The proper definition of terrorism, often forgotten, is not only inflicting violence on civilians but doing so in order to intimidate, frighten and coerce others into conformity to the values of the terrorists. When the 19th-century Russian anarchist terrorists assassinated Tsarist agents, they did so in order to make others less willing to serve the Tsar. When southern white Americans lynched black men, they did so in order to scare other blacks out of resistance. Terrorism can be nonviolent: for centuries women were kept in line through calling those who spoke for women’s rights unladylike. Today telling women that they aren’t ladies doesn’t carry the same weight, and verbal terrorism has escalated into grosser and more direct threats.
The rage and violence of this aggression is staggering. We call it “slut talk,” for short, a term that may have first arisen in 2011 when a Toronto policeman told students they could avoid rape by not dressing as sluts—and they responded by holding a massive “slut walk”—a form of demonstration now practiced around the world, from Finland to Morocco, South Korea to Indonesia, Brazil to Hungary. (It’s a successor to the 1970s “Take Back the Night” marches.) In the US the term achieved fame in 2012 when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut for using birth control. “Men’s rights” and “mgtow” blogs are filled with ugly screeds about women’s body parts. “Marrying a woman is like taking a shit upside down every day for the rest of your life. Don't do it!”
But some of the verbal aggression has now gone beyond name calling to threatening physical violence to individual women. Women who speak or write for the public receive death and rape threats daily. Male “gamers” have threatened to murder a woman’s children, and one wrote a woman that he would “make me choke to death on my husband’s severed genitals.” One woman journalist discovered that someone posted a fake tweet in her name soliciting “rough sex.” Others posted “do not hire” notices about her. “Men’s rights” blogs openly discuss how to drug and rape women. Take the “red pill,” don’t be a nice guy, just take what you need from women. There are specialized red-pill websites for black men. (“Red pill” has become a code among men who believe women are vicious, that they actually rule the world, and that the proper male response is physical and sexual aggression.) “So when a stinking cavern gets out of hand why not pulp her? You know you want to,” encourages one website.
This aggression is part of a global brutalization. As a trend it’s not new—films have been increasingly violent for decades—but it is increasing in velocity. Right-wing hate-talk radio personalities, like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, have used it successfully, to attract listeners who are already angry but also to escalate anger and to legitimate aggression. The internet proliferates and protects hate talk: Because it can send out invective anonymously, it allows aggressors to abuse and harass without taking the responsibility of authorship. In this respect there is a parallel with warfare by bombing and executions by drone, which allow killing without facing the victims.
Misogyny is by no means the only content of this new verbal terrorism—plenty of it is racist. But the slut talk is somehow more legitimated, less vulnerable to any censorship. Many men—who knows how many?—are furious that women won’t stay in their proper place and behave right. Many men who suffer from loss of jobs, of income, of a future feel justifiably “Stiffed,” as journalist Susan Faludi titled her 1999 book. Among those, many assume the society and economy are inevitably zero-sum games, and that women’s gains must be men’s losses, so they blame women instead of corporate rule in the US.
Being myself a veteran of the 1970s women's liberation movement, I always expect angry reaction, “backlash,” when new ideas threaten the comfort of those who benefit from the status quo. In fact, I see the size of a backlash as an indicator of the strength of the movement for progress.
There are some good indications of that female progress. Women of all classes and races are moving ahead educationally, are fighting back against violence and rape, are filling the internet with women’s perspectives on issues ranging from beauty to the economy to foreign policy. Women vote more than men, and their votes put Obama into the Presidency and progressive Bill DiBlasio into the New York City mayoralty. Women are more likely than men to graduate from high school, to earn a college degree. Thanks to the long-term effect of the women’s movements of the 1970s, women’s earnings have edged closer to equality: in 1960 women earning 59% of what men did, and today they earn closer to 82%. Surely the female glass is half full and getting fuller.
And there is a return of feminist pride. For several decades, the political Right and pro-corporate gang seemed successful in turning feminism into a scare word, a bunch of witches aiming to destroy the family. Even many of those who supported women’s equality thought it best to avoid the f-word. Now many are claiming it as a badge of honor. Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Eva Longoria, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Rosario Dawson, Grimes, Roxane Gay, Taylor Swift, Rashida Jones, John Legend, Amy Poehler. On Oscar night several actresses made feminist points, and John Legend—already a feminist—denounced the mass incarceration of black men. Feminist blogs from the USA alone number at least in the hundreds. Many are predominantly African American, such as Radalicious and Angry Black Bitch (yes, just like the “women’s libbers” of the 1970s, the new feminist upsurge likes to take nasty names for women and redefine them). Fbomb is for teenagers. There’s Annoyed Asian Feminist, angryasiangirlsunited, and Sangat, a South Asian feminist blog. The creator of Viva la Feminist, Ileana Jiménez, describes herself as “writing from the intersection of motherhood, feminism and Latinidad.” The blogs come and go but so many stay that an inclusive list would be impossible. The “lady blogosphere” is where women are finding each other and learning from each other and sensing their strength in numbers.
But feminist pride cannot insulate women from the pain of abuse or the tangible damage to reputations. Feminist pride certainly can’t immunize women from rational fears. On-line threats to individuals are increasing. Police can’t or won’t act. The objects of threats know how easy it is to learn their home and workplace addresses. Unsurprisingly, several public feminists have already decided to reduce their outspokenness. In a world where the media already provide very little space to feminist writers and speakers, we cannot afford to lose any of them.
So far we don’t know how much of this foaming-at-the-mouth results in physical violence. Or conversely, we don’t know how many actual rapists and murderers of women spew their hatred verbally. The cowardliness of relying on internet anonymity suggests that few are brave enough to address women—or reasonable men—face to face. But in a world where thousands of men are actually kidnapping, raping, and killing, where so many men feel that modernity is unmanning them, we cannot afford to ignore our home-made American woman-haters. Discounting the slut talk and the threats as infantile blather, or turning the other cheek, or pridefully denying our fears and hurt—these approaches will not make the bullies stop, because they are responding to real changes. It is precisely how modern women go about their lives that enrages the harassers. We need more public discussion of the woman-hating and of how—short of censorship—to combat it.