A Switchblade In my Sleeve: The Internet as the New Pillory, and Why I Talk Back

Hot on the tail of my last post about perverts and privilege comes a post on Salon about TheDirty, a website that gives legal names as part of their (mostly female) shaming process, and IsAnyoneUp, which goes a step further and links facebook pages for personalized harassment (oh, but are supposedly equal opportunity, as they also shame men). The crimes of these women and men? Their attractiveness (to the guy running each site), and being sexual… or just perceived as sexual.

“Both men seem to share a similar sense of sexual karma: If you ever take a naked photo of yourself, you deserve to be publicly exposed on the Internet. During a recent appearance on Anderson Cooper’s new daytime talk show, Moore told an aggrieved woman who found herself on the site, Nobody put a gun to your head and forced you to take these photos. It’s 2011, everything’s on the Internet. He added: “There’s one easy way to never end up on my website: Don’t take those photos.”

A cocktail of whorephobia (the worst thing you can say about many of these girls is asking for their price, for example, or the fact that escorts are called “portapotties”- charming), homophobia (the few men on the TheDirty are often accused of being gay, while on IsAnyoneUp, men freak out when other men compliment their cocks), and good old fashioned fatphobia, TheDirty/IsAnyoneUp are places where people submit photos of other people for ridicule. It’s a place where every person is measured up against the “perfect 10” body (or the male equivalent) and some weird algorithm for being the right amount of sexual- not a prude or a slut but that magic space in the middle.

People who submit to TheDirty often complain about how girls who don’t fit some standard of a “perfect 10”:

“Now that a homely girl has gained some popularity with photshopped(sic) and edited images on Facebook and Twitter, their ego all of a sudden goes from insecure ugly duckling to that of an absolute 10. How is this okay, and when is it going to stop?”

This is a perfect lead in to another article that’s been circulating, over on the Huffington Post, about Facebook and teenage female body image. There’s this female competitiveness trend, you see, that girls learn early on and then spend much of their lives trying to kick the habit- a trend that often leads to cyberbullying. But the other side, the trickier side, is that girls post images of themselves in the hope of getting complimented for their attractiveness as defined by their conforming to feminine ideals, by boys and girls alike. The more popular you are, the more praise you will receive- and the more likely you will conform to maintain that reputation. And the less popular you are, the less freedom you have to push at the mold of what’s “feminine” and “attractive” without fear of bullying.

Societies have gone along for a while on the idea that women need to be pretty and feminine and men need to be wealthy and powerful. Facebook gives another playground on which to go along with the same gender politics, though I’m also found it invigorating for ways in which people buck that trend and fight back. But it has also opened my eyes to some incredible privilege denial and infuriated me and given me fodder for this here blog. I can only deal with it because I have had a lot of practice in maintaining a thick skin and fighting back.

As a high school student, though, I probably would’ve posted photos of myself too, because teenagers are desperate for attention and validation. I would’ve been crushed when people told me I was fat and ugly, as they inevitably would have, since putting people down is part of the social contract if you want to climb through the ranks. I was already somewhat promiscuous because it helped me feel liked, it validated my attractiveness on some level, it gave me some power in that currency. Had the internet been more a part of my life, particularly social media and texting, I bet that would’ve had a seriously negative impact. I was already drowning in media messages on a daily basis telling me to be thinner, style my hair, do my makeup, have more money to afford nicer clothes, and was struggling with bulimia and self-worth. I think what would’ve made it worse is that bullies would no longer have to say it to my face and risk me punching them- they could gang up on me online and I would have limited recourse.

I have gotten out alive, and am pretty proud of being fat, proud of being a lesbo whore, but it has not been easy going.

This had led me to think of the internet as a sort of pillory system, a place where people can be named and shamed with limited possibility of backlash. A person can easily be elevated and humiliated, their reputation destroyed, thanks to mob mentality and the belief that on the internet your abuse is anonymous. Porn Wikileaks was a great example of that, where they spent all their time outing people’s personal details while hiding who they were- obviously under the belief that some people deserve privacy and others do not, that by being a sexual person you deserve the pillory. What’s particularly amazing is that you may never know that you’re in this social pillory, unless you come across it or someone tells you about it.

