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Women can abuse women too

A new study shows that women are just as likely as men to use online misogyny. Why are we surprised by this? 

Last year, Cambridge scholar Mary Beard became the target of a vitriolic Twitter campaign after appearing on BBC One’s Question Time. It has been difficult to forget that Beard was referred to as a ‘Clunge-hairy’ ‘filthy old slut’ with a ‘disgusting vagina’. What sparked the campaign, however, got lost in my memory bank. So, too, did the gender of the offending Tweeters.

So I googled them. Most, it seems, are male. But findings of a new study of online abuse in Britain indicate that women are as likely as men to use the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ on Twitter. Collected over a four-week period by think tank Demos, the findings were described by one researcher on the study, Sofia Patel, as a “real surprise”. For Sofia, the shock seems to have been that “not only are many women using these words, they are directing them at each other, both casually and offensively.”

Of course, one can only agree with Sofia that the deliberate attempt to offend a woman by calling her a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ is shocking; odious, in fact. But the idea that the insult coming from another woman is more shocking than it coming from a man seems to be problematic. I’m not sure that the terms can have ‘casual’ (read: not-intended-to-offend-but-still-offensive) usage either, but the issues around reclaiming language are perhaps beyond the scope of this piece.

On the one hand, the shock at women using these words to describe other women seems to rest upon a rather misguided view of misogyny as the domain of men: that is, as a particular set of thoughts and feelings that are not accessible to those who self-identify as women. At the same time, the shock seems to hinge on the much misinformed idea that misogyny is an individual, as opposed to an institutional, phenomenon.

In fact, there is nothing shocking about the finding that some women are horrible to other women, and that they use these offensive words. Misogyny circulates. It is not a fixed entity. It operates as part of a patriarchal ideology which is so insidious it gets into the hearts and minds of both men and women. It underpins the hate that some women feel towards other women. And it underlies the hate that some women feel towards themselves.

But the conclusions drawn from this new research, that women using terms like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ may be “normalising” such discourse, and hence, rendering it acceptable for use by men, is worrying. It speaks to a Mean Girls-esque stance which misattributes ‘female misogyny’ as the cause, rather than the outcome, of patriarchy and its consequences.

For those unfamiliar with the Hollywood blockbuster, the film includes one scene in which the ‘mean girls’ are told that they “have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores [because] it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”

To be absolutely clear, it is never ‘okay’ to call a woman a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. More than this, in focussing on the issue of ‘female misogyny’, it seems we might be missing a rather crucial point about power, its distribution, and its effects. If we are really interested in what misogyny is and does, asking from whom it is spoken in terms that go far beyond the male/female binary might be a good start.