Up Front by Emma Hart


Safety Net

Recently, I joined a new web community. I don't mean a platform, like Facebook or Twitter, I mean a community, like Public Address. It's been way too long since I was on the other side of the fence, and it's weird over there. When you get an automated welcome email, your first thought probably isn't supposed to be, "Oh, someone doing my job. This is a bit TL:DR, to be honest I'd hack out that whole paragraph..."

My own work-based Issues aside, the thing I find hardest about a new internet community is working out safety. Which of these messages from strangers are appropriate and harmless? Is this a community that's just really friendly, or one that indulges in noob-camping? I've said I'm in a relationship, yet I seem to be getting hit on. I've said I'm only looking for friendship: still appear to be getting hit on. Maybe this isn't actually getting hit on. Maybe it's cultural. I've explicitly said I'm not looking for another relationship: now the messages start, "That's a pity, because..." 

And as we all know, this is what it's like for women on the internet, right? A minefield of alternating (or indeed inextricably mixed) sexual harassment and threats. If we want to do anything more than trade knitting patterns, we're opening ourselves up to abuse. The internet is the Most Dangerous Place. 

Bollocks it is. The internet is, in fact, one of the safest places you can be, and you can tell that by the way people treat it. 

Maybe I'm over-personalising, true. Pretty much everyone who's known me for the last twenty years has found out new stuff about me either here or at The Lady Garden. I've said things I would never say face to face. The reason for that, though, is pretty universal. The net gives you public privacy. 

I can write something, sitting here alone, basically talking to myself. It can be as confessional as I feel like. And then I can post it for, basically, everyone to see. Sometimes, yes, that process is followed by Bloggers' "Oh shit WTF have I done?!" Remorse, but often not. There are so many reasons why I'd rather say something on Twitter than stand up and say it in front of five hundred people in a hall. (Not that I wouldn't do that now, to be fair, but only because I've been warming up on line.) 

On the internet, I don't have to see someone's face when they're listening to what I've said. I don't have to see them accept me as bi, and poly, and then utterly fail to accept me as a sub. (Or any variation on that triple: I've seen them all.) On the internet, they don't get to talk over me when I say things they don't like. If someone chooses to turn away, I've got no idea they've done it. If I feel awkward, and blush, and take ten minutes to put a sentence together because the issue is so intensely personal, nobody can tell. 

On the internet, someone can use a pseudonym and speak in relative safety about being trans*, or a sex worker, or gay in a country where that's an actively-prosecuted crime. And everyone else can have a window into lives we'd never have had a glimpse into out in the "real world". 

I don't want to underplay the down side of the Internet Confessional Experience. I've had mail that made me cry, and as we know I'm largely constructed of cinderblocks and the corpses of adorable puppies. I can only imagine what it's like for people with actual sensitivity. The stalking and harassment and abuse is very real and so is the damage it causes. It doesn't cease to matter just because you can't punch people in the face over the internet. (You can't. Seriously, you can't.) 

Like the dark alley, however, and unlike 'your own home', in general people are hardly under-estimating the dangers of the net. I just had an open conversation about polyamory without getting called a slut, and the internet is the only place I can do that since they closed the Dux. Yes, all the MRAs can get together in their little corner and talk about how they're so pathetic they get beaten up by girls, but all the perverts get their corners too. We call them Safe Spaces, and for some of us they're the only safe spaces we can have if we want to be honest about who and what we are. 

My own points of difference are the kind that can be concealed. My Mild-Mannered Housewife disguise is pretty convincing. Mostly, though, I keep that for the real world. It's the most dangerous place.

      Emma Hart is the author of the book 'Not Safe For Work'. (Click here to find out more)

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