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In Waging War On Sexist Trolls, Feminists Echo The Victorian Ladies Who Campaigned Against Men's 'Coarse Jests'

25/01/2013 15:30 GMT | Updated 26/03/2013 09:12 GMT

Why is it always assumed that women are worse at taking insults than men? That there's something in women's disposition - heightened sensitivity, perhaps - which means coarse jests will hit them harder than such jests would hit a bloke? That women are so susceptible to self-doubt that even to catch a glimpse of a foully worded screed could be enough to make them stay indoors, weeping presumably, rather than risk appearing in that hairy, unpredictable world of public debate?

This has been the unspoken assumption in the discussion about Professor Mary Beard and her appearance on Question Time. After QT, Professor Beard was subjected to abuse on the internet - most of it about what she said, but some of it about what she looks like. She described the commentary as "gobsmacking misogyny", and now the website that hosted most of the fouler, infantile stuff - Don't Get Me Started - has shut itself down, after receiving the online equivalent of 50 lashes from Beard and other enraged feminists.

Beard says the moral squishing of this cheeky website is a "victory" for feminists, because the kind of abuse it hosted "put[s] many women off appearing in public".

There it is again: the idea that women are likely to withdraw from public life because of the coarse language that exists in its underbelly. This is a recurring argument among the feminist policers of online interaction - that abusive words put women off expressing themselves and thus directly "effect women's participation in the cyber world".

One feminist describes her engagement with the internet as "an abusive relationship that I need to seek escape from"; she implies that women need safe spaces - kind of a "women's shelter" that can be "retreated to." Other campaigners complain that the online environment has become "too hostile, toxic and disturbing to endure." Apparently online misogyny can "deter some women from taking strong public stances."

Again and again, the assumption is made that women - far more so than men or teenage boys - are not cut out for negotiating the often dark, offensive internet. And so they need protecting from it; websites that offend them must be closed, and trolls who troll them must be silenced. Perhaps misogyny-filtering software should be invented to make the web a safer place for women, like that software parents use to protect their children from seeing porn.

The truth is that the internet always has been, and will remain, a place with strange, perverted corners that are best avoided. Men, believe it or not, also know that every time we venture on to the web we're just a few clicks away from violent-minded porn, hateful racism, Holocaust denialism or, in some of our cases, long discussion threads calling us every name under the sun - but we don't freak out and go back to bed; we carry on surfing and chatting, knowing that the virtues of the internet outweigh its ills.

The assumption that women are less capable than men of batting aside insults or ignoring vile abuse is deeply patronising. Indeed, the profound irony of Professor Beard's and other feminists' campaigning to challenge sexism on the web is that it promotes its own sexist outlook, one which depicts women as the fairer, super-sensitive sex.

In the Victorian era, a pro-chastity, Christian women's group called the White Cross Society campaigned to make public life more agreeable for women by issuing a "series of rules for male conduct", which, among other things, called upon men to "endeavour to protect women from wrong and degradation" and to "endeavour to put down all indecent language and coarse jests." How sad, or perhaps funny, that today's radical feminists have resurrected, word for word, that old pious, priggish war against men's "course jests."