On International Women’s Day, Mia Freedman reflects on how damaging it is when it is women who silence other women…
Exactly two years ago today, on International Women’s Day, I was sitting on Q&A’s women’s panel.
With me, were Germaine Greer, journalist Janet Albrechtson, opera singer Deborah Cheedham and an English researcher and writer called Brooke Magnanti who is better known as Belle du Jour, the pseudonym under which she wrote a blog and then a book during the two years she spent as a sex worker.
Host Tony Jones was asking Brooke at length about this period in her life and she was expounding at length on her views about sex work.
She was very effusive about how empowering it was.
How she had used the great money she’d made as a sex worker to fund her university studies and how sex work was about so much more than sex – it was about self-discovery and identity and having love and empathy for her clients.
As I listened to Brooke speak so glowingly about her time as a sex worker, I became increasingly uncomfortable with this Pretty Woman meets go-girl feminist empowerment picture she was painting of prostitution. She paid brief lip service to the fact that some sex workers did have ‘chaotic lives’ but this was quickly glossed over.
Directly in front of me, in the audience, were more than a dozen teenage girls in their school uniforms.
They were listening intently to Brooke’s sunny, uncomplicated description of sex work with wide eyes.
And as I watched them listening, I felt sick.
Eventually, growing frustrated with the fact Tony was allowing this woman’s panel to be hijacked by such a positive portrayal of sex work, I interrupted.
“Hang on” I said. “Let’s be clear that no little girl grows up wanting to be a sex worker.”
BOOM. With that one sentence, the Internet – or one very vocal corner of it – imploded with vitriol and outrage. The abuse continued for weeks.
There were demands that I apologise for saying I didn’t want my 8yo daughter to grow up to be a sex worker.
And they insisted they would hound me until I did.
No matter how many times I clarified my comments, the hyperbole and hysteria became frenzied.
I was accused of promoting violence against sex workers. I was accused of discrimination and I was even – somehow – accused of being homophobic. “If you wouldn’t accept your daughter being a sex worker, I bet you would reject her if she came out as gay” one woman tweeted to me along with a tirade of very personal abuse.
I said nothing about not respecting sex workers. I said nothing about condoning violence against anyone. I certainly didn’t suggest anyone be rejected or castigated or ridiculed for the way they earned a living.
When I said that no little girl grows up wanting to be a sex worker, I meant that for the majority of women, sex work is not an empowering choice. In most cases – it is a desperate and unwanted choice that comes from addiction, domestic violence, financial destitution, mental illness, sex trafficking or abuse.
Brooke had a good experience. She remained in control. She worked on her terms. She was not raped or assaulted by her clients. She got out. Her story is the exception, not the rule.
So I was deeply troubled by this fairytale of sex work and loving empowerment that was going unchallenged on live TV. As a mother looking at those schoolgirls taking it all in, I couldn’t stay silent. So I spoke up.
And I was slammed by a group of women who were not interested in my explanation or my intention. They were not interested in a calm discussion about it. They were not interested in knowing that I WAS ON THEIR SIDE. I’ve spent my career advocating for women in all sorts of ways and I will never stop.
They just wanted me to shut the hell up.
The same thing happened about a year later when I wrote a post about binge drinking and the fact that as a society – and as the mother of a daughter and sons – we needed to talk about the link between drinking and sexual assault.
I did not think this was a new idea or even a terribly controversial one.
I am obviously acutely aware of the sensitivity around victim blaming and I was hyper vigilant in my column , spelling out repeatedly in no uncertain terms that no victim of sexual assault is EVER to blame. EVER EVER EVER. NOT EVER.
I could not have been more clear about this. I simply wanted to raise the fact that there were issues around consent and around judgement for both men and women – that are impaired when you’re wasted and that in a culture of binge-drinking, there were conversations we needed to have.
And that it should not be taboo to talk about that. Surely it shouldn’t be taboo to talk around any issue affecting women. Should it?
The reaction from a group of online feminists was more vitriolic than anything I have ever experienced.
These women – many of whom are known to me and with whom I am closely aligned idealogically – ripped me to shreds and it went on for days and weeks.
Once again, they did not want to engage in discussion. They did not want to challenge my points. They just wanted to shout me down and shut me up.
They wanted to abuse me very personally and very publicly. Some individuals sent hundreds of abusive tweets to me and about me.
These are not nameless trolls. These are what many call Twitter feminists. They tend to roam in packs and their objective often appears to be to shut down debate, conversation and any opinions they don’t share. They are the self-appointed feminist sheriffs of the internet and they are as destructive as they are exhausting.
Because this isn’t about me. This isn’t about the other high profile women who are publicly ridiculed and attacked for transgressing some unwritten feminist rulebook, women like Emma Watson and Wendy Squires who have spoken out passionately about the need for men’s voices to join in fighting for women’s rights.
Or one of the female producers of Q&A who fought tirelessly to get an entire episode dedicated to discussing domestic violence only to be attacked for the gender mix on the panel.
This is not a pity party for us. This is not even about us.
This is about all the young women who watch these attacks and decide it’s way too risky to speak up as feminists. Not because of the misogynist trolls but because of the risk of being publically humiliated and policed by women they look up to and with whom they share common feminist goals and beliefs.
At the Mamamia Women’s Network, my husband and I employ around 90 staff.
85 of those are women and the vast majority are under 30.
And when we have our editorial meetings to decide who will write what each day? These young women are scared to put their hands up to write any of the posts about feminism or any issues affecting women.
They’re terrified of being attacked by a mob of pitch forkers from the left, ripping them apart for using the wrong word or the wrong tone, policing their grammar. Calling them a disgrace to feminism. A traitor to their gender.
They’re scared silent. That’s the ultimate affect of the online feminist police.
Make no mistake – I am not from the simplistic, kumbaya school of “women must support other women unconditionally”. As Annabel Crabb wrote in her column today, under the vast umbrella of feminism there will be people you love and people you can’t stand.
She’s right. I’m from the Caitlin Moran school of feminism that sees it as a rowdy bar full of interesting, passionate conversations. There is no need to throw drinks in anyone’s face or break metaphorical chairs over other people’s heads.
I am happy to challenge opinions and be challenged on my own. Any day of the week. I’m happy to learn and evolve my views and keep my mind open.
Feminism isn’t about supporting everything other women have to say. It’s not. But it is about supporting women’s rights to voice an opinion and it’s about not abusing, mocking and threatening her when she does just because your opinion is different to hers.
This culture of aggressive thought policing in some online feminist circles has become oppressive and destructive.
Making no mistake: these women are creating an environment where many women are scared to have a voice.
In silencing and shaming each other, in making our definition of feminism so narrow and exclusionary as to be an impossible standard to live up to, we’re doing the work of our enemies, aren’t we?
Because every time a woman decides the price of speaking up is too high, we all lose.