21 September 2015
Dr Sarah Beresford summarises the conference, From Scolds to Trolls; Social and Legal Responses to Visible and Audible Women', held by the Centre of Law and Society at Lancaster University on 15th September 2015.

In the 16th Century, women were punished for speaking out by having a cast iron cage fitted over a woman’s head and which included a metal plate with spikes on that was inserted into her mouth – called a scolds bridle.  How far has society evolved since then?  How does Law and Society treat women who speak out, or write, or publish or tweet?  These questions, amongst other were discussed at a one-day conference on 15th September 2015 hosted by The Centre for Law and Society at Lancaster University.

Underlying the trolling of visible and audible women is the deeply entrenched misogynistic idea of silencing women. Trolling is arguably just one of the latest methodologies used to keep women silenced. The process of silencing women has been on-going for centuries. The trolling of women such as Emma Watson; Mary Beard; Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, and more recently the barrister Charlotte Proudman who shamed a solicitor (Alexander Carter-Silk), over his LinkedIn comment about her ‘stunning’ photograph.

The treatment meted out to these women raise questions about whether the trolling of audible and visible women is a modern equivalent of the scolds bridle. When looking at the effects these mechanisms produce, it is difficult to see the difference between the 15th century and the 21st century. The silencing of women and issues related to women straddles all areas of life from bank notes; video games and the high street (e.g. River Island’s 'Anti Nag Gag’); or politics (e.g. Michael Fabricant’s tweet that he would like to ‘throat-punch’ a female journalist).

The conference kicked off with a fabulous keynote talk by Professor Feona Attwood, Professor of Cultural Studies, Communication and Media at Middlesex University, who talked out how concepts such as ‘sexting’ and ‘sluts’ have become almost mainstream.  The rest of the day explored how women and men are treated differently according to socio-legal gendered expectations.  Thus, whilst men can indeed be trolled, and women can engage in trolling, there are significant differences in the social and legal consequences of their actions. 

Session one looked at some of the ways in which the law in particular silences women. For example in America it codifies the need for women perpetrators to explain the cause of their domestic violence through prior family hardships or events, whereas male perpetrators are counselled to avoid recidivism, which implicitly suggests the innateness of male violence and the anomalous nature of women’s violence.  This is hardly surprising given the wider context of the silencing of women’s voices, especially when those female voices are women convicted of a criminal offence.  There was also consideration of the way in which the massive expansion of social media has marked an explosion in a new format for silencing, and the session ended with questions posed about extent to which some women are silenced by on-line abuse and the possibilities that some women are inspired to engage in on-line activism to resist and challenge such abuse.  The end of session one saw us transported to Russia for a discussion on some examples of where women’s visible participation in political, and social, activities online (and off) has been met with severe political and social sanctions. 

 Given the similarities between the experiences of women in America, the UK and Russia, it was not surprising that session two  looked at the rather surprising lack of research into such behaviour, making it difficult for legislators and policy-makers to take a sensible, evidence-based approach to tackle the problem.  The session also explored some of the various strategies employed by ‘trolls’, including acts of misogyny and sexism, as a means of silencing women across social and cultural groups.  It was suggested that the very nature and structure of social media sites, both in terms of their design and the related discourses and communications they facilitate, reflect the normalization of online violence against women as an extension of or proxy for gendered violence. The session ended back in America with an examination of the relationship of sexual assault victims to legal structures and processes by an examination of how rape and sexual assault allegations made against some TV celebrities (e.g. Bill Cosby), result in a common response to challenge accusers’ veracity and motivations in making such claims. 

The last session (given by PhD students), took us initially to China and social media in China has formed a negative stereotype of female scholars, particularly PhD students, who are stigmatised as neither women, nor men, but rather a ‘third gender’.  The session ended with an exploration of how the acts of staring and gazing have been used by a patriarchal society to repeatedly attempt to ‘silence’ the voices of disabled women.

There were clear themes that ran across the entire day.  Agency was one such theme that emerged.  The extent to which women are ‘agents’ in being trolled or indeed as the ones who are doing the trolling, and how women react to being trolled.  What are some of the silences that are created and perpetuated as a result of trolling activity and how does this relate to notions of censorship by society, by law and by women themselves who might engage in a degree of self-censorship? It is not just these terms that we have put under the microscope and the 'meanings' given to these various terms, constructs and concepts, such as troll, but also the methodologies that we use in order to try and make sense of these issues.

Should we simply export socio-legal responses from the offline world to the on-line world?  Throughout the day, it became clear that whilst more research needs to be done, there are differences between real life and virtual life experiences and there should therefore, be different consequences and responses. Certainly more research needs to be conducted, not only to try and figure out firstly how the law can respond, but equally how society and individuals should respond too.  One thing is clear; we should at least keep on talking, speaking, writing, tweeting, texting, posting, blogging etc…

The speakers were:

Professor Feona Attwood, Professor of Cultural Studies, Communication and Media, Middlesex University, UK

Jamie Abrams, School of Law, University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, USA

Charlotte Barlow, School of Social Science, Birmingham City University, UK

Ruth Lewis; Mike Rowe & Clare Wiper, department of Social Sciences & Languages University of Northumbria, UK

Vikki Turbine, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK

Claire Hardaker, Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, UK

Francine Banner, Behavioural Sciences sociology, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA

Karen Lumsden, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK

Meng Ni, PhD student, University of York, UK

Ella Houston, PhD student, Lancaster University, UK