Cybersexism by Laurie Penny

Cybersexism by Laurie Penny

Geeks, gender and the internet – Laurie Penny talks about gender prejudice in the nerd world in her new e-book Cybersexism.

Laurie Penny’s response to online intimidation and bomb threats was to channel the anger and write a book about cybersexism.

Intimidation, unutterable slurs, death and bomb threats: this has become the reality for many prominent female speakers with an online presence. Recently, misogyny has warped the internet to make it a potentially threatening and unwelcoming space for women. If you have a Twitter account you will probably have seen #Twittersilence at some point (a hashtag campaign to boycott Twitter for one day in response to this).

Laurie Penny, feminist and political journalist for publications including The Guardian, The Independent and The New Statesman – for which she is a Contributing Editor – is one of the leading female voices that trolls attempted to silence. She received a hateful storm of online violence that accumulated in a bomb threat. Not one to be robbed of the power to speak, it was no surprise that her response was simply to write a new ebook, ‘Cybersexism’, out now.

Buy Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet on Amazon for £1.49

Articulate and irritated, Penny sets out to document the various ways in which women can be denied a safe presence on the web. Just how and why has the internet been warped into such a threatening place for women? Each chapter deals with a different answer to this question, covering everything from nude photos to trolling in online forums to public speaking, structured around personal anecdotes which highlight gender prejudice in social media and the internet with wit and precision.

Penny’s exploration starts at the very beginning of the web itself, a time in which sci-fi writers envisioned “a near future just on the edge of imagination, where people’s physical bodies would become immaterial.” In other words, the very lack of physicality to the web should make it a safe space for women, as well as LGBT and under-represented communities. Women should feel liberated to speak and engage online without their words being misconstrued by any notions of gender. In these heady days of pioneer spirit, Penny saw the web as a place she could speak freely. As a teen, she practiced her writing and met like-minded people within the realms of social media sites. However, it is this anonymity that is both the brilliance of the internet and its core problem. Trolls can hide behind anonymity as much as anyone else can. They are liberated to say hateful things they probably wouldn’t ordinarily choose to say in a physical public arena.

The book explores the various ways in which the internet is posing dangers to women in spite of the lack of obvious corporeal threat, it not being ‘meatspace’. Social lives, careers and revolutions all take place over the web. As Penny puts it, “If the future is digital…then what are we really saying when we tell girls and their parents that cyberspace is a dangerous place for them to be?” Just as opinionated women are still seen as a threat within the ‘real’ world, the internet is becoming just another realm within which women are being marginalised, threatened and silenced.

While this discussion is all very interesting and engaging, it was the final third of the book that really surprised me:gender prejudice and the world of the nerd. As something of an SFX-reading geek myself, much of what Penny says really hit a nerve – as well as making me laugh at hilarious inclusions about her sex life (think Jedi-themed haberdashery).

She suggests that as a female geek, you are more likely to be viewed as a hanger-on or girlfriend rather than an intelligent individual in your own right. Your lifestyle may be alternative, but you’re just as much a second class citizen as you are within the mainstream. You may be smart, you may own the entire Fantastic Four back catalogue; hell, you may be able to hack or code up a shitstorm without breaking a sweat, but you’re still not quite as clever as your white, middle-class male counterpart. This misogyny goes widely unnoticed within the world of gaming, sci-fi and gadgets but is in many ways all the more painful for this. It is misogyny all the same, despite the sense of community you might feel from the subculture.

While, admittedly, this seems like a random leap from the previous discussion of the net, it is really all part of Penny’s idea of cybersexism. Geek culture is intellectual. It is curious. It is technological, it is vanguard and importantly: it is digital. To cut women out of geek culture is to prevent them being a part of the future. It is to strip them from power. If, as Penny believes, ‘Geeks will inherit the earth’, then where does that leave women? Penny’s argument really hits home when one looks at the pitiful numbers of women working in the fields involved with technology. Not only, then, are women being driven away from the outside – they are also prevented from being involved from the inside.

Whether a nerd, feminist or in any way invested in the future of the internet, this e-book is for you. Penny covers much new ground as well as old for those new to the debate. What the final chapter leaves you with is a picture of a daunting future for women if the current situation is not resolved.

‘Cybersexism’ in a single data packet? Take back the internet or be slowly excluded from it.