IT would have been bad enough, corrosive enough, had it been a drink-sodden conversation overheard in a pub. To witness it being said on a national TV news channel - and, moreover, to watch the host responding with a complacent smirk - was appalling.

Laurence Fox: Ava Evans says comments made her feel 'physically sick'

To recap: Laurence Fox, the actor and right-wing provocateur, interviewed on GB News, said of the journalist Ava Evans: “Show me a single self-respecting man that would like to climb into bed with that woman ever - ever - who wasn’t an incel. Who would want to **** that?”

Dan Wootton, the presenter, laughed as Fox uttered his words. Later, he apologised on social media; but Fox unhelpfully then shared screenshots of a post-show text conversation with Wootton, in which the presenter sent laughing-face emojis. Wootton and Fox have been suspended by GB News, and an investigation has begun.

Evans says the footage made her feel physically sick. The channel has apologised to her, and has described Fox’s comments as “way past the limits of acceptance”. The actor has claimed, however, that GB News “knew exactly what [he] intended to say” on air.

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Evans spoke for many women when she said: “Do you know this is the sort of talk that you worry that men have about you when you’re not in the room. There is always sort of a worry in the back of your mind which is: ‘Are people actually interested in what I’m saying or what I’m doing?’ Or are they just looking at me… physically, and I think that that clip proves that there are some men who are”.

This witless and damaging episode is just the latest example of misogynistic behaviour in public life. Disturbingly, there are too many of them to count. Social media remains a key enabler.
Nicola Sturgeon, the former First Minister, has observed that social media enables the “most awful abuse of women, misogyny, sexism and threats for women who put their head above the parapet”.

Boundaries online are incredibly important to set – and enforce

The Conservative MP Caroline Noakes, who alleged that Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, had touched her inappropriately, received an astonishing level of vitriolic abuse, including multiple remarks about her physical appearance. Such, she says, is the level of discourse that women MPs face daily. MP Diane Abbott has received a torrent of online abuse, much of it centred on her gender and her race.

Ms Sturgeon, Ms Noakes and Ms Abbott are the tip of the iceberg. In the words of Amnesty International, women in politics encounter an extraordinary amount of abuse on social media, partly because they speak up, and also because they happen to be women. This is a worrying human-rights issue, Amnesty says, as it stops them from freely entering political discussions.

Christina Julios, an Open University academic and author of a book about sexual harassment in the UK Parliament, points out that social media platforms provide unlimited scope for anonymous, hostile and aggressive behaviour to be targeted at women. Today’s toxic environment, she adds, poses a real risk to the future of women in politics.

New misogyny law to criminalise messages about rape

The problem, of course, extends far beyond female politicians. A study of thousands of direct messages received by prominent women on Instagram uncovered, in the words of researchers, “systemic” failures to protect female celebrities from “misogynist harassment”.

Three years ago, an examination of online violence found that harassment had led one in five girls to either quit or significantly reduce their use of a social media platform.

A UNESCO discussion paper narrates an account of a steep increase in online violence against women journalists. Such attacks were inextricably bound up with disinformation, intersectional discrimination, and populist politics. 

To cite just one example: the award-winning British journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, became the target of what the UNESCO paper describes as a malign, misogynistic, disinformation-laced campaign of online violence.

Online safety bill is needed to protect marginalised voices

And so it goes on. The rise of deepfake, or computer-generated, pornography is yet another means of undermining and humiliating women online. “For every person saying it’s not a big deal, you don’t know how it feels to see a picture of yourself doing things you’ve never done being sent to your family,” one woman who was thus targeted has said.

Tech companies have provided some tools aimed at addressing online abuse, while the UK government says its Online Safety Bill will hold social media companies accountable to protect women and girls from online abuse. In Scotland, misogynistic harassment could become a criminal offence as part of proposals aimed at providing greater protection for women and girls.

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Despite some fears that taking further steps to curb misogynistic abuse and harassment could affect the principles of free speech, it is persuasively argued that when such harassment dissuades women and minorities from entering public spaces and conversations, then the principles of free speech have not been upheld.

Baroness Morgan, the former UK culture secretary, was right to say that online spaces are still a “wild west” for women and girls. They need much more support from tech companies to end their sense of isolation and to stop them from being forced online.