Cybersexism by Laurie Penny book cover
Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet (2013) by Laurie Penny is an extended essay on sexism in the digital environment, taking in examples to demonstrate the misogyny fast becoming ubiquitous in the digital world. The essay considers instances of discrimination, rape culture, and male privilege, and ties the existence of sexism online into the long-standing discrimination women have faced in the real world. Penny treats the digital environment as an extension of real space, its openness exposing the traditional patriarchy that has long existed rather than cultivating a new form of misogyny. In the digital space of the internet men are still given primacy, rape culture and slut shaming exist perhaps more openly, and the typically protective advice given to women if they want to avoid this digital lads’ club is to avoid it altogether.

Penny writes mostly about the extremes, but sexism comes in many shades online, not all as pernicious as rape threats. Often it’s the silencing or disregarding of women’s opinions that can be the most damaging consequence of misogyny online. Undoubtedly some of this comes from the threat of abuse, but much of it is more subtle, from the gamer who is immediately treated differently the moment she reveals her gender to the blogger whose opinion is slated constantly where a male equivalent might expect more sanguine discussion. Lack of censorship has always been one of the things most lauded about the internet, but whether anyone truly has freedom of speech is debatable, and so too, in light of the abuses of this privilege, is the merit of such an open system. Penny writes about her own experiences online – the discrimination and threatening behaviour she received when speaking out and speaking up. The anxiety of being attacked for one’s opinions is a feeling that women are more than familiar with and which forces them away from public life whether that be online or in the real world. As Penny reports, the persistent retort to this is that women need to ‘man up’, after all, everyone in public life has to deal with a multitude of hateful responses to their opinions. Certainly, equality means women can’t be treated as more vulnerable than anyone else online (although why anyone should expect to be abused for voicing an opinion is a fairly pertinent question), but the persistent and heightened opposition that their opinions are met with inevitably has a demoralising effect to the point where their voices are gradually suppressed. It’s not simply a case of manning up.

The male gaze under which women have always lived is replicated online in chat forums and across social media platforms, which allow constant surveillance (not just of women but of all). Living under this level of scrutiny, the ‘liberation’ the net promises in fact becomes a performance, where every user is encouraged to cultivate a particular character online. The fact is that every user is generating revenue for companies like Facebook, unknowingly commoditising themselves and their lives, as the male gaze, in particular, is monetised. The sexism inherent in the characters people are encouraged to be online is more destructive, Penny argues, than the more openly misogynist world of pornography. This is debatable, but what’s important is that it’s not just from men that women face pressure to conform to narrow stereotypes if they don’t want to be discriminated against – women, too, enforce, often subtly, these stereotypes through social media etc., and there is certainly room for more discussion of these different forms of oppression in Cybersexism.

Towards the end of the essay, Penny explores geek culture in some detail, discussing how the internet has broadened out to a mass audience, despite starting as something niche that was the domain of the geek. Geek culture, Penny concludes, both propagates, and may be the solution to, online sexism. A good start, Penny suggests, would be to address the lack of women in tech jobs. One underlying assumption that seems to creep in across a lot of the discussion is that men, specifically geek men here, are somehow more able to cope with the online environment, that it is tailored to their wants and is a safe place for them. This is too much of a generalisation, and conforms too firmly to traditional gender roles to be given any serious credit. Certainly, men might not face the level of discrimination that women do, but it is problematic to suggest that they are more capable of dealing with bullying online, or that their behaviour is any less shaped by what is deemed acceptable for them online.

Penny’s informal style is symptomatic of her blogging roots, where she honed her writing style, and her conversational tone is easy to follow. A few typos aside, this makes for an easy read, which doesn’t get bogged down in the academia that sits behind many of the topics covered. For those that follow the various blogs and websites that are dedicated to feminism, there probably won’t be any major revelations here, but for others this will act as a useful overview of the current thought on the treatment of women online (its length dictates that it can’t be anything more comprehensive).

The internet has forced much of life into a more public sphere – the problems women have had to face over all of human history are now more evident than ever because of this, and, while some pretty unpleasant behaviour is to be found coursing up and down the telephone cables that connect us all together, realisation of the problem is the first step to resolving it. What Penny makes clear is that sexism online is not limited to any particular group, that it can come from regular guys who work regular jobs and function perfectly fine in society. The fact is simple: everyone is plugged in now. Ultimately, the internet has the power to bring people together as well as expose underlying problems in our society. Penny is a great advocate of digital activism, which is helping to turn the spotlight onto truths that have surrounded us for years, and essays like Cybersexism can only help in this cause.

I count myself as a semi-engaged audience for this book (I certainly don't trawl feminist blogs, but I am sympathetic to just about all of the causes discussed here, even if I don't read all the situations the same as Penny) and I felt this was a pretty good introduction to 'cybersexism', aimed at an already engaged readership.

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