Few things provoke a man gripped by anxious masculinity like the idea of a woman reading, at least a woman reading anything beyond patriarchal assignments in man-pleasing. As any female bookworm can attest, almost no public behavior you can perform is more likely to get men to bother you and demand to know what you’re doing than simply reading a book. It makes sense. Few behaviors signal subjectivity more than reading. A person reading is existing in that moment only for themselves, enjoying the pleasure of being immersed in thought. Reading anything outside of instructive material (make-up guides, cookbooks) suggests a woman may have a reason to exist outside of being support staff for men. No, more than suggests. Puts it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Which is why, historically, the idea of a woman reading has causes so much strife. Female bookworms have been denounced from newsletters and pulpits, and subjected to claims that they were unmarriageable, corrupted, and somehow broken as women.
I wish that I could say that anxious men have abandoned the terror that a reading woman strikes in their hearts, but alas, as those of us frequently interrupted in public for the task of daring to pay attention to our books instead of looking around for a man to serve, it is not to be. And sadly, a 15-year-old atheist girl on Reddit learned the hard way this week what men who don’t believe women are people will do when confronted with hard evidence that woman like to do people-things like read: they will swarm, angrily insisting that you aren’t a person, but merely a hole to fuck. And they’ll do it while pretending to be “joking”.
Rebecca Watson has the blow-by-blow report here, but to summarize: In an atheist subreddit, a 15-year-old girl put up a sweet picture of herself holding Carl Sagan’s marvelous book The Demon-Haunted World, and noting that her religious mother gave it to her. The reaction was hundreds of comments of the “I’d like to stuff a cock in it, ha ha that’s illegal!” variety. Rebecca has the rundown, including how much that got upvoted. Turns out a lot of men are really, really afraid of women who have their own minds, even if those minds lead them to agree on stuff like atheism! After all, a woman with her own mind is likely to form judgments about you, and if you’re a prick, they run a strong chance of being negative judgments. Those women need to be smothered with sexual harassment until they learn a valuable lesson of never appearing to exist for any other reason than cock-sucking and sandwich-making.
But what struck me as emblematic of this entire clusterfuck was that someone posted this cartoon:
Rebecca touched on the most obvious reason this cartoon is wrong, which is that it argues, incorrectly, that posing in the picture with an object that you’re showing off is “female” behavior. Actually, both men and women do it, as Rebecca proves beyond a shadow of a doubt. The cartoonist probably thinks it’s “female” behavior because he only looks at pictures of women for very long, and forgets the dudes he saw do this. Confirmation bias at its worst.
But there’s so much more fail in this. Let us count the ways that this cartoon is epically wrong:
*The assumption that if a behavior is coded “female” instead of “male”, that automatically makes it inferior. This is a really common and unquestioned assumption that even feminists tend to make, especially if they’re newbies. But if you step back and think about it, even if only women posed with objects they want to show off, what’s wrong with that? It’s never articulated, beyond just “women do it, and men don’t”, which isn’t even true. People enjoy pictures with people in them, so why not put people in your pictures? After all, the point is community-building and having fun; there's no reason to take a picture of a fucking book and put it online outside of that.
*Women can't win, believe me. Knowing that you're going to be accused of preening and vanity if you put pictures of yourself online, I've often avoided doing so. Invariably, what I'm rewarded with is accusations that I'm avoiding doing so because I'm ugly and don't want people to know. Putting the pictures up shuts up the "you're ugly" thing, and brings in the "you're vain" thing, no matter how non-sexualized the picture is. The point is that all choices a woman can make with a camera are wrong. This is basically a way of saying that women should simply have no agency or subjectivity; the problem isn't the choice in pictures, but that she thinks she has a right to operate a camera and put stuff online at all.
*Blaming the victim. Part of the reason to put up this cartoon is to rationalize the "stuff a cock in it" reaction. The implicit argument here is that men can't help themselves, and seeing a picture of a woman on the internet causes such a rush of lust that they are forced—forced, I tell you—to sexually harass her and even cross the line into making rape threats disguised as jokes. The implication is that women have to do all the work to prevent this from happening, and if a woman puts up a picture that features her visage in it, then she was clearly asking to be abused. There's even an implication that she secretly likes it.
