culture and that the most unlikely men can and do carry out horrific abuse of women (sorry if this causes offense, but overwhelmingly the evidence suggests that most power-centred abuse is largely male in origin). As a global society, we HAVE to start finding ways of saying no to accepting that ‘that’s how it is’. This article is a demonstration of how the abuse of women seems to have become culturally ‘acceptable’: http://boingboing.net/2014/05/29/why-men-abuse-women.html

    I am prepared to say what you have suggested: I am too anxious to speak out, despite not being powerless, per se: I am VERY frightened by some of the violence and cruelty I have experienced and have seen or read about others experiencing. As has been commented elsewhere, we seem to be travelling backward, not forward.

  5. Jan
    Posted May 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Just want to let you know you’re not alone at the receiving end of the abuse in traffic. I’m a man and I find cycling horrible and dangerous at times. I’ve had death threats and was attacked physically – usually, as you say, for following the rules. The verbal abuse I usually get is regarding my nationality, so I think people just use any difference they can spot as a first point of attack. Also, I have the impression thst in larger urban areas people are under so much pressure and there is so little space for everyone that they dump all that frustration in traffic.

    Anyway, I enjoy reading what you have to say and I hope the good experiences you mention can float your boat for a long time. Stay safe – in traffic and discourse!

    • Posted May 30, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Me too, I’ve been spat at, cut off the road, had death threats etc. The worst was a half full MacDonald’s Fanta thrown in my face whilst hurtling down a hill, not a good time to be blinded by syrup

  6. Posted May 31, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Well written and to the point as always. Like or loath it, you are inspiring. Not usually driving in the city I found myself there yesterday and found driving and walking around stressful and depressing in almost equal quantities. I’m by no means a calm soul but the stress levels induced by the whole petty selfishness of drivers immensely frustrating but as it was only a couple of hour stayed fairly level at in car facetious monologue level. Doing this daily and then adding the irrational levels of hate some people seem to harbour I can see, and in absolutely no way defend, the triggers for this. Riding for a living with deadlines etc in London s beyond my ken and I tip my hat to you and your colleagues. I see your point about going viral and wish you weren’t so right. I’m reminded of St Douglas of Adams,

    “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”

    Verily, thou art a hoopy frood. Hang in there Emily

  7. Lee
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I hate this.

  8. Val Schmidt
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    This is an uncomfortable subject to consider, yet one that affects so many people. I find myself turning away from the latest news in, for example, India because it discourages me. That such attitudes exist all around, where ever we live, just shows how far we still have to progress as individuals and societies. But on a lighter note, what initially connected me to your blog was our common passion for bicycling, and what has made me a regular reader is your opinions and the quality of your writting. I, personally, am still not totally at ease with sharing my opinions semi anonymously and with a Web community that I do not know, so my full respect to you for being open and expressing your opinions as you do. I also appreciate your comment about your readers being friends. I wish you the best.

  9. Notak
    Posted June 2, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    how differently people will treat you when you’re on a bike compared to how they’d react if you stepped on their toe on the tube, or jumped the queue in Starbucks
    I don’t find this at all. Maybe this is because I’m a middle-aged man, or because I don’t live in London or because I rarely ride at rush hour – or some combination of all three, or something else. But enough people report it that I believe it – and in fact it’s clearly not just a big-city phenomenon – but even if we assume it’s just a matter of an hour or so at each end of the working day, when people are at their most stressed, it hardly makes things better, does it?

  10. Chak
    Posted June 2, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Sigh. It’s why I quit the job. I realised despite the wealth of freedom it allows me on two wheels, all the hatred and anger I was suppressing (instead of Dlocking the shit out of everyone) was reflecting in other parts of my life.

    What I can’t begin to imagine is what its like to be female and riding a bike in this city, experiencing all that shit, then having to be ‘less sensitive’ about it. My salutes.

  11. Kirk
    Posted June 7, 2014 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    I count myself as lucky living in a place where I am allowed to own and carry with me the most effective means of personal self-defense of my choice. If someone threatens me I don’t worry too much as I have a reasonable chance at taking them out before they can take me out.

  12. Kirk
    Posted June 8, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    One more thing “America,Alaska!!!!
    http://youtu.be/auFz6AYB0h4

  13. Dave
    Posted June 14, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Emily, thank you. Once again you take a difficult, and personal, topic and deal with it frankly and openly.
    It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, and you have lit yours.
    Bon courage.

  14. chloe
    Posted June 29, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear Courageous Emily
    Thank you for your writings. In reading about the unfortunate truths you experience I just wanted to offer some compassion and love. Woman to woman, cyclist to cyclist I hear what you’re saying that you’re feeling really sadden by the violent reaction of drivers to cyclists, really confused and angry by their behaviour. Wondering where the humanity has gone and why women are attacked for having a voice, for being seen, for making a stand, for just being.

    I was pondering on how to make you’re cycling safer…..how about a helmet camera, record these incidents.

    I stand in solidarity with you and offer you strength to continue in your daily work.

  15. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Emily,
    I will forever be grateful for your insights. You see things about he world that I could never see for myself. Thank you for your courage and your writing.

  16. Posted July 24, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a woman.

    I am a cyclist.

    And totally get your sense of injustice about being a cyclist constantly under the threat of all manner of dreadful roadside punishment.

    The roadside punishments, however, are inevitable.

    Not because you are a woman, or a cyclist. Because you are alive.

    How you choose to represent those incidents to yourself will ultimately determine your state of health.

    Live, love, accept, grow.

    Fraser x

    • Posted July 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      Please could you explain this in a bit more detail?

      I know that you mean well, but at the moment this reads as if you’re telling me that the problem is not so much with the abuse, as with my interpretation of it.

  17. Posted July 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Hey Emily,

    Never having cycled much in a congested city myself, this text got me quite uneasy. It reflects society’s view towards cyclists which clearly hasn’t changed a lot since the past 10 years.. cyclists are part of traffic just as cars, are environment-friendly, don’t make noise and are much faster, still not appreciated nor recognized. Thank you for saying this. It makes a difference. In some years we’ll go with our grandchildren to the museum to show them ‘cars’, those barbarian rigs their ancestors used to go to their work with!
    You might like this video on mobility in Brussels btw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMMFoYA6_J4

    Keep it up,
    Lien

  18. Posted August 6, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Thankyou, I retweet, share, repost. But never opinionate. Yet.

    (and I am a terrifying cyclist. Im going to jump less lights.)