Free?

A couple of months back there was interesting discussion about sexism and wikipedia I never did get round to replying then, but I was thinking about and so I thought I’d write about it now.

It started when m from scribblepad compared the definition of ‘women’ with the definition of ‘men’ on wikipedia and pointed out that the differences were sexist. She got a whole bunch of replies that critised her for attacking open source (I got all this from Feministe which had a nice post on the issue). She responded

I understand there are several people out there who seem to think challenging wikipedia amounts to challenging open source, something that shouldn’t (according to them) be allowed at any cost. one, it isn’t about “wikipedia versus feminism” or “wikipedia the last stand of free source”. Nobody can force that kind of trade off, and even if they do, as much as I support free source, damned if ill continue to do so when the project abuses me.

I wasn’t at all surprised. I expect wikipedia to be sexist, racist, and supporting the existing class structures. I expect the same of indymedia, and any other ‘free’ space.

I’ll explain what I mean a little more by talking about something that happened to me a few years back. I protest quite often (I have a personal goal of protesting outside every embassy in Wellington). One day I was happily protesting and someone took a photo. It was the best photo of the day, so I became the face of the demo. Someone posted my picture with an article onto an Australian indymedia site. The comments went like this:

1. “The bird in the red has big tits I’d like to suck them”
2. “Fucken Leso give her some fucken meat”.
3. Some long diatribe on how we shouldn’t objectify women because it distracts us from the class struggle
4. A reasonably long post about how much the writer liked our protest and how he should do something like that where he lived, and then he ended it with “PS they’re not that big”

There were no further comments. The original article was hidden, but no-one, including the person who hid it, or the person who forwarded a link to me, made any further comment on the way they were talking about my body.

I was on the fringes of the local indymedia collective at the time, and wrote to the e-mail list talking about this post, and the concerns I had about indymedia in general. A couple of people responded, and the one I remember was from a man who asked why I hadn’t posted a response, as that was the whole point of open communication.

So to recap: a photo of me was taken at demo, this led four men to make a series of comments about my body, including rape threats, some of which came from men who were supposed to be comrades. No one spoke a word against it, including people who thought it was wrong. When I raised an objection in a slightly safer space I was told I was the one who was supposed to do something about this.

Our society is sexist and misogynist. What this means is that if we create a supposedly free space for communication it’ll replicate the sexist and misogynist patterns found in mainstream society, unless we take conscious action to change those sexist and misogynist patterns. The same is true for all other power structures in our society, they will all be replicated in the free space.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that those who want to build a new world need to give up on open communication spaces as a tool (I am writing this on the internet), but that if we’re going to use them we need to set up structures to challenge those power systems we’re fighting against.

Also posted at my blog.

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16 Responses to Free?

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  4. 4
    lucky says:

    Right on, Maia! Great post. It reminds me of the time I saw North Country with a friend of mine, a union organizer. He can be a curmudegeonly old man and it’s hard to tell what he’s really thinking but he said he didn’t like it ’cause it “made unions look bad”! Not being able to critique or criticize your own is just ridiculous insecurity on their part, something I expect from our poor excuse for a president here in the U.S. but not necessarily from the progressive left.

  5. 5
    Samantha says:

    I’ve been enjoying your writings here lately, and this one was as good as the rest. There are days I fear most of the “good” men are just better liars than the ones who wear their hatred and diminishment of women on their sleeves.

  6. 6
    dave munger says:

    That really sucks. I have been threatened and called a murderer online (for advocating an unconditional right to abortion), but I’ve never experienced anything like that — and especially never unprovoked. And I think you’re right — it’s commonplace.

    OTOH, I’m not attractive enough to incite lustful remarks from women, but I do think that on occasion I’ve seen similar remarks online made by women about men. This doesn’t justify your treatment, but it does suggest that the societal bias, whatever it is, isn’t simply “women are always dominated by men.”

    I’d say there’s a bias online to accept sexual fantasizing, even when the fantasies are repugnant or illicit. At least there’s a bias to ignore it. Hell, we see it in our e-mail spam every day; it would be exhausting to take each and every one of them separately to task.

    But I do think that the prevalence of spam and other repugnant sexual materials online needs to be addressed somehow — but how? Not censorship, certainly. How else? It’s an honest question — any ideas?

  7. 7
    alsis39.75 says:

    I’m afraid that some of the more hyper-masculine males (in terms of behavior) are the ones I’ve run into in spaces like Indy. This could have something to do with the anonymity of most net-space, but also with the fact that peace, love, and tree-hugging are stereotypically “girly” pursuits. So these insecure dog-asses have to comment on our tits or wax rhapsodic about women stripping in order to prove that they’re “all-man, man,” no matter how long their hair is or how many Greenpeace actions they’ve attended. >:

    I’m not excusing the behavior by pointing this out, at least not intentionally. I observed the same sort of behavior from males when I was in art school, more out West than back East. Again, I think there was a stereotype of art as being “girly” or “gay” and thus these guys had to denigrate women to prove they could be as macho as the next guy.

