Labour MP Jess Phillips received online rape threats for opposing another MP’s suggestion that there should be a debate to mark International Men’s Day. I read about this with no sense of surprise whatsoever. “Oh look, a female MP has been threatened with being bound and raped… what should I buy for supper tonight?” Well, if not quite like that (certainly not “meh” or “whatever”), it was more a kind of blanking, an absence of response. It all seemed quite ordinary somehow, just another woman in the public eye being threatened with rape. Hey, what’s new?
Then I caught myself doing this, turning away, preparing to look at other stories. Finally, I was shocked, but mainly at myself, at my own grotesque under-reaction. I read the story again and forced myself to take the information in, properly process how vile and insane it all was, how horrible for Phillips.
It felt like some grisly process of re-sensitisation, like recovering your sense of smell or taste, only this time it was about regaining basic humanity and decency. Just when did rape threats against women start feeling so normal and everyday?
Sometimes the real shock is the absence of shock. Some of the threats aimed at Phillips were understandably deemed too graphic for mainstream reports. If I’d initially seen the threats in full presumably I wouldn’t have blanked. This is disquieting in itself: isn’t it how the porn trajectory works –people requiring progressively harder (more extreme and violent) material? Similarly, it was as though I needed more hardcore news details to get my full attention. The mere mention of rape wasn’t enough anymore.
The specifics of why Phillips received rape threats are irrelevant. If her manner of opposing the debate was deemed objectionable (she scoffed a little, saying that the lack of female parity in society was more of an issue), there were ways for people to disagree without resorting to lurid terrorisations. Had this been a male MP, it’s doubtful that his penis would have resulted in the comments provoked by Phillips’s vagina. It’s usually with women that criticism lunges straight for the sexual organs, facilitated by social media.
This isn’t just about female MPs, though the modern-day sexualised viciousness with which they are abused is worth noting. As PM, Margaret Thatcher was unpopular (and abused) but mainly for her policies. Could you imagine her or Barbara Castle being bombarded with “routine” public rape threats? It has become an unavoidable part of the female public life in any arena, almost something for an assistant to schedule in between meetings (“Check how many threats my vagina has received today”).
At which point I suppose a kind of gallows ennui can’t help but set in, not just among those receiving the threats, but also, crucially, among those who aren’t directly affected. “Oh right, just another dreary instance of ‘Woman gives her opinion/woman gets punished by being threatened with rape’… What’s on telly later?” The consensus is that, these days, it’s how things are and you just have to deal with it.
While there’s value to this attitude – better than women feeling permanently intimidated – there are also dangers, not least that it reframes obscene threats as an unavoidable part of female public life. Abuse evolves like anything else and this could be the latest achievement for those who sit at computer screens, making these kinds of threats – not so much that they scare their female targets (although they often do) but that they desensitise them and everyone else, effectively “grooming” an entire generation to accept the new reality.
Even if rape threats are not a gruesome “novelty” anymore, it still feels important to resist desensitisation, not to blank as I did – instead to be angry, and stay angry, however many there are. Rape threats should never become background noise.