By Jen Thorpe
On 3 August I wrote an article describing Cumtree as sexist, irresponsible in terms of allowing child access, and as a site that promoted risky sexual behaviour. On Friday the 10th of August I logged onto twitter to find that they had not taken my article very well at all.
The first message I received from them thanked me for the article which they said drove traffic to their site. Next came “We are looking for a lingerie model and thought you may be interested? Let us know. Or do you not wear a bra?” Then “If you think @Jen_Thorpe article is unfounded and derogatory towards men, please let her know.” Then “Are you married? Got a boyfriend? Thought not. Wonder why…..?” These were all predictable fall-backs to stereotypes of feminist and not only displayed the Cumtree tweeters ignorance, but that I had been spot on about their sexist attitudes.
However when they tweeted at another user telling him I’d be interested in chatting I became concerned. Soon after, Michelle Solomon, a gender activist at Rhodes University, let me know that Cumtree had changed its bio to state “@Jen_Thorpe hates wearing bra’s (sic). Get in touch with her and let her know what you want to do to her…” For me this was a step beyond boring patriarchal stereotypes, this was putting out a message that could only be interpreted as inciting sexual harassment against me.
I contacted the Women’s Legal Centre to find out about my rights, and they advised me that I could seek an interdict against them in terms of the Protection from Harassment act. This form of sexual bullying is happening to women activists online every single day. A recent University of Maryland study found that if the gender of an online username looks female, they are 25 times more likely to experience online harassment. Anita Sarkeesian, a popular feminist video blogger was attacked online when she sought to examine video games’ sexist portrayal of women. The response to her examination was sexist and hateful commentary and the creation of a video game where users were able to harm her.
Violence against women online and using technology is part of the evolution of the backlash against women’s voices. When women take a stand to address sexism and violence online, harassment and sexual bullying tend to follow. In addition, because of the anonymity that social media allows, it is difficult to find out who is behind the harassment.
Luckily, women and feminist online activists are not alone. Following my tweets stating what Cumtree had said and asking followers to take screenshots of their bio should they deny it, I received many messages of support. The online campaign Take Back the Tech encourages female online activists to end violence against women online, and provides information on what they can do if they face harassment.
On Saturday morning Cumtree began to realise that they were in the wrong, or perhaps just that they were getting a profound amount of bad marketing. They sent me an email, from ‘Cumtree Admin’ (no name included) saying that:
“I think you are reading too much into our Twitter account bio. We were merely asking our followers to respond to you to let you know why your article was not appreciated (from a male perspective, which is our prerogative seeing that you offered the female standpoint in your article). Nowhere in the bio did it ask them to sexually harass you as you seem to think it did. As it seemed to upset you so much we have changed our bio. If it caused any offense we apologise, it was not our intention. We merely wanted to get a male perspective on the discussion you started.”
I disagreed. Asking people to tell me ‘what they wanted to do to me’ cannot be seen as asking for opinions on my article, or for a ‘male perspective’.
The many people on twitter who told them that this was complete nonsense and that sexism shouldn’t be construed as a ‘male perspective’ obviously brought in the big guns at Cumtree HQ. I received a further email.
Having realised that the comments posted on our bio were deemed offensive to yourself and others, we would like to apologise for them again. They were never intended to be taken as threatening and we are sorry if you felt they were. As soon as we realised you felt this way we changed our bio immediately, and would have done so sooner if it was possible.
We would also like to apologise to your Twitter followers, many of whom were upset by what appeared on our bio too.
Secondly we do not wish to use this incident to further our Twitter following (which has increased since this all started). As such we have deleted our Twitter account and can promise that no more such incidents will occur in the future.
Having read your article myself this morning, there are a number of valid points that you bring up regarding our site. We would be more than happy to work with you in order to rectify the issues you feel are sexist on our site, thus making it more acceptable to both yourself and your followers.
People love it when people make a mess on twitter and social media. I am grateful that in this instance, this was also in the interest of furthering women’s freedom of speech online. In a context where misogynist violence inciters can hide behind an anonymous administrator label many women will continue to fight to have their voices heard without facing online violence and harassment. I hope they are all able to receive the support that I did.
So now we sit with no Cumtree twitter profile, but still with an intensely problematic Cumtree site. As one follower suggested, “Sadly the rape-culture porn-broker got to stay anonymous while [Jen’s] name got tweeted to perverts.”