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Soraya Chemaly

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The 12-Year-Old Slut Meme and Facebook's Misogyny Problem

Posted: 09/26/2012 3:55 pm

Hey, Facebook:

  • One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime

  • Millions of girls and women are murdered in "domestic violence" situations

  • Millions are sold, scarred, tortured, sexually abused and more

For being born female on a planet that tolerates unconscionable levels of violence against half of the humans that live on it.

So? What does this have to do with Facebook? Turns out a whole lot, because there is no being neutral in this situation. You either help change it or you actively tolerate it and encourage the perpetrators of violence by doing so.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the use of photography (especially without the subject's consent) intensifies harassment, abuse and violence against women. Quicker than I could type "Feministe" this Change.org petition appeared in my inbox: "Please sign to remove 12 Year Old Slut Memes from Facebook." One of the offending page's profile photos is of a pink-lipped and pouty child (she looks a lot younger than 12) wearing a tank top that reads "I love COCK." Now, anyone can create a page in Facebook (published at Facebook's discretion) and this page doesn't openly advocate violence against 12-year-old sluts. It is, however, the virtual equivalent of street harassment and, as such, demonstrates the way the photography serves to exponentially magnify the effects of subtle and real violence along a broad spectrum.

The page, which posts photographs of girls and women so that others can comment on their sluttiness, has more than 200,000 likes. Based on the comments, the photos appear to be in use without the consent or even knowledge of the girls and women featured. The owners of the page, 19-year-olds "Dom & James," not sluts themselves according to their profile, are upset because their Tumblr of the same name was deleted and also because Facebook added the following qualification to their page: "[Controversial Humor]." That changes everything. The dynamic duo are so dismayed by the petition, and by people threatening to sue them, that they have started their own petition: "Please sign to tell people who complain about "12 year old slut memes" to shut the f**k up."

The man who started the petition to have the page taken down thinks that it encourages violence against minors and is a violation of Facebook's own guidelines regarding hate speech. Facebook says nothing and, indeed, as Anna North points out in Buzzfeed today, despite the fact that the page seems to fit the description of cyberbullying and endangering minors outlined in Facebook's terms, Facebook will not remove it. The two owners of the page defend it this way: "You put something on Facebook, you no longer own it. Sometimes it pays to read the fine print. In short, shut your f**king mouth and accept you're the one that put up that slutty photo, regret and forget, you f**king moron." They have a point about the small print and, indeed, now that they have put up the "slutty" photos themselves, might want to consider the terms of their own indictment. As with rape joke pages, there is not shortage of support for this page. It's funny. Really. As one woman put it in a common refrain on the page, "Wow nobody these days can take laughs."

This is pretty much Facebook's attitude and why it deals with this page and assorted others by adding [Humor] to titles. As a result, according to Facebook's interpretation and adherence to its own policies, they will not take down Boobs, Breasts and Boys who love them, unless the boys are babies since they do take down photos of breastfeeding mothers. They will not take down [Controversial Humor] rape pages, but they will remove a photograph of a woman crossing the street in New York City because she is topless (legal in New York, but not the sovereign state of Facebook). Obscene being defined by Facebook as a breast not in service to a man. Maybe it's not a breast problem at all, but a nipple issue. Maybe Facebook lawyers are scared or put off by nipples. This isn't offensive. At best it is sloppy and stupid and incoherent and, at worst, overtly sexist and misogynistic.

And, yes, I know, I know, the 12-year old slut meme page does not openly suggest, say, hitting a pre-teen girl who makes the mistake of posting a photo that lends itself to Dom and James' critical insights, nor does it make jokes about raping children or women. Other Facebook pages, with fans ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousand, however, do. For example, "[Satire] Kicking a slut in the vagina and losing your foot inside" is still up and does not specify age of slut to kick and, as Cath Elliot pointed out in the Guardian last year, if "[Humor] Roses are red, violets are blue... I've got a knife, get in the van (and multiple variations thereof), is not "hateful, threatening or gratuitously violent, I don't for the life of me know what is." "Roses are red" is not controversial however, it's just plain [Humor], like these side-splittingly clever pages and communities: "Seeing a Pregnant Woman and Wanting to Punch Her In the Face" (47K); I just want to get drunk and punch the slut in the face; or, accompanied by a photo of a woman down on her knees, hair gripped in a man's hand..."got a sec you slut, Hit the deck you mut (sic)" (Note: this group appears to have been removed since the initial research for this post). "I'd Punch You if You Were a Woman" ("This is a Page fully dedicated to beating woman unmercifully! Haha kidding of course.") Then there's You are a Slut Get Hit by a Car and last but not least, in the less than 5 minute survey that I just undertook using search terms like "woman," "hit," "slut," and "punch," is the whole "Shut the F**k Up and Make Me a Sandwich" meme -- punctuated occasionally by hilarious photos of women bleeding and with blackened eyes and bruises. The terms "babe" and "bitch" additions are optional for the search.