    I’ve also observed that when somebody on Indy goes off on a tear about how fatness = moral decay, it’s nearly always fat women they mention, not fat men. It’s as if there’s always a subconscious deference to men’s bodies as being private property, but women’s bodies are always public and thus open for ridicule and scapegoating whenever the mood strikes.

  8. 8
    Stanford Law 1L says:

    For what it’s worth, the article on women in Wikipedia appears to have been changed so there is no longer a section on vulgar terms.

  9. So yet again women are responsible for men’s sexual responses? I’m very disappointed in the response you got from Indymedia Maia – I don’t go there all that often because so often the commenters are atrociously off topic and seem quite sectarian. I really feel for you that you had to read that. I had a similar experience (although no where near as bad) when I posted a poem about the Holocaust on a left wing student activist forum and replies included rape threats. What is wrong with these people?

    I think there is often a view that censorship must be avoided on the internet at all costs, particularly from political activist groups. I remember once approaching the new editor of the student rag and asking specifically about whether he would publish letters that were sexist, racist, homophobic, and he got all high and mighty about “freedom of the press” etc. It was depressing. I’m not saying that I don’t agree with the principles of freedom of speech, I do, but it doesn’t disallow people for taking some responsibility for the kind of speech that is on sites that they control. It’s not as if the hateful commenters haven’t got oodles of other sites on which to poor their bile, even set up their own blog.

    As for the blogosphere being mainly female, I find that an interesting fact. Certainly my experience in the kiwi political blogosphere is that it is almost 100% white, probably 90% male, and certainly almost exclusively middle and upper class. The right wing heavily outnumber the left (even counting the Labour blogs as left). I suspect that other parts of the NZ blogosphere are more female, but the demographics of the political part worry me. It really is a boys club, especially as a lot of the bigger players link almost exclusively to men in their posts, or link to women only when there is an objectifying element (eg the obsession many seem to have with certain right wing women MPs, or with slagging certain left wing women MPs, often because of their appearance).

    I despair sometimes.

  10. 10
    Diane says:

    Maia, your post fills me with despair and anger. Yours is an extreme example of what I see all the time on “liberal” message boards. Critiques of women are almost always about, or at least include. critiques of their bodies and clothing, as well as sexual fantasies, many of which are violent in nature.

    When “liberal” men continue to assess women according to their bodies and their potential as sex objects, what are we left with? When women join them or do not confront them, it is even worse.

  11. 11
    hf says:

    Um, we can address spam and the other manifestations of MAFIA@home by going after the mobsters who run the zombie bot-net.

  12. 12
    Sheelzebub says:

    I was on the fringes of the local indymedia collective at the time, and wrote to the e-mail list talking about this post, and the concerns I had about indymedia in general. A couple of people responded, and the one I remember was from a man who asked why I hadn’t posted a response, as that was the whole point of open communication.

    Yeah, because someone who called you a ‘leso’ and said they should give you ‘some fuken meat’ won’t harrass you online at all. Nor will their cohorts. Jaysus.

  13. 13
    Maia says:

    I know Sheezlebub. I didn’t even bother replying, but if I had I think it would have been along the lines of “you’ve no idea how much priviledge you have do you?”

    I’m not excusing the behavior by pointing this out, at least not intentionally. I observed the same sort of behavior from males when I was in art school, more out West than back East. Again, I think there was a stereotype of art as being “girly” or “gay” and thus these guys had to denigrate women to prove they could be as macho as the next guy.

    This is absolutely true, and something I’ve long observed. In particular protest movements that are against the bastions of masculinity (whether that’s war, rugby, mining, or whatever) tend to be the ones that build up the grossest most misogynist alternative macho culture (a classic example of this, of course is the anti-war Vietnam war movement and it’s slogan “girls say yes to guys who say no”). I do want to write about this more extensively sometime.

    OTOH, I’m not attractive enough to incite lustful remarks from women, but I do think that on occasion I’ve seen similar remarks online made by women about men.

    I really don’t think these comments had anything to do with my attractiveness or otherwise. About half the time men yell at me when they drive past it’s to say I’m fat, about the other half it’s to say they want to fuck me. But they’re both driven from exactly the same place, which is owning my body and treating it like an object. I do think that is different, I do think it’s gendered.

  14. In regard to the issue about women starting to make objectifying comments about men – I guess this is one way (an erroneous way) of dealing with the problem – the whole laddette culture of going to male strip shows and generally living it large and acting like a bloke but in a skirt. Underneath I suspect it is really saying that the only acceptable way to be sexually assertive is to be agressive and act like a man? I don’t know, just thinking out loud, and it’s kind of off topic.

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