Running the Everyday Sexism Project, I see hundreds of stories every single day which make me furious, sad, frustrated and horrified in equal measure. Some days there are over a thousand submitted. I receive graphic weekly messages about exactly how I should be killed or raped for daring to speak out about women’s rights. I hear from women and girls who have been raped, beaten and systematically abused.
I’m explaining all this, to make it clear just what it means when I say that the stream of content I’ve received from Facebook users of images and pages depicting and inciting graphic rape and domestic violence have left me shaken and fighting back the tears.
For those who might not have seen some of this content, and who have responded to our recent #FBrape campaign with the usual “don’t be so easily offended” or “learn to take a joke," let me be clear. We are talking about thousands of images of women bleeding, torn, bruised, battered, scarred, and sometimes even dead.
- Images with captions like “Next time don’t get pregnant” and “Now walk it off and get back into the kitchen."
- Groups with names like “Raping a pregnant bitch and telling your friends you had a threesome.”
- Images of children, little girls, with black eyes or semen on their faces and jokes about raping or beating them.
- Images of disabled girls, with men underneath and the caption “No arms, no legs? No Problem."
- Images of women’s faces contorted in pain, pictures of girls screaming.
- I have seen photographs purporting to show actual rape.
- Videos of women actually having their heads hacked off with a short knife as you look into their eyes less than a metre from the camera. After that one, I couldn’t eat, work or concentrate for several days. A week later, when I tried to watch a film that included an unexpected beheading scene, I found myself suddenly shaking, in floods of tears again.
So you know what? It’s actually pretty offensive when people write that we shouldn’t look at this stuff if it ‘offends’ us; that we should leave Facebook instead of making a fuss.
I would love nothing more than to leave this stuff behind and never look at it again. There is nothing enjoyable about it. It plays in my head at night. But leaving Facebook wouldn’t solve the problem.
It wouldn’t stop the huge spread of this plethora of content on the world’s most used social networking site. It wouldn’t stop jokes and images about rape popping up in the timelines of the children whose parents have written to us in horror. It wouldn’t stop the normalization of rape and domestic violence as "just for laughs" in our culture, where one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, where in the UK a woman is raped every nine minutes and up to 3 million women experience violence every year.
It wouldn’t stop the message spreading, with every click and every one of these pictures, that rape is something to laugh about, domestic violence is a joke, and that our society doesn’t take it seriously. It wouldn’t stop perpetrators getting the message that this will be laughed off and excused, or victims receiving the impression that they will not be taken seriously if they report. And no, of course it is not as simple as suggesting that such content directly causes these crimes. But it is about a culture that normalizes them and jokes about them to such an extent that they start to be seen as more acceptable.
Working on a regular basis on issues affecting women and girls, Soraya Chemaly, Jaclyn Friedman and I did not feel able to simply turn a blind eye as some would suggest. Again and again, we had reported images, participated in petitions, even communicated directly with Facebook itself.
And again and again it sent back the message, loud and clear, that it doesn’t consider this kind of content to be a problem, and doesn’t seem to see it as a form of hate speech.
Even today, when a horrifying image of a little girl with two black eyes was posted with a message from the poster boasting about how he had beaten her, Facebook moderators refused to remove the image, telling all concerned users who reported it that it “doesn’t violate Facebook’s community standard on hate speech." That’s why we’re asking Facebook to redefine those standards, to take gender based hate speech into account.
In just 4 days the campaign has exploded, with over 20,000 #FBrape tweets, thousands of advertiser emails sent and tens of thousands of shares.
Advertiser after advertiser, from Nissan cars to West Host, have come forward to say they’ll pull their ads until the social network deals with its policy on rape and domestic violence. Most importantly of all, nearly 100 international women’s and human rights organizations, from Eve Ensler’s V Day to Annie Lennox’s Equals Coalition, have signed and supported our open letter.
Most disappointing has been the response from major companies like Dove and Sky, who have simply asked Facebook to keep its ads off the pages in question but kept their ads on the site. While they claim the pages are being taken down, our updated campaign website makes a mockery of the suggestion with a daily influx of new horrific rape and domestic violence images and content.
These companies might not have known what was going on before. But now we’ve drawn their attention to the content Facebook considers acceptable, as advertisers they have to choose whether to support that or not. They wouldn’t keep their adverts in a magazine that promoted such content, so why is Facebook any different?
For Dove in particular, a brand that claims to value women’s empowerment above all, the choice to keep supporting these messages about beating and raping women with their advertising money is difficult to understand and speaks to the sheer normalization of such messages within today’s culture.
But while the big companies try to sidestep their social responsibility, an incredible, heart-warming development had me swallowing a lump in my throat late last night, as one by one, unexpectedly, small home-grown businesses, unprompted by the campaign, stepped up and came forward to pledge that they’d be withdrawing their ads from Facebook. From a tiny theatre company to a sweet shop, which wrote: “We understand we’re a small company at the moment and that our stance will have little impact on this subject singly, but we hope that we might encourage others to do the same and that together we may be able to stop this from happening.”
And for me, that pretty much sums it up.
I know Facebook is an enormous company. I know some of the big companies don’t want to listen, and I know some people don’t see the point. But I don’t want to live in a society that accepts and normalizes rape and domestic violence.
And I believe that if enough of us stand up together we can start to change that.