Facebook's small print also prohibits the use or posting of content that is "threatening" or "hateful" or that "incites violence." That's what the terms say. Really. This stuff is [Humor], [Controversial Humor] and [Satire].

Just about now someone is jumping up and down taking the self-righteous, insulting and entirely disingenuous route of claiming this is a high-falutin' "First Amendment" (gasp!) issue. Dom and James can put up anything they want and people can like any page they like. That goes without saying. But, that actually doesn't mean Facebook has to tolerate it. Clearly Facebook censors content all the time. Violent content. Racist content. Homophobic content. Anti-insert-your-religion-here content. They have leeway in their interpretation of "violent," "threatening" and "hate."

This is now small things turn into bigger things: I think a reasonable person might find "I kill bitches" with its side-splittingly funny gun pointing at your face photo and the "I love killing fucking bitches" comment thread exceeds being offensive. I mean if the same gun were in place and the entire page and thread said, say, "I kill n*****s," I don't think we'd be having this conversation. Just replace the gender slurs in the examples above with a racial, ethnic or religious alternative and see how long THAT lasts in Facebook. There is NO SHORTAGE of racists, anti-semites, Islamophobes, homophobes and more out there who, I've got to believe, know how to use the internet and have Facebook accounts. I'm sure they would love to populate Facebook pages with threatening, inciting content. I tried searching. Whereas "punch a woman" yields lots of communities and pages, alternatives just don't come up. Give it a whirl. I imagine, Occam's Razor and all that, that those pages are not up because Facebook censors them and not because violent haters of difference have been miraculously purged from the planet. For example, as Angie Becker Stevens pointed out last fall in Ms. Magazine, Facebook removes anti-semitic pages.

There are real and serious issues to be resolved regarding content, the Internet, free speech and sovereignty, but by its own behavior Facebook is demonstrating how this situation is not among them. There are clearly topics and content that Facebook does not condone. And, Dom and James seem perfectly capable of insulting their critics in other ways if they have to. It's a small price to pay for making a statement against the denigration of girls and women in ways that are tied to the trivialization of both actual and virtual violence.

Why is it so hard to imagine a world in which girls and women are not daily subjected to the use of hate-filled violence against us as entertainment? Endorsed more than tacitly by a major cultural force like Facebook?

It is arguable that misogyny is in Facebook's DNA and integral to its culture. In defending his woman-denigrating representation of Mark Zuckerberg's alcohol-fueled creation of Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, Aaron Sorkin wrote that "that was the very specific world I was writing about...Facebook was born during a night of incredibly misogyny... comparing women to farm animals, and then to each other, based on their looks and then publicly ranking them." Even aside from the subjective nature of what people find funny and the erroneous use of the word "Satire" it is hard for me to ignore this origin story when considering Facebook's gender selective interpretations of what constitutes "threatening," "violent" and "hate speech," in its content censorship choices.

What the interpreters of terms at Facebook have yet to realize is that these pages are not just "offensive" to some people. Of course they are offensive to some people and that is just fine. But, they are genuinely "threatening," "hateful," and appear to "incite violence." They represent Facebook's choices about what the company thinks is okay culturally. This isn't hard to understand. Facebook doesn't have a word problem. Or a terms problem. Or a censorship problem. It has a sexism problem. It has a puerile male norm problem, apparently well-informed by lad-mags. It has a problem with defining words like "violent" and "hate crimes" and construing how words like "punch" "die, bitch, die" "slap" "bitch" "slut" and more might not be considered "threatening" and "inciting."

And, this isn't a matter of men versus women, there are plenty of women who think pages like the ones above are hilarious and just as many men who understand why they are not and the real harm that they pose. That's why, as with rape jokes, the problem is not that these pages exist, it's that so many people find the idea of violence against women so entertaining and that the people running Facebook flaunt such an openly sexist and misogynistic interpretation of their policies.

This situation is more than [Controversial] and it's really #NotFunnyFacebook. Facebook is on the wrong side of a divide it might want to reconsider. Facebook has the opportunity to do something good, particularly on the eve of Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. Despite the open support for pages like "12-Year Old Slut Memes" of men and women who don't even realize the depth and meaning of this problem, it ultimately won't pay for Facebook to stand against the tide of #onebillionrising. Facebook should seize the moment and actually take a stand against violence against girls and women. It's a do the right thing and get with the program issue.

If you agree consider sharing Eve Ensler's One Billion Rising video as widely as you can.

 

Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly

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