But you know what helps?

Imagine, if you will, getting thrust into a pillory for something you don’t think is a crime. Being comfortable in your body, say. Being heavier or lighter than the average “acceptable” weight. Being  marginalized person. Being a sexual person.

Now imagine you can escape that pillory, Houdini style, and put your accusers in there instead to be ridiculed and exposed for the asshats they are. You can fight back, holler back, speak out. Tempting, isn’t it?

But then you hear it. That ultimate silencer.

“Don’t feed the trolls”.

I get told this a lot. Don’t argue with trolls, Kitty, don’t keep fighting with them, they’re assholes, they just want the attention. Just block them. Just walk away. Just pretend you don’t hear them. Don’t look. Don’t speak. Don’t respond.

I used to do that. Used to bottle up my rage, vent it elsewhere. Then I realized that by not directing my rage back at these people, even just the once, I was internalizing it, and often, like many other activists, I was burning out. I was taking it out in the wrong place, at the wrong people. And that’s just ridiculous. I’ve had enough of wasting energy preaching to the choir and playing nice.

If someone catcalls me in an intimidating way? I’m going to confront them.

If someone publishes my personal details on a website to try to shut me up? I’m going to get even louder.

And if someone brings their abusive attitude to my turf? I am going to rip them a new one.

None of this “turn the other cheek” bullshit. I am not a passive person. I am not the docile type. I am a feral cat and I will claw back. As well I should, really. What sort of world is this when someone suffers abuse and harassment and is told the best method to deal with it is to shut up and sit down?

Whorephobia, slutshaming, fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, cissexism- these things are in my altsex spaces, and if we don’t talk about it and hold people accountable for it, we are enabling entitlement culture. And yes, I think keeping quiet in the face of trolls, not giving yourself space to be angry about

Bless your hearts, I know there are people reading my writing who have said “don’t feed the trolls” in the interest of maintaining my mental health- I know you mean well, but I am not in the business of playing dead, and to hold my tongue exhausts me more than to fight back. I do not have the privilege of “just ignoring it”- as a fat girl, as a sexual woman, as a fat sexual being, as a sex worker, I would have to completely block out human interaction to have safe space. To ignore it is to submit to it.

Margaret Cho said something similar this week, to the delight of people everywhere, talking about her response and her anger when people make negative comments about her appearance, and how pissed off it makes her when people say “gee, you’re just too angry”:

“I do not take the high road. I take the low road and blows below the belt are my absolute favorite. The best revenge is not living well. The best revenge is revenge. My mouth and mind and typing fingers are weapons of mass destruction and I pity those ignorant idiots who would leave insults about mine or any women’s bodies in comment boxes because there’s ways of hunting people down. Lots and lots of ways. It’s not as anonymous as they think, as stupid as they are.

I’d like to say things that would haunt them for the rest of their days, because their hideous words stay with me eternally. Their insipid spouts of “no fat chicks” are branded onto my soul, so they must reap what they sow. If I am in my worst way and I talk to you, you will know you have been talked to. I want to punish you with the unforgettable shit you will take to your grave and hurt you long after you are dead in the ground. may my poison bore holes in your dry, decaying bones.”

She is not just speaking about being personally insulted. This is a larger issue, an issue about how people feel entitled to cast shame on people’s bodies, particularly female-appearing bodies. This is about slutshaming (if you display your body in a way deemed public, you deserve to be harassed). This is about whorephobia (if you’re not pretty enough, your worth is lessened). This is about entitlement, then, and about privilege, and about finally snapping and not taking it anymore.

There are a lot of quotes about how anger destroys the person holding it, how anger is poisonous and will hurt you if you indulge in it. I call bullshit. One of my favourite quotes ever is from a flash cartoon I saw years back- “don’t direct your anger inwards… direct it OUTWARDS, towards your peers!” While in that cartoon it was an anti-suicide message, it spoke to me about anger- why should I take these things out on myself when it’s other people trying to hurt me? Better to direct that venom back at them, a purifying fire out of which I am reborn again and again, a more streamlined activist with better armour and a sharper tongue each time.

