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Facebook announced a few days ago that users in the US now have the ability to select a custom gender for their Timeline profile pages. Giving an additional option to the standard ’Male or Female’ Facebook now offers “Other,” a new setting that lets users choose between ten gender options such as “cisgender,” “transgender,” and “intersex,” and define which pronoun they’d like to be referred to as — he / his, she / her, or they / their. Furthermore, Facebook also now lets you define exactly who can see the Gender section on your profile. Facebook says it worked closely with LGBT activist groups to choose the new profile options. The social network hasn’t provided a timeline on when the new option will roll out to the rest of its users outside the US.

facebook intersex

To commemorate the landmark Facebook has hung rainbow-colored flags from a catwalk at its Menlo Park, CA headquarters. “We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way,” Facebook wrote on its Diversity page.


By dealing with violent misogyny on a “case by case” basis, Facebook sends the message that the wider ideas are OK, writes Jane Fae.

This piece contains descriptions of, and links to, extremely disturbing imagery of sexual violence from the very start. Reader discretion is strongly advised.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but what do you do after raping a deaf mute? Simple: Break her fingers so she can’t tell anyone!

That – and here I’ll apologise both for that opening and for what follows – is vile. Beyond belief that it be accepted as humour in this day and age. (Although I’ll note, in passing, that it is also staple fare for some of our supposedly “edgier” comics, who get away with such stuff because their quick-fire style means they deliver one obscenity and are on to the next before you realise what you’ve just heard).

And its by no means the worst. Facebook is awash with such viciousness. Images of women beaten, bruised, murdered, raped in all their technicolour glory.

If you have a strong stomach, WomenActionMedia! (WAM!) have been collecting examples.

Only, these are jokes, doncha know? Because they carry witty captions such as “She Broke My Heart. I Broke Her Nose”, or “Women deserve equal rights. And lefts”.

I am not even going to try and analyse. Some of it makes me angry beyond words; some just makes me want to cry.

Instead, let’s pull back a little and understand why, suddenly, the issue is making news. I first encountered instances of this particular misogynistic trope on the #silentnomore hashtag: that was an attempt by women, including survivors of abuse and violence, to create a space where they could speak about their experiences.

Bad idea. Women speaking to women clearly enraged some men, who bombarded the topic with “what about us?” rhetoric – and witty links to this sort of imagery. I complained to Twitter: nothing happened. The pictures stayed.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, these pics have been proliferating. Sometimes, its blokes – y’know, regular kind of guys – sharing them “for a laff”. Sometimes, they are used more aggressively, to attack and humiliate “uppity women”. Women, in turn, have been noticing. A joint campaign, organised by Everyday Sexism, WAM! and Soraya Chemaly has condemned this material as gender-based hate speech: their campaign, asking advertisers to boycott Facebook, is gaining support and increasing in effectiveness.You can follow what’s happening on #FBrape.

As for Facebook, they have spluttered highmindedly about the difficulty of negotiating a pathway between interest groups: how they must balance individual rights against the imperative of free speech. Interviewed by the BBC, one spokesperson rejected calls for them to censor “disturbing content”, or “crude attempts at humour”, because “while it may be vulgar and offensive, distasteful content on its own does not violate our policies”.

Still, they acknowledge officially that much of this material is “abhorrent to many of us who work at Facebook”. A spokesperson added: “These cases test all of us, because they can be deeply jarring.”

Do you not feel their pain, caught between a rock and a hard place?

Besides, they claim, the vast majority of this content has been taken down already. Although, in what looks like a serious attempt to have their cake and eat it, they further add: “removing content is not the solution to getting rid of ignorance. Having the freedom to debate serious issues like this is how we fight prejudice”.

Silly me! I must have missed out on the serious debate about whether it is appropriate to break a woman’s nose if she fails to make a sandwich right, first time of asking.

There is no serious issue in play here, beyond what should be the limits of free speech and what is acceptable within a relatively open online space. I have a smidgeon of sympathy for the US-based Facebook, nailed to a US legal perspective on free speech whereby only material that shows direct harm can be prosecuted.

facebook down

But that’s only half the story. Facebook has a long track record of somewhat heavy-handedly imposing heteronormative values and attitudes. Breastfeeding groups have been taken down, as have all manner of pages celebrating the female body in art and more generally, while soft porn remains. As does some hate speech, magically disappearing only when a journalist mentions it to their press office.

Laura, organiser at EverydaySexism, tells me today about the different treatment of two cases. Complaints about the content of “Black bitches and dogs” led to content being removed on a picture by picture basis: whereas the organiser of “Amazing Women” found her page supporting the #FBrape campaign, with some images added as political statement, taken down – and her personal account suspended.

