In the 2004 film Mean Girls, Tina Fey’s character, a high school math teacher, addresses a gymnasium full of clashing teenage girls about what she dubs “girl-on-girl crime”: “You’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores,” she pleads. “It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Her message, along with much of the film’s, is clear: females can be their own gender’s worst enemy.
While that’s a truth that’s largely accepted about high school girls – where cliques and bullying are defining characteristics of the environment – it’s also an outlook that often carries over into adulthood. And not entirely without reason.
Last week, UK think tank Demos released a study that examined online misogyny and who, precisely, was behind it. Looking at tweets that used the words “rape,” “whore,” and “slut” that were sent from UK-based accounts between Dec. 26, 2013 and Feb. 9, 2014, the study found that more than 100,000 messages used the word “rape,” while 85,000 used the term “slut” and 48,000 used the word “whore.”
Naturally, a large proportion of the tweets were inoffensive – ie they shared news stories about rape or advocated against the use of misogynistic terms – but many were used in an offensive, off-handed way or worse. Around 12 percent of tweets that contained the word “rape” and 20 percent that contained “slut” or “whore,” seemed to be intended as a direct threat or insult. But the most surprising element of the research – according to the think tank – was the revelation that women were almost as likely to send tweets with the words “slut,” “whore” or “rape” – used both casually and offensively – as men were. Demos’ analysis found that accounts with male names used one of the words 116,530 times, while accounts with female names did so 94,546 times.
Is this surprising? It seems perplexing that great numbers of women are tweeting misogynistic insults that are derogatory to their own gender. But when you take a closer look, it’s not actually all that surprising that women are capable of bullying and gross misogyny, particularly online. Research has shown time and time again, that hostility toward women thrives online. Women are routinely subject to harassment, sexist attacks and rape and death threats online. In January this year, two people in the UK pleaded guilty in court to sending menacing tweets about British feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and were sentenced to jail time. One of the culprits was a woman, 23-year-old Isabella Sorley.
That women are behind some of those attacks doesn’t come as a surprise to Cheryl Dellasega, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University and author of the book Mean Girls Grown Up. She says that women – and men – often adopt the dominant attitude and language that’s used around them in order to fit in. “You have to comply the norm,” she says. “Even if it’s a norm you don’t like.”
So if the norm online includes a lot of derogatory language and harassment of women, it makes sense that other women would join in and pile on, even if only to fit in. But online is hardly the only place where misogyny is part of the common parlance. Kate Farrar, the vice president of campus leadership programs at AAUW, a non-profit focusing on women’s empowerment based in D.C., says that these gender-based insults have become ingrained in the way our society in general talks about women. Words like “slut” and “whore” are thrown around so frequently they “become a part of our cultural conversation [about women] from the time we’re very young,” she says. The same goes for the word “rape,” which is often used as slang for dominance or victory, rather than literally. (Jokes about rape are also depressingly common.) These words become so embedded in some people’s way of speaking, because, Farrar says, “there often aren’t instances that we’re told that it’s not okay or that there’s accountability for that.”
Then there’s our society’s tendency, via media and language and social customs, to strictly police both women’s appearances and sexual behavior. “We are taught and imbued with images of how women are supposed to be and if you don’t meet that or are too overt in one direction or another – in your speech or your look or the way you present yourself – people feel like they can openly judge you,” says Farrar. People, of course, meaning both men and women. And thanks to our culture’s paradoxical attitudes towards female sexuality, where women are expected to be sexy, but not overtly sexual, one of the most effective ways for men and women to bully, judge and degrade a woman is to brand her a “slut” or “whore.” Though it might seem reasonable that women would push back on every instance of misogyny they encounter for their own benefit, this terminology is so thoroughly woven into every corner of our culture, sometimes it can be hard to recognize.
Studies like this one seem to perpetuate the notion that women are catty and their own worst enemy. But remember researchers found that men were responsible for more than half of the misogyny found on Twitter. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is not that women are guilty of verbal girl-on-girl crime; it’s the sheer volume of hateful speech directed toward one gender by both men and women combined.