We can't let misogynists take over the internet – be they male or female
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The word "slut" has always been an issue of contention among feminists. It's not just that the term has been used in the past few years to publicly shame women for behaving promiscuously (or, as Urban Dictionary puts it, like men); it's that women heading up feminist causes themselves have been divided on whether we can reclaim the word – as in the case of SlutWalk, where marching women often self-identify as "sluts" and paint the word across their T-shirts and bodies – or should consign it to the misogynistic dustbin entirely, mouldering away alongside "career woman", "momtrepreneur" and the question about whether women can "really have it all".

So it's particularly depressing that, according to the latest study by thinktank Demos for the University of Sussex, women are almost as likely to be called "sluts" (and other such abusive terminology) online by members of their own sex as they are by men. The research, part of which was carried out by analysing 131,000 tweets from Britain, found that women are no more likely to shy away from using "slut", "whore" and rape threats against women than their male counterparts.

Of course, we might not be entirely surprised with these findings, even if we are depressed by them. I have witnessed enough woman-on-woman crime myself in the past week alone: the old friend on Facebook who shared a picture of a man's hands grabbing a woman's bikini-clad bottom with the words, "This is the only kind of handful a girlfriend should be", superimposed over it; the female teen in the street who told her mother to "stop being such a woman"; and the overheard pub conversation where a woman protested to her friend that she didn't "behave like a whore". A year earlier it was the ex-boyfriend's mother who announced over dinner to me that she didn't understand why "sluts complain if they get raped".

Lest we forget, one of the two vicious online abusers convicted of sending "menacing" tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist who dared to campaign for a female face on one of the UK's banknotes, was a woman. What caused Isabella Sorley to join in with a deluge of rape and death threats being sent to another woman for championing the cause of gender equality? One thing's for sure, it didn't happen in a vacuum.

As Demos puts it: "Women are increasingly more inclined to engage in discourses using the same language that has been, and continues to be, used as derogatory against them." I can't help but feel that often there is a "joining in with the school bullies" mentality that accompanies this behaviour. In this case, rape culture (or "lad banter" or whatever we're calling it these days) is the small pack of bullies presiding over an impossibly large playground surrounded by barbed wire. They are the loudest, the most extreme, the most powerful and the ones with the most to lose. It is in their interests to ostracise their detractors as "no fun" on the jungle gym or the football field. Those detractors are the ones who "just can't take a joke". To preserve the status quo it is necessary that nobody wants to be them.

Moving online was supposed to liberate women from a lack of representation in other parts of the media. Blogs, internet petitions and social media forums briefly seemed as if they would be positive forces for equality between the sexes. But it didn't take long for the bullies to sniff out this new space and erect their barbed wire around that, too. Demos mentions a previous study by the University of Maryland which sent a host of fake online accounts into chatrooms to engage in normal conversation, and then collated the number of threatening or sexually explicit messages sent by other users. Accounts with feminine usernames received an average of 100 of these types of messages a day, while male usernames received an average of 3.7.

Women, like men, are taught and often internalise the message that female bodies should be heavily policed. We are taught to see ourselves as piecemeal objects, and told that failing to cover up our bodies is akin to leaving the front door open when we leave the house. We know that, sadly, one is not immune to misogyny merely by virtue of being female.

In a society that engenders suspicion towards rape victims and hatred towards women who speak too loudly, it is little wonder that we can end up turning on one another. But we owe it to ourselves to fight for the freedom of the internet, and to keep it the open, diverse, liberal place we once believed it had the potential to be. Because looking at this research makes it appear as if the bully is gaining followers – and from the worst possible places.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014

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