Suspicion remains that Facebook have only intervened more publicly in response to the #FBrape campaign, issuing soothing words to calm their advertisers.

In the end, though, what’s truly problematic is this idea that all speech is equal, and speech that encourages abuse and violence against women is every bit as worthwhile and protection-worthy as any other form of speech. It isn’t – that’s an 18th century argument still getting too much unquestioning support in an internet age. Speech and publication mean something very different from what the US founding fathers meant. It’s a very laddish argument, which is not to say that women may not also support it: but the fact that Facebook relies on it means they are not listening to women and to an alternative perspective that women may put.

That’s the real issue here. Facebook needs to start listening to women. No joke.

Jane Fae's picture

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae. Via NewStatesman

Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg – one of the world’s most powerful women – shares her secret of career success. Don’t hold back or sell yourself short, she says. Does her advice ring true?

Sheryl Sandberg (reuters)

Sheryl Sandberg is the tenth most powerful business woman in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of some £530 million, and she’s adamant that she didn’t get where she is today without a healthy dose of assertiveness, determination and ambition.

In her book, Lean in: women, work and the will to lead, Sandberg addresses the dearth of women in leadership roles and investigate just what is holding them back. Her answer: not just extermal, structural problems, but internal obstacles which she says won’t fall down unless women themselves start pushing.

In short, what is holding women back is a thousand small decisions: failing to stand up for yourself when it matters, deferring to others first, being too modest about successes, deliberately holding back because of future plans to have a family.

“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes”, she declares: and the reason why this is not so, she believes, cannot simply be blamed on the patriarchal establishment.

Using stories gleaned from her similarly high-flying friends and celebrity acquaintances (there is a lot of name dropping scattered through the book), as well as her own experience, Sandberg offers a solution. Don’t hold back, but commit wholeheartedly to your future success.

A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes.Sheryl Sandberg

There are practicalities here too, a nod to those struggling to balance career and family life. Getting things done, she counsels, is better than trying to be perfect. Setting obtainable goals is crucial, although “dreaming is not doing”.

There is also advice on negotiating skills, and dealing with criticism wisely: charting that path to success, Sandberg warns, is like “trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels”.

To help chart that tricky course, she has set up a website encouraging women to set up their own “lean in” groups, along with videos and other resources. Jessica Bennett, from New York magazine went to one such group and was impressed.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

“She has labelled a solution for problems that are rampant among a generation raised to believe that we were on level footing – and a pragmatic approach to change it.”

Anne Marie Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning for Hillary Clinton, sparked a fierce controversy over the role of women in the workplace with her Atlantic article declaring “why women still can’t have it all”. She stepped back from her own leadership role because of her family: yet she has been equally complimentary, calling Sandberg a “feminist champion”.

But some of her critics have complained that her highly selective, unashamedly elite experience offers no help whatsoever to those who are less well off, single parents, less well educated, non-white? Women who lack the luxury of making choices?

At least, say supporters, the Facebook executive is trying to offer a partial solution to a compelling problem. In the United States, research shows that just 21 of the top Fortune 500 jobs are held by women.

Women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, despite President Obama’s renewed push for equal pay. In these recessionary times of unemployment and downsizing, women’s participation in the US workforce is starting to decline.

In the UK, the picture is depressingly similar. A report into women in top management positions commissioned by the Government, did reveal this week that the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is now at a record high: up from 12.5% in 2011 to 18% today.

Decades away from equality

And outside that blue chip elite, the picture is even less rosy: the workplace is still “decades away” from equality.

And as for juggling that family with a high-flying career: that is no easier, either, according to a study of 2,000 women carried out by the Association of Accounting Technicians this week.

They found the overwhelming majority of new mothers feel they haven’t got enough confidence to return to work after maternity leave. Two thirds said they felt drained of self belief, while more than half thought they were no longer capable enough after taking time off. Instead they felt trapped by the drudge work of home life, robbing them of the space for creativity and ambition at work.

Just because routines and priorities change once women have a family, said the AAT, “doesn’t neccessarily mean that one’s career should be negatively affected or sacrificed”.

And that, in essence, is Sandberg’s argument. Stop being afraid. Do it anyway. Don’t shape yourself to fit around the world: make it bend around you.

As for the very real structural, historical barriers that still hold back women’s advancement, the “million cracks” in the glass ceiling that prevented even Hillary Clinton from fulfilling her presidential ambitions, first time round at least – that is not something that finds a solution here.

Men too need a manifesto for change: this burden is not simply on womens’ shoulders. The real struggle for equality is far wider than the Sandberg white, educated, wealthy elite, and it is a struggle which they cannot win on their own.