A couple of days ago everyone on twitter (and off) was very excited: ESA landed a probe called Philae on a comet shaped like a duck. I was going to write about the appropriateness or otherwise of ESA project scientist  Matt Taylor’s shirt – it featured quite a few scantily-clad ladies.

On the face of it the story should have been: man wears offensive shirt on TV, people point out that it’s offensive, man removes shirt, man apologises. That is what happened, Matt Taylor seems a nice enough chap who made a mistake which he rectified and gave, what I’d consider, a proper apology.

The moment has passed, better writers than me have written a lot about the incident, but it has highlighted a theme.

The women that said the shirt was offensive received a torrent of abuse, including threats of sexual violence, and the men who did exactly the same thing didn’t. Friends on twitter did experiments where one (male) tweeted exactly the same thing as his (female) partner and got completely different responses: immediate abuse, continuing over 48 hours in the case of the woman, very little for the man. I’ve been moderately vocal and received pretty much nothing in terms of abuse, certainly in the first instance. It’s all very well saying that people should report abuse then move on, or that the threats are empty. But overwhelmingly it is women being threatened, not men. Twitter’s reporting mechanisms are restrictive and they appear unconcerned. And a threat is empty until it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

Several women I know simply don’t comment on “contentious” issues online because they know what response they’ll get. And this happens again and again and again and again and again and again.

Over the last few years on twitter I’ve come to realise that women lead different lives to me, they experience a whole bunch of things that I’ve never even contemplated as a risk. Since I joined I’ve learnt of:

  • the woman stuck in a pub toilet with men outside threatening to gang rape her;
  • the woman who cycles to work in London who gets groped and catcalled on a regular basis;
  • the women who never finished their PhDs because their male supervisors considered them to be sexual prey;
  • the women in science communication who were never quite sure whether whether they were published on merit or because the editor of that website had designs on them;
  • the women who don’t go on scientific field trips because basically they are too dangerous;
  • the women at conferences who think carefully about getting into a lift alone with a man;
  • the woman that won’t walk along the canal towpath in broad daylight;
  • the woman who wants her named removed from a football ground if they re-employ a convicted and unrepentant rapist and gets rape threats in return;
  • the woman who was sexually assaulted on a train;
  • the women who said it would be nice to have women on banknotes, and were threatened with rape;
  • the woman who supported immigration on Question Time and received abuse, and a bomb threat;
  • the woman who was going to give a talk about the portrayal of women in computer games but was cancelled because of the death threats made against her and the audience;
  • the woman who has suffered domestic violence;
  • the women who were groped by a senior party official, who never showed any remorse when uncovered;
  • the women who doesn’t wear headphones in the street;
  • the woman who gets followed on the London Underground;

Some of these are high profile public incidents, others are not but they are all women doing ordinary, unexceptional things. They’re spread over a number of years, and I follow a fair number of people. But nevertheless, regardless of public statistics, they are something that never impinged on me in the past.

I didn’t like the term feminist because it always brought to mind those women that told me everything men did was wrong but now I realise I was wrong. The feminists are the people that speak up and say “That thing you are doing is wrong“, the women in that group are attacked mercilessly in a way the men aren’t. I allowed my impressions of those women to be dominated by their attackers.

Apologies for being so slow on the uptake, I’m trying to do better in future.


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    • Hank on November 17, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    I like the fact that in a sea of angry rhetoric, you make an actual empirical claim (and to me, a surprising one). Even more I like the fact that you describe an experiment have been done! Married couple each send same tweet, and she gets torrent of abuse, he doesn’t. That’s a really interesting experiment to try, and if the results are as you say, then it is pretty compelling evidence of something interesting. Can you get them to make a blog post that presents enough numbers so that we can think critically about this?

    What would we need to know to assess this? Certainly we’d need to see the messages (eg if they had hashtags), and to know how many followers these people each have, right? Of course even if they have a similar number of followers, they won’t be the same followers, so it won’t be a perfect experiment, but it will be a great improvement over vague warring assertions like “Women receive a lot more harassment on the internet than men do!” or “Feminists are angry whiners who like to see themselves as victims!”.

    Can you ask these people to put this on Storify or something like that, and to allow observers to ask them questions so we can get clear on the methods and see the actual results?

    • John on November 17, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Hank, you are a dick. If this surprises you, you must not be on Twitter. Or read comments on newspaper column. Or read comments on blogs by female authors. Or read Youtube comments (although to be fair, nobody should read those).

      • Luke on November 17, 2014 at 6:47 pm

      Blimey, that seems unnecessarily aggressive John.

      For what it’s worth, I’m not surprised that male/female tweeters get different reactions to the same tweet, but I don’t have a good intuition of the size of the effect, so I too would be interested in seeing the numbers.

      • Hank on November 18, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      John, your rudeness is startling. So you think the effect size is so big that we should spontaneously detect it just reading twitter and blog comments? Well, I haven’t noticed it. But I wouldn’t claim that means it is not real. Any sensible person should totally distrust informal impressions on this sort of topic–there are lots of people for whom the effectiveness of homeopathy is as plain as night and day, and the rudest of them would probably call us dicks for doubting that, too.

      By the way, a quick google search for formal studies turns up a study that apparently concludes the opposite: more abuse of men. But it was just observational not experimental, and it was focused on celebrity related tweets, so I wouldn’t take that too seriously for present purposes:


    • S Taylor on November 17, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    For those commenters who are interested in figures around the male v female experience when Tweeting the same thing, here’s a similar experiment from some years ago, complete with statistics: http://www.ece.umd.edu/News/news_story.php?id=1788

      • Hank on November 18, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      That’s interesting, but it was a chat room and it sounds like it was counting up mostly rude come-ons. No, I am not surprised that women get more rude (or not rude) come-ons than men.

      The issue here is whether a woman expressing a controversial position in a discussion of news or public policy will get more hostile comments or emails, right?

  1. Thanks very much for the link S Taylor.

    Hank, my empirical claim really isn’t surprising. @panderson1979 and @morphosaurus are the experimenters in question. You could also look at responses to @edyong209 compared to someone like @roseveleth.

      • Hank on November 18, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      Do you know what was the exact (or even approximate) date of their identically worded tweets? I am not finding the experimental data, so to speak.

      1. I found them easily on 15th November.

      • Hank on November 18, 2014 at 3:16 pm

      Re your comparison of @edyong209 and @roseveleth, wasn’t @roseveleth the first person (at least the first journalist) to raise the objection about the inappropriate and sexist shirt (or, from another perspective, the first person to ruin the guy’s justifiably proud day over something as small as a shirt)? Whereas Ed just sort of chimed in later, no? If two tweets differ on dozens of dimensions, picking one out and assuming that is key is no good–that’s why an experiment is needed. I assume that is obvious to everyone reading here (except John, I guess).

    • Andrew on November 18, 2014 at 11:55 am

    I cannot get into the minds of the people throwing abuse at these women – I cannot fathom where the bile comes from. I cannot get the thought processes that must say ‘she is a woman, therefore this is OK’ in some way or another. How do you appeal to this mentality to make it stop?

    How is it ever reasonable to tell someone they are evil for expressing an opinion over the appropriateness of a shirt??? How is it ever reasonable to tell someone to kill themselves or offer threats of violence and death??? How can someone’s mind work like that. Actually, not just someone, but so many.

  2. Andrew – this post is my response to that problem – men should speak up when these issues arise, to their friends and colleagues.

    I suspect twitter’s “report abuse” policies need to change i.e. you can hit block limits, only the person directly effected can report abuse and so forth.

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