by Jojo Moyes
(U.K.) Only the most observant would have noticed the faint shift in classical singer Katherine Jenkins’s expression as she answered a viewer’s question on the television show Something for the Weekend last Sunday; the sudden rictus quality of her smile.
But a furious statement she posted online just after the programme ended revealed a greater drama backstage. Addressed to an unnamed online “bully”, the statement read: “You’ve set up a false account in my name where u slate & destroy my character (sic). After blocking you, you still tried 2 find a way 2 get to me & this morning was 1 step too far. Sending in a question to be read on live TV… to 'make me look clueless’ is utterly pathetic,” she wrote. Jenkins, it emerged, has been the target of this cyberstalker for over a year. “I’ve tried to ignore you but after this it’s time to stand up to you.”
Yesterday, Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat Home Office minister, unveiled proposals to introduce a specific offence of stalking, potentially also covering cyberstalking. A three-month consultation will also look at the use of restraining orders and police attitudes to stalking cases. It is a complicated issue; but it is timely. For it has been a depressing week to be female and have any kind of online presence.
On Saturday, cookery writer and presenter Lorraine Pascale posted a jaw-dropping message she had just received. It ended with the phrase: “Get off the TV c**n and know your place”. (It is now in the hands of the police).
Both she and Jenkins received a groundswell of online support. But the cyberbullying of women is becoming a matter of public concern.
Two newspaper columnists went on record last week about the online sexist abuse they suffer for the apparent sin of being female and having an opinion, while American writer Sady Doyle, weary of the level of online sexist abuse she received, has begun to document it, using the twitter hashtag: #mencallmethings. In a roundup of her unsolicited messages, reproduced on various websites yesterday, she lists, alphabetically, the abusive names she has been called in lieu of actual argument. Scanning the seemingly relentless list ('bitch’ is one of the few I can repeat), the overall effect is, frankly, numbing.
One of the great joys of Twitter when it began was that it was a place where women could have an opinion, and be funny, using a public platform. Talk to many high-profile tweeters today, and you will hear stories of extraordinary abuse directed against them.
Just last week, bestselling children’s author Emma Kennedy suffered her “most depressing day” on Twitter when she took issue with someone who believed he had a right to create and enjoy the image of another female celebrity with a knife through her head. Infuriated when she blocked him on Twitter, he bombarded her with aggressive emails instead.
Kennedy believes that anyone in the public eye can expect to find themselves cyberbullied now. “Quite why this is, is baffling to me. My main beef, however, is that women are treated very differently to men. Men’s abuse is about their words or actions. For women, it’s about their appearance and sexuality.”
The urge to provoke seems to be behind much of it. You do not have to go far online to find oddballs whose sole raison d’être seems to be to get a rise out of those more successful.
But, in an age where women are increasingly judged by how they look, there seems to be increasing anger directed at those who choose to use their voice. And the downside of online access is that those who possess that anger have no filter in place to cause them to stop and think. When I interviewed a US sports writer on this topic last year, he regretted the loss of the “lick the envelope” moment of sanity that stopped many people from saying vile things.
Some women have chosen not to address such abuse head-on, fearful that it will inflame any cyberbullying. Indeed, Jennifer Perry, spokeswoman for the charity Network for Surviving Stalking, does not think Katherine Jenkins’s decision to address her stalker online would be helpful. Ms Perry, who has advised X Factor contestants who received abuse online, said: “It’s more likely to empower him that he’s got her attention. She’s now talking directly to him, which is what he wants.”
However, the reaction of Jenkins and Pascale suggests this mood may be changing. When Tory MP Louise Mensch recently received threats to her children via email, she responded publicly: “To those who sent it; get stuffed, losers … I don’t bully easily. Or, in fact, at all.” (A man was subsequently arrested in connection with the threats). Regardless of your political persuasion, it felt like an admirably punchy response.
Mensch points out that the outspoken woman has been a trope of public fascination since Dr Johnson. “But I do think it is really important for women to stand up to any perceived threat of violence, like Lorraine Pascale has done.”
Mensch says that such abusive comments are now part of her working life, as they are for many female MPs. “If I spent all my time responding to every sexist comment which referred to rape and violence, I would lose my whole day, so I take a 'don’t feed the trolls attitude’. You have to distinguish between a genuine cyberstalker and common or garden abuse.”
Featherstone’s task will be to try and make that difficult distinction. But, in the meantime, dealing with such abuse seems to have become an inevitable side effect of having any kind of profile.
Mensch is struck by the fact that many of those who commit the abuse are often “men with respectable jobs. If you confronted them, they would be deeply embarrassed. But I’d like to ask them: would your mother be happy to hear you talking to a woman like that, using gross threats of sexual violence? If you don’t like her, you know what? Don’t follow her. Don’t read her blog. And grow up.”