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Chronicling the Water-Torture of Sexism on Twitter

Socialmedia and the relentless flow of misogyny

Every once in a while you stumble upon Twitter accounts which have an impact upon not only the volume of information in your head, but also the ways in which you think about the world. These accounts might address topics on which you feel relatively well-informed, but because of their formats the information takes on new meaning.

Within my field of research the issue of representation, although not my specific area of interest, is significant, and so over the years I have been exposed to a great deal of writing addressing the ways in which women have been presented and re-presented in popular culture. Along with the reading of this material comes at least the potential for an increased understanding for/of both feminism and the struggles that women face on a daily basis.

But, let's not get too caught up in intellectual, self-congratulatory PR. Reading an academic article on the marginalization of women in journalism, for example, doesn't usually cause self-reflexive, seismic shifts in worldviews. The reason, of course, is that most men simply do not encounter discrimination on a daily basis, and, thus, academic articles (and even popular articles) on sexism are often divorced from meaningful personal context. With that divorce comes an empathy chasm that is difficult to cross. I can perhaps understand patriarchy and misogyny better after reading these pieces, but it is the lack of experience of the incessant, relentless chronological flow of sexism that is surely one of the key factors in men saying things like: "Come was just a harmless joke." When you've heard that harmless joke 10,000 times, and the harmless joke manifests itself in other ways (looks, gropes, lower salary, less respect) on an hourly basis over a lifetime, then "harmless" might not be the word that comes to mind.

This is where @EverydaySexism, @CountDeadWomen and @WomenUndrSiege come in.


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The Everyday Sexism Project describes itself as a place where women (usually in the UK for the main Twitter account) can relay, "instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest". Counting Dead Women (part of the Stop Ignoring Dead Women petition), on the other hand, is an attempt to humanize the two women per week killed as the result of gender-based violence in the UK by tweeting their names and the details of their deaths. As founder Karen Ingala Smith put it: "The murders of some women barely cause a murmur; lots don’t make it into the national media. And so the connections, the horror, the patterns, the deaths continue in silence. Unnoticed. Ignored." Finally, Women Under Siege is devoted to documenting the use of sexual violence against women in times of conflict, with the Twitter account providing a steady stream of news and updates.

The tweets sent out by these accounts contain first (and second) hand examples of random and systematic acts sexism and misogyny, details of brutal attacks that have led to the deaths of women at the hands of men, and the gruesome use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of contemporary military conflict. As awful as these tweets are, they rarely contain information or accounts that surprise me. Disgust? Always. Surprise? Not often.

The power of these accounts -- and the @EverydaySexism account in particular -- I would argue, lies in their unrelenting flow, generating a sense of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, intimidation and violence. Men might very well know that casual sexism exists, but they should follow @EverydaySexism when the account makes a specific request from followers. The sheer volume of tweets coming in can be overwhelming -- the #ShoutingBack hashtag in early 2013 (asking for examples of street harassment) is a particularly jarring example. In relation to Counting Dead Women, Holly Baxter of the the New Statesman put it best when she wrote that, "the most disturbing part of the entire project is the frequency with which she tweets the details of new victims." Twitter accounts of this sort are not unique to gender issues, of course. One of the most unnerving and moving accounts I follow is @GunDeaths (maintained by Slate) where a tweet is sent out every time a gun-related death is reported in the United States. The tweets come without comment: simply the name, age and location of the deceased, and a link to the related news report. When followed with some attention over a day or two, the impact can be incredible.

The power of the @GunDeaths account is in the unstoppable stream of names and dates, forcing us to face the banality of gun violence in the US. In much the same way, Twitter accounts such as @EverydaySexism, @CountDeadWomen and @WomenUndrSiege are less about the "news" of sexism and more about how the reporting of isolated examples of such violence does little justice to the systematic, everyday nature of misogyny. If minute particles of water are dropped onto the forehead over a longer period of time, so the theory goes, it can be used as a form of torture. These Twitter accounts will never give men the feeling of those droplets, but they can at least give a sense of the ubiquity of sexism and sexual violence.

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Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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