I’ve been beginning to read through the SCUM Manifesto, a classic in the history of feminism that is often blown off as “too angry” and “crazy talk”. And yes, it’s sometimes pretty amusing, very much a product of its time, and certainly pissed off at patriarchy and capitalism- quotes like “Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him” is definitely the product of someone who is livid at male privilege, and how capitalism feeds into that. I think that a blanket statement about all men is, perhaps, a step too far.

Yet I find myself drawn to it, find myself surprised at how often I nod at Valerie Solanas’s words and say “actually…” And I think about how many times women being angry are blown off as crazy, when a lot of the points they make are surprisingly right on. They’re so angry because who can they expect to support them? The government? The police? These are often reflections of the patriarchal capitalist society that makes life unsafe for marginalized people- going to them for help can be counter-productive (like sex workers going to the police when raped then getting arrested for being sex workers). No surprise they would be so angry- and no surprise they take matters into their own hands.

When I saw the article about the women in Egypt who fought back and caned the self-appointed “morality police”, I cheered. India’s Pink Vigilantes who shame abusive husbands and corrupt politicians by banging on their doors as a mob? That’s AWESOME. When thugs attack two men on a fancy dress night out wearing dresses for being “fags”, and those men turn out to be fucking cage fighters? I say justice. And yes, I very much see this as an issue about sex, about sexuality, about gender, because all too often, the “problem” is any hint of femme-ness- the top of the pyramid is guarded fiercely by a macho alpha male, white, moneyed, able-bodied, virile, straight, cisgendered. Any deviation pushes you off the top, and the further away from that “ideal”, the harder your life can become.

It’s time Humpty Dumpty came tumbling down. And “sex positivity” is not immune to this entitlement culture.

Pacifism has almost always ridden the coattails of people ready to be aggressive back. As a sex worker and a woman who is constantly made aware of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy seeks to keep me quiet and in my place? I’m all for fighting back. Writing strongly worded letters only works when people read them.

I don’t feel the need to use a bomb where diplomacy has a chance- however, I’m definitely not going to tell marginalized groups they’re being “too angry” and that they should just deal with individual and systematic violence with peaceful resistance. There is a space for anger that can be healthy:

Healthy anger is not aggressive, nor is it passive. The formidable center is clear and assertive. It is responsive but not reactionary.

So yes. If punching back is “feeding the trolls”, I am a total feeder. I will stuff them with my pointed fury until they burst. Because it allows me to do alchemy with my own anger, transforming the possibility of hurt and victimhood into strength and a push back. I will not be kept down, especially not in the local “sex positive” community. And I will definitely not be kept quiet. I encourage all those marginalized to do much the same, whether that be creating your own safe spaces or carving a niche in already existing venues to make them safer. Go ahead- get angry, and then get going doing something about it. Let your anger be a fuel.

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.
Maya Angelou

(And when you wonder why I’m so into My Little Pony? It’s my unicorn chaser for LIFE.

Blog title is a nod to Ani Difranco.)

Kitty Stryker

Kitty Stryker is a geeky sex worker, Burner, rabid writer and feminist activist with one high-heeled boot in San Francisco, California and one in London, England. In London, Stryker worked with the TLC Trust, an online organization connecting people with disabilities with sex workers experienced with emotional or physical limitations. She is the founder of the award-winning Ladies High Tea and Pornography Society, and was nominated by the Erotic Awards as Sex Worker of the Year for her charity and activism work. Now back in the States, Stryker has been presenting Safe/Ward, a workshop on combating entitlement culture within alternative sexual communities, along with being the PR rep for the Bay Area Sex Workers Outreach Project promoting sex worker rights. She has written for Huffington Post, Filament, and Tits and Sass, built a social media strategy for Cleis Press, and consults with sex workers about their online presence. In her copious free time, she enjoys switching things up with her two hot lovers. Read more from Stryker on her personal blog, Purrversatility.

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1 Response

  1. Kitty, I am so delighted to see other feminist women taking a serious look at the SCUM Manifesto. “Actually…” is, I think, exactly the way I feel reading it. For the reasons you describe, I am far happier existing in a world where that manifesto has been written than I would be in a world where it had not. Unless, of course, that world was a world without patriarchy; but until we reach that world, Solanas’ words are a comfort.