The Online Safety Bill was passed by both the House of Lords and Commons and now awaits Royal Ascent. The new legislation aims to prevent children from accessing: ‘harmful and age-inappropriate content and ‘enforce age limits and age-checking measures.’ It also seeks to prevent and remove: ‘illegal content […] including content promoting self-harm,’ and give users the option to ‘filter out harmful content, such as bullying.’

An Eerie Culture of Abuse

It’s no secret that women are frequent recipients of online and offline abuse at the hands of certain, usually very powerful or very miserable, types of men.

Back in 2015, the ‘No More Page 3’ Campaign’s goal was realised. Women and feminists objected to the Sun‘s longstanding feature which they believed played into a wider misogynistic culture that objectified, attacked, and belittled women. As with most things today, that culture had a strong online presence as well as many faces.

Author Angela Clarke and comedian Kate Smurthwaite are two women in the public eye who know a little about ‘the darker side of the Internet,’ as Clarke puts it. Both women have incorporated their experiences of internet abuse into their creative output and shared their experiences and concerns in the media.

While Kate is familiar with the dangers of Internet pornography, Clarke has suffered at the hands of Internet trolls who objected to some of her ‘articles that talked about feminism. When the women discuss their ordeals, it’s apparent that their experiences are eerily alike; two sides of the same, very troubling coin.

The ‘graphic and sexual threats, threats of rape, threats of killing me,’ that Clarke received, can be found in contemporary internet pornography — which is exceptionally violent in content and language. Smurthwait reflects that when she was a child, ‘pornography was like Page 3 with women sitting [suggestively] on cars. Now, if you google Attractive Women, pornography won’t come up.’ You’ll have to google sexist and abusive terms to find what you’re looking for. ‘It is violent. It is so, so violent and the language of it is violent,’ says Smurthwait.

The Underground Club

Internet trolling and porn have something deeply in common. Both are underground pursuits and both have a tendency towards violence and misogyny. By 2015, it emerged that on average ‘the age at which kids first see pornography is eleven and a half.’ Most of this exposure happens without parental knowledge and depicts a hyperreality quite unlike how things actually are.

The graphic nature of internet trolling drives a similar wedge between reality and perception. Clarke’s crime debut Follow Me, includes ‘word for word’ the aggressive Tweets she received. However, that type of content is not suitable for all ears. ‘You can’t reproduce it in a family newspaper or on air, even after the watershed,’ she tells me. The result is a ‘gap between what trolling is and what it is assumed to be,’ which makes debates and discussions around the subject difficult from the outset. Maybe this explains why the Online Safety Bill has taken so long to process.

Trolling and pornography, which live largely at the expense of women’s dignity, have an extended influence in the real world where they have the power to make or break women’s lives. Back in 2003, Texan band The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) posed nude for Entertainment Weekly, wearing nothing but the slurs they attracted for their opposition to the War in Iraq. It was an empowering and defiant statement. Sometime later, in 2018, Little Mix did a similar shoot for Cosmopolitan, ‘naked and covered in troll comments.’ The move attracted widespread hate and criticism, notably from Piers Morgan. If this is not a sign of regress, then what is?

As the journalist and social commentator, Mona Eltahawy puts it; women’s bodies are the ‘canvas upon which patriarchy encourages men to engrave their stories.’ The story of seeing what they can get away with online is no different. Until the Online Safety Bill, there were no repercussions for abusing women. It will be interesting to see what happens once there are checks in place.

Descendants of the Troll Club

2013 saw a zeitgeist of rape ‘jokes’ and the popularity of ‘Bl*rred L*nes’ — a huge hit, despite being ‘kind of rapey.’ Clarke feels her trolling experience is an example of ‘misogyny [that is] reinforced throughout what we see online.’ She argues that: We exist in a rape culture, [and] our Popular Culture supports that,’ just as internet porn teaches ‘young people, especially boys, that sex is about violence.’ The very acceptance of Robin Thicke’s hit (that shows practically naked women dancing around like braindead zombies,) can be attributed to the ‘one-third of Internet traffic [that] is pornography, where eighty per cent of the most popular scenes involve violence.’ Yes, eighty per cent. Just process that.

When misogyny is reinforced online, it does not end there. Some very worrying descendants have started to emerge. Clarke hints that this is already coming to light in ‘the way people in politics talk about women and talk to women.’ Think Toby Young trivialising an MP’s speech to the Commons with comments about her bust, which occurred in 2013 — the year of rape jokes and Blurred Lines. Co-incidence? Smurthwaite explains that ‘you can’t really tell what’s going into your head and what isn’t.’ When violent misogyny creeps into your mindset and sits there at the level of the subconscious, the results can be very dangerous. Just imagine, ‘if your gynaecologist was raised on two hours [of] violent internet porn per week …, I don’t want my gynaecologist to be that guy,’ says Clarke.

The Online Safety Bill is, unfortunately, too little too late to remedy the damage caused by long-term exposure to violent and hostile content that specifically targets women. And let’s not forget the material available on the Dark Web. We are currently in what Smurthwaite calls a ‘test tube, waiting to see what the results will be.’

Online Trolling and Internet Pornography: Two Side of the Same, Very Cheap Coin? Listen to the full interview here.

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