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.

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