THE BLOG

No Longer on the Fence About Facebook and Rape

30/05/2013 15:23 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

Until recently I was paralyzed with indecision between two seemingly opposing viewpoints, both of which I hold dear.

A campaign spearheaded by Women, Action & the Media, Soraya Chemely and the sensational Everyday Sexism project (whose tweets are a thoroughly recommended eye-opener) is urging companies to remove their advertisements from Facebook until the social media juggernaut takes action to treat its plague of gender-based hate speech. As a trawl through Facebook will show, its seedier digital alleyways are awash with images and pages that incite violence against women and girls, encourage rape and, in a nutshell, declare anything without a penis untermensch. The campaign seeks to financially pressure Facebook into removing this material.

Despite the campaign's laudable goal of making both the web and the world happier for everyone, I wasn't fully in support of it from its inception; I was on the fence (was). The problem seemed to me that much of the offending content could be construed as jokes. Terrible jokes - jokes that revolt me as a person for their lack of sensitivity and as a comic, which is almost the opposite of a person, for their pathetic limpness and reliance on shock humour. But jokes nonetheless. And I've defended offensive humour before when #cutforbieber was trending. Genuine hatred and cyber-emotional intimidation - that I can unabashedly condemn. Unfortunately, Poe's Law applies: it's impossible to tell whether an image of a rape victim with the caption "Bitch got what she deserved" was meant as a genuine piece of misogyny or a joke drawing attention to misogynistic reasoning. If it's the first then it counts at hate speech, but if it's the second then it's defensible under free speech, no matter how cackhanded and tasteless its attempt was. And the grey areas only multiply: if, for example, I upload a misogynistic image for misogyny's sake but you then share it to draw attention to my hideously backwards thinking, should we both be censored? It seems like only I should, since you were making an ironic joke, but the image in both cases is exactly the same and just as likely to upset someone.

So I was caught, entrapped and bamboozled. Jokes reliant on gender-based hatred contribute to a culture where women are demonised and dehumanised; they genuinely hurt people, especially where they trivialise rape and especially when the UN estimates that 70% of women will experience violence in their lifetimes. If 70% of people were ill it would be a pandemic; if 70% of people were robbed then there's a good chance martial law would be declared - rape culture sees to it that serious action is not taken to prevent the widespread abuse of women and casual misogynistic jokes help fuel it. But free speech is absolutely necessary for the sort of society that justice requires. I was stuck: morally condemning an action whilst supporting people's right to do it because I proudly identify myself as both a feminist and a supporter of free speech.

Thanks to Everyday Sexism however, I am happy to say that my dilemma has been resolved. As they pointed out, you do not have free speech on Facebook. I checked: you actually sign it away in section 3.7 of the statement of rights and responsibilities that comes with the user agreement, which outlines what content Facebook will censor. This includes, though not explicitly stated, pictures of breastfeeding but not pictures of battered women or a mountain of other gender-based attacks.

The #FBrape campaign isn't about free speech, it's about consistency. It's about Facebook thinking that breastfeeding is "offensive" and worthy of censorship, but an image of a woman pushed down a flight of stairs with the caption "Next time don't get pregnant" is fine. It's about them being a huge contributor to an increasingly casual rape culture that goes beyond jokes and really hurts people - "people", not "women", which is too often used as people's antonym. So I'm not on the fence anymore: I'm proud to give my wholehearted support to this campaign.

One of my favourite scientific facts is that for the first 5-6 weeks of development all foetuses are phenotypically gender-neutral. If you're genetically male, your Y chromosome doesn't kick in until the embryo that will grow into you is already underway. What I like about this is that it shows that despite all the gender-based hatred, fear, violence and mistrust, we really are all the same.