*Reducing women to sex objects. This cartoon assumes that the only value that the image of a woman might have is sexual, thus the implicit argument that women are trying to be provocative by putting their pictures online. In reality, as demonstrated by the many men who put their pictures online, there's a social value in showing pictures of yourself beyond offering yourself up as spank material. In this girl's case, it's clear that the message being sent is, "I'm so happy today, look at me smile!" If this sets off alarm bells, I suggest it's time to do a little more interior work on your assumptions about women and what they are allowed to be in our society. Humans are social animals, and as our society moves more online, it's useful to replicate some of our social gestures—such as showing our face and smiling—to convey the same ideas we would in one-on-one interactions. Excluding half the human race from that process by saying that any picture of them in inherently porn and can have no other function is wrong.
I expect the "it's just a cartoon!" reactions, so to cut that off at the pass: You do humor a disservice when you use the "just a joke" excuse. Humor that doesn't have a point isn't funny. Since good humor has a point to it, that point can and should be analyzed. Humor is like any other rhetorical device; the content the rhetoric is conveying matters. I accuse people of being humorless all the time, sure, but that's usually because they don't understand the nuances of a joke. This cartoon is a sledgehammer, however, and can be treated as such.
Which leads me to the second point: Rebecca and everyone who has linked her post has received this reaction, invariably from dudes: "Oh boy! People on the internet are mean! Big news!" Which is an attempt to deflect and silence the criticisms. This is why I'm not going to allow that attempt at shaming to work on me: In actuality, this stuff matters. When you step into a male-dominated space where men feel free to dogpile you in an effort to run you off—even if it's a virtual space—you learn really quickly that merely by being female, you are somehow controversial. That feeling sticks with you. As I noted in the comments at Skepchick, situations like this color a woman's entire world. Knowing that so many men find you threatening and have a desire to put you in your place makes a surprising number of otherwise simple interactions fraught. The example I used in comments as going into record stores, at least the more underground ones that sell a lot of vinyl. Often I'll go vinyl shopping, and I'll be the only woman in a record store. Even though I pretty much never run into problems with it, my frequent interactions with men who guard what they believe are "their" spaces elsewhere has made me wary, afraid that the guys in there are secretly looking for reasons to judge me or objectify me or somehow justify their hostility to me. In a sense, it's paranoia—like I said, that actually never does happen, at least in record stores—but it's an ingrained fear because that sort of thing happens all the time to me and to other women who are somehow seen as invading "male" spaces and acting like we have equal rights to enjoy X, Y, or Z. I feel that I'm often the only woman in these sorts of situations shows my fears are widely held, and that there's a vicious cycle created where even friendlier male-dominated spaces tend to stay male-dominated because women have, for good reason, so much fear of coming into male-dominated spaces. You can't tell the friendly ones from the ones where everyone is going to bum-rush you with the "stuff a cock in it" mentality just by looking, you know. For what it's worth, I tend to go in and do my thing anyway, because a) screw 'em if they don't like it and b) you don't know for sure that they're easily provoked by independent women until they actually show their colors. But it's understandable that many women aren't going to bother.
The result is that women's freedom and options are subtly constrained in all sorts of ways. Want to be a music nerd while female? Since the literal first step of walking in the door is emotionally fraught, even starting out and seeing if you like it is often a step that women aren't going to take. Think you might be into reading comic books? Many women will never find out, because the obstacles of men gawking and acting like assholes outweigh the long-term rewards of finding some titles to get into. Want to get into an atheist forum online? Be prepared to told in many ways, over and over, that you're not wanted as anything but a sucking-and-fucking machine. A lot of men tell women in these situations to suck it up and just do it, but that seriously misunderstands human nature. We want to do these things—go record shopping, buy comics, join forums—for the same reason men do, to have fun. If it's not fun, we're not going to do it. The men who harass women understand this perfectly well, which is why they do it. They want theirs to be male-only spaces, and use harassment as a tool to get that. It's worth pointing out that women aren't the only victims of this, though that's reason enough to speak out. Men who want to have a more integrated experience also are. Since, like I said, women can't tell if a roomful of men is safe or not just by looking at it, they often just err on the side of caution. Therefore, male-dominated spaces that might actually be welcoming more intergration and diversity don't get what they want, and it's the fault of guys who harass in other male-dominated spaces.
That's why it matters. It's not just about Reddit, but about women being told over and over again that they aren't welcome and that men have a right to drum you out and harass you, and it's your fault if you'd rather not bother. Speaking out and pushing back matters, because when you react to the harassment campaigns with silence, you're accepting the status quo how it is. And that's unacceptable.