Most institutions, systems and objects are created on the assumption that the default person is male. Assumed maleness shapes how businesses are run, how research is conducted, even how proportions for furniture are calculated. Things are built for men whereas women, ever flexible, must mould themselves to fit whatever is available. Should women fail to fit in – by having children, by having the “wrong” bodies, by being “the wrong size” – it is they and not a man-made environment who get the blame.
As with businesses, research and objects, so too with cultural practices. Good manners – how deferential one should be towards another person, what markers one uses to show one respects another’s efforts, the particular words and gestures one must select in a particular situation – have evolved with privileged men in mind. This is not a particularly original point to be making but it matters, especially in discussions of online etiquette. Here a new space has been created yet very, very rapidly the male-focussed model of “what is appropriate” has taken over what had seemed like open ground.
As ever we are led to believe that “it’s the same for everyone”. This is no more true than the assertion that a business with no maternity leave and no sex discrimination policies treats everyone “the same”. It’s a basic point of intersectional theory that if no regard is paid to “what difference the difference makes” (Crenshaw) then seemingly equal treatment is merely a reinforcement of the status quo. It’s no good saying you allowed everyone to start the race at the same time if half of the runners were starting several miles in front.
Male and female socialisation does not permit men and women to enter online spaces on an equal footing. Male and female socialisation – call it gender if you want – also demands that women behave as if this is not the case. Being receptive and not making a fuss are seen as essential female qualities. Young girls are taught that the way to make things equal is to behave as though they already are (if you always say yes, no one can ever override your “no”).
When men and women are provided with the same set of rules, men are the winners. Men flout these rules and no one cares; women do the same and they are crucified. Unfortunately, the rules are tangible and solid, whereas the inconsistency in application is vague, leaving women with no chance of appeal. This leads to a situation in which men – self-identified liberal, pro-feminist men – are in complete denial about inequalities in online debate and feel confident in dismissing any complaints as “feminist in-fighting” or “privileged women with platforms being unwilling to listen and learn”.
Here are just a few of the privileged assumptions men make about online spaces – and which women are asked to buy into, with no allowance made for enormous gender inequalities:
1. Making individuals more accessible to their critics is pro-equality and anti-hierarchical
Except women – deemed to be nature’s default carers – spend their whole sodding lives being told to be more “accessible”. Telling them to do the same online is in its essence anti-equality and pro-hierarchy because you are reinforcing the abusive hierarchy that is gender. The bar for “being available” is set far higher for women than it is for men. They’re still expected to be everyone’s mother, fussing about the feelings of others while repressing their own. Online etiquette demands that women perform this unequal role in the name of equality. Online etiquette sucks.
2. How an individual communicates is less important than what he or she has to say
For men this might mean not dismissing a comment because the commenter has used poor grammar. This is fair enough. For women this might mean not dismissing a comment because the commenter has told you to die in a fire, you shit-for-brains cis bigot. This is not fair yet we pretend that the principles are the same (NB this doesn’t apply when individuals who feel oppressed for any reason other than being female – e.g. they’ve smeared eyeshadow on their chin and declared themselves genderqueer – decide that a comment is “triggering”. So you can have a situation in which “die in a fire, bitch” = open, reasoned debate, “please don’t tell me to die in a fire” = triggering. By and large men seem to have no idea that this is where their apparently fair and reasonable principles lead and just see “privileged” women – i.e. those without Boots 17 Stormy Weather on their chins – having a moan).
3. “Flouncing” is not allowed
Telling women they are not allowed to reveal themselves in public unless they are willing to “face the consequences” – where have we heard that before? The language that surrounds “flouncing” – the outrageous act of leaving twitter for a while because you feel like it – is laden with male sexual entitlement. How dare a woman set her own boundaries! How irresponsible! How fickle! Why isn’t she on call, for me, 24 hours a day? How can she provoke me then not allow me to satisfy my urges in her presence? We have forgotten the basic feminist principle that women can say no any time they want to.
4. Take a seat, then listen and learn
This goes beyond the exchange of ideas – which is how men often see it – and into telling women that they must remain silent. Because obviously, your own experience of being a woman isn’t enough to give you any authority on anything whatsoever, right? What right have you to talk of politics and oppression when you should be absorbing the views of someone far more “real” than you?
There are several ways of getting out of having to listen and learn:
Be a man (of course). When liberal men on twitter engage in learning, this usually takes the form of asking women intrusive questions before saying they will go away to “think about it” (i.e. pass judgment on the validity of whatever it is women have to say). They find this terribly easy and think it’s the same for women. It is not. For women, “learning” usually means being asked to agree that your cis privilege makes you less of a person than everyone else. After decades of learning about one’s own inferiority, this doesn’t exactly come as a shock, but it is still complete and utter bollocks. .
Ensure no one thinks you’re cis. That way, everyone will assume you have deep, unassailable insight into what a subject – in this case gender – really means. In layman’s terms, this is also known as being granted undeserved authority because people associate you with something – anything – that is not overly female. We use the word “cis” here to denote female intellectual and experiential inferiority because we’re all pretending this discrimination isn’t one-sided and entirely based on age-old misogyny. Let’s be honest, though: we all know this is how it really works, hence the rush of young women falling over themselves to reclassify themselves, but not older women, as “non-binary”. So, liberal men, stick that in your pipe and smoke it next time you try it on with the “but I don’t mind being called cis” bullshit.
Have a sex worker past and be vocally pro-sex work. A bit like point 2, this suggests you are amenable enough to men to have done your “listening and learning” like a good girl should.
Declare yourself a non-binary pro-sex work ex-sex worker (jackpot! You’ll never have to listen to anyone ever again!)
There are others but basically it is a game: find the magic maleness association and the extent to which you’ll be expected to sit quietly and just take lecture after lecture, as though you are a naughty child, disintegrates. You will still experience online abuse but at least it will be abuse that is contrary to our nice, civilised online etiquette rules. It’s only being patronised to death solely because you are female that is actively considered to be a social good.
5. Always allow comments, for the sake of “open debate”
“Open debate” is not debate in which half of those taking part do not feel safe. I do not feel safe. I am not allowing comments. Yeah, I know. How dare I withhold my enthusiastic consent having gone this far in leading the reader on!
To summarise, online space can be horrible for women who transgress (as in speak their minds) because the rules of conduct are written for men. Men don’t want women to transgress. It suits them when “feminists” crack down on the female transgressors on the patriarchy’s behalf. It means the nice, liberal men can either look away or applaud from the sidelines as yet another “bad” woman gets smacked down.
This is online etiquette. This is how it works. Women who actually wish to transgress gender norms should pay these rules no heed. The fact is, they weren’t written for the likes of you and me.