Let me tell you a little story about being a woman on the internet.
This year, I moved to Yellowknife, where the hottest show in town—which sells out in minutes—is Brrrlesque, an amateur burlesque performance. Once a year, the movers and shakers of Yellowknife move and shake their stuff, coated in glitter. And for my first sub arctic winter, I dusted off my tap shoes, and decided to give it a whirl.
For five nights, Yellowknife saw my butt and screamed that they wanted more. Now, this may be because I did a tap dance to Postmodern Jukebox's jazz version of The Thong Song, complete with nipple tassels. But whatever it was, that wave of positivity knocked my thong off (not literally—burlesque keeps it classy).
That was until I posted a picture from the show on Instagram and a troll peeped out from under his rock, saw a body positive hashtag, and scurried over to sing the song of his people. Over the course of two days, a group of teenagers went through a year's worth of my posts, spewing hate and bile as far as the eye could see. I was called a planet; a whale. I was told I was unworthy of love. And they capped it off by telling me I should slit my wrists and eat my own blubber.
But there they were—my burlesque friends, descending like feminist flying monkeys on a glittery wave of retribution to shut down the troll and tell me I was OK.
And feminist armies know how to use Google. I could have just blocked them, but they'd just move on to someone else. Because here's the thing: I'm an adult, with a glitter army and the memory of 600 people screaming their heads off drowning out what those boys were telling me. Not everyone has that—and the next person they target might actually listen when they tell them to kill themselves. After a miniscule amount of research, we located the lead troll's father's email and the school they attended. Turns out, it was a group of teens at a prestigious school in London, England. These were 'nice' boys from 'good' families, who decided the perfect way to spend their free time was online harassment. Joy. I emailed the father, and the headmaster, offering screenshots of the abuse.
The school took it seriously, and suspended the boys responsible. Some even emailed me apologies. But, although initially supportive, the dad suggested perhaps I'd be better off keeping my Instagram private, if I didn't want this kind of commentary.
How about no.
Existing in my body and not actively hating myself is an act of resistance in this culture. I am not supposed to be visible—and certainly not waving sparkly nipple tassels. The other day, a woman stopped me in the grocery store to tell me she saw the show and wished she had the guts to do it too. It made me think—why couldn't she? Is it because she has swallowed a lifetime of our culture telling us that our job as women is to be physically smaller, to take up less space? And that our value, our worth, is tied to the size of our jeans? If I must be on the internet, it should only be in tight selfies from the MySpace angle, preferably in slimming black vertical stripes, making as little noise as possible.
Well screw that.
It wouldn't matter if I was 90 pounds and wearing a parka, the trolls would come for me anyway. After all, they came for Lady Gaga when she neglected to suck it in whilst swinging through the air on a wire. In February, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid received a tidal wave of hate after she introduced a motion to condemn and combat Islamophobia. But instead of just ignoring it she read the hate in the House of Commons. She's not the first—Premier Kathleen Wynne has been outspoken about misogynistic abuse she's received, as has Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley. They are the tip of a very disturbing iceberg that refuses to quietly melt.
At one point, I started getting emails threatening to "expose my lies"—the writer felt confident that all they had to do was say I was lying and they'd be believed. Once more with feeling: that's a problem. These are young men growing up in a culture that tells them that no matter what they do or what they say, it's a woman's job to prove they're at fault. Boys will be boys, after all.
No. Boys—and let's be clear, anyone—will be held accountable for their actions. We get to choose what kind of world we live in, and it's not just with big stuff. It starts with what we normalize on our screens.
This isn't actually how the internet has to be. The internet is a free-for-all of ideas and expressions: that's kind of the point. But Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aren't the Wild West anymore—they're not even the slightly unruly suburbs. They're the main street, the market square, the downtown core of our virtual society and we get to choose what that looks like.
By just blocking and deleting when someone makes an abusive comment or when someone sends an unsolicited portrait of their genitals, we're tacitly saying that's acceptable. No one sits around the dinner table, and when their loved ones ask them what they did that day calmly replies "well today I told someone to kill themselves on the internet. Pass the peas please."
We do not, in fact, have to cede public space to trolls—by staying quiet, even when the abuse isn't directed at us, we're saying decency, equality, compassion, these things only exist behind carefully curated locked-down private accounts. Especially those of us operating from positions of privilege that mean we don't have to feel unsafe every minute of every day—not everyone has that privilege, and those us who do have a responsibility to get loud.
Elie Wiesel wrote: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere."
Because the teenager who today thinks it's perfectly alright to tell someone to slit their wrists on the internet is the adult who thinks it's his right to grab 'em by the pussy. If we want to change that, we have to stop being silent—even in small ways, even on the internet.
We have to speak up. And we have to call their mothers.
Jessica Davey-Quantick is a reporter with Northern News Services in Yellowknife. Follow her on Twitter.
Lead and third image via Black Spruce Studios.