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Violent opposition online to gender equality

Sofia Strid with a computer.

Gender researcher Sofia Strid has focused her study on the opposition against three women promoting gender equality online. According to her, it is a question of violence.

Men retaliated with serious threats. Gender researcher Sofia Strid has studied how gender equality activism has met with strong opposition online. “It’s a question of men with power who have resorted to violence,” she says.

Sofia Strid’s study is a chapter in Varieties of Opposition to Gender Equality in Europe, a new book analysing, for the first time at the EU level, various forms of hands-on opposition to equality and gender equality efforts.

Sofia Strid has analysed three women promoting gender equality online: a British activist, a Canadian-American woman questioning sexism in video games, and the Swedish author and feminist Maria Sveland, known among other things for her novel Bitter Bitch.

Death and rape threats

The 2013 online campaign by activist Caroline Criado-Perez for the inclusion of women on at least one of the new British bank notes, led to the Bank of England decision to feature the image of Jane Austen on the £10 note.

While the Bank of England announced their decision, Caroline Criado-Perez received the first threat of rape. New threats followed one after the other and in a short time, the police had accumulated 300 A4 pages of death threats and threats of rape and abuse.

The police initially held her responsible, claiming that she only had herself to blame because she was cocky and engaged in counterattacks. Nevertheless, the case went to trial against two of the perpetrators. They were fined.

“The defence claimed that the accused men didn’t have an understanding of what they were doing, that they weren’t familiar with Twitter, and that they were social misfits. They were to be pitied in a way,” says Sofia Strid.

Violence an expression of power

That view originates, according to Sofia Strid, in a conventional criminological explanation where violence is to be understood as an expression of relative powerlessness, used by marginalised individuals.

“In feminist theory, however, there is a reversal in the analysis of such a scenario; it is individuals with relative power that are violent. My analysis shows that violence is an expression of power,” says Sofia Strid.

The same pattern of serious threats can be seen in the cases of the other women in the study. Canadian-American Anita Sarkeesian questioned the attitudes towards women in computer games and was bombarded with threats of brutal sexual violence: rape, mutilation and murder. Also in her case, the police were unsympathetic – the online threats were not regarded as criminal acts. The Swedish author and feminist Maria Sveland is the third case in the study. Over a period of almost 20 years, she has been receiving threats, which has culminated in death threats.

“The police, charged with maintaining public safety and security, cannot keep up and cannot guarantee or maintain order or safety online. Once they can act, it is with a tremendous lag and with very few sanctions at hand. And so, the attackers can continue their hostilities,” says Sofia Strid.

“Excellent playing field for misogyny”

“The conclusion here is that the online world is an excellent playing field for misogyny and for those who are in violent opposition to gender equality,” she says.

There is, however, a somewhat brighter side:

“The Internet can also work as a playing field on which to promote issues of equality and gender equality and there are strategies with which to counteract violent opposition. Women can act without being controlled. The most obvious example being the #MeToo movement,” says Sofia Strid.

Text and photo: Maria Elisson

Translation: Charlotta Hambre-Knight