By Jessica Spence (@jmspence) and Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks)
WiTOpoli does a great portion of its advocacy and activism work online. As part of this work, we have come to have a much better understanding of what happens online and have often been asked to speak about it. In preparation for these speeches, we learned a lot more than we bargained for. Given the dearth available on this subject, we thought it appropriate to share our work in hopes that more people will realize how serious a problem online violence is.
One of those speeches was before a gathering of employees of the Law Society of Upper Canada in recognition of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women and the 23rd anniversary of the shooting massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal by Marc Lépine, who was on a mission to “fight feminism.” On December 6, 1989, Lépine killed 14 women, wounded 10 and then killed himself. The women he wanted to kill weren’t just any women, they were female engineering students, in fact the small minority in a male dominated program. To Lépine, they were women engineering students, therefore they were feminists and he was fighting feminism.
We now have a term for what Lépine did: gender violence.
Gender violence is something that has evolved with technology. Much of modern culture lives on the internet. And so does the culture of gender violence that poisoned Marc Lépine to the point where he felt he needed to kill 14 women. Today, gender violence finds expression in cases like that of Rehtaeh Parsons, the teenager in Nova Scotia who recently took her own life after her gang rape by classmates was photographed, distributed, and became the subject of mockery and victim-blaming by the community at large. Cases like Rehtaeh’s are all too common these days, facilitated by a culture and justice system that does not yet understand nor appreciate the severity of online violence, and the extent to which gender violence is reflected in our culture at large.
Just as the internet and social media can be amazing tools for fighting inequality, they are also amazing tools for fighting equality. In order to better appreciate this, we asked the women of Twitter to share with us their experiences of online violence. Women sent us copies of the messages they’d received: derogatory comments about a woman’s appearance, intelligence and worth, a woman’s “place” in society, sexual worth and subservience; threats of physical and sexual violence, rape (often violently depicted) and murder. Most shockingly, we saw women equated rape threats to their online eminence: a rite of passage. One message suggested that the author must be tweeting about something important because she had received her first online rape threat. This is what we mean when we say online violence.
We saw messages:
- asking a Toronto politics tweeter how much money she spent on hair colour and makeup every month;
- directed at a female Toronto city councillor suggesting she was so stupid it was difficult to tell whether or not she was drunk;
- to a Toronto politics Facebook page author from male supporters of a right wing Toronto mayoral candidate telling her that she was ugly and should go make dinner;
- on Twitter asking whether the two recently appointed women to the TTC Board were there only to bake better cookies for the meetings;
- directed at a Toronto woman suggesting that she should celebrate International Men’s Day by performing a sexual act for the writer;
- Suggesting a Toronto politics tweeter was sexually promiscuous and susceptible to acquiring sexually transmitted diseases;
- sent to the @SlutWalkTO contact account suggesting that the organizers had been “asking” for “a good beating” and “raping.”
Just as we needed to create the terminology to discuss, understand, and seek to address things like domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual harassment, the conversation about this dark side of online behaviour would benefit from its own terminology.
We propose the general term “online violence”, which can be qualified to refer specifically to online gender violence, online racial violence, or any other type of hatred expressed online:
“The use of the interconnectivity, instantaneity and insulation of the internet and social media to facilitate campaigns of harassment, intimidation, humiliation, emotional distress and terror against targeted individuals.”
It’s fairly well accepted today that neither a man beating his female partner because she didn’t get dinner on the table fast enough, nor a man suggesting to a woman that she should perform sexual favours to get a promotion is a “private, trivial matter,” “part of the territory” or something that can be just be walked away from.
But, these are exactly the kinds of myths that confronted the women who first started to speak out about domestic violence and sexual harassment.
People said things like…
- “it’s harmless”
- “it’s not real”
- “men get it just as bad”
- “it only happens to certain kinds of women”
- “that’s just the way it is”
- “there’s no law against it”
- “there’s nothing you can do about it”
The idea that domestic violence is harmless or isn’t a crime seems ludicrous now, yet we say these things about online violence all the time.
Myth #1: “it’s harmless”
What does online violence look like?
It starts with disparaging remarks about women’s bodies, sexual history, intelligence and social worth, threats of violence, rape and murder, denial of service attacks on personal websites or blogs, the hacking of accounts and theft of personal information, and the posting of that personal information, including social insurance number, address, name and telephone number in online fora. Such information may often be posted with appeals to rape, assault or even murder the woman, or suggestions that the woman wants these things to be done to her. Embarrassing, pornographic and violent doctored photos of the woman may be included in these posts.
The attacks may continue with the creation of fake email and social media accounts in the woman’s name, which are used to further disseminate disparaging information and photos, and attack or harass the friends, family and colleagues of the targeted woman. Information gained in the process of hacking the woman’s account may be used to escalate the violence through phone calls, e-mails, letters or notes to her or her colleagues or employers.
In some cases, the violence continues offline through stalking, physical attacks, sexual assault, rape and finally murder or attempted murder.
In 2009, a Wyoming man posted a Craigslist ad in the name of his ex-girlfriend, saying that she had fantasies of being raped by “a real aggressive man with no concern for women.” Another man responded by breaking into her house and raping her. Studies conducted by Working to Halt Online Abuse found that 60% of online attacks escalate to more serious behaviour. Only 50% of harassers are strangers, the other 50% are known to the target.
Myth #2: “it’s not real”
Online violence has an impact. Even if you never have physical contact with your online attacker, the abuse takes its toll.
Targets of online violence lose their right to speak freely online. The group Anonymous, often portrayed as the internet’s Robin Hood, has shut down over 100 feminist blogs, which is a huge loss to both their authors, but also to society. Simply imagine what the world would be like if 100 newspapers shut down overnight. Free society thrives on heterogeneity of voice and opinion.
Targets of online violence lose their reputations and the economic opportunities that come with them. Consider the recent case of an Ottawa restaurateur who was jailed for her online harassment of a woman in reaction to a bad Yelp review. The campaign of violence included creating false OKCupid profiles in the woman’s name and sending sexually explicit emails to the woman’s employer (claiming to be her).
Consider also the case of Holly Jacobs. She was in a long term relationship with the man of her dreams, or so she thought. After they broke up, she noticed that a naked picture of her had been posted to her Facebook account. Then those intimate photos were posted to “revenge porn” sites with her name and email address and commentary about “what a slut she was.” Knowing she was a TA, the malicious poster uploaded an intimate video of her entitled “Professor Holly” together with her employment information. While she worked tirelessly to have them taken down, they kept cropping up on other sites. Then she received an email threatening to send those pictures to everyone she worked with. It wasn’t an empty threat.
Holly had to quit her job. She had to cancel the presentation of her thesis at a conference because pictures of her with the conference, date and time were posted. Police could do nothing. In the end, she had to change her name.
Online violence can have a profound effect on a woman’s mental health: fear, anxiety, depression, withdrawal. And physical health: exhaustion, chronic illness. Online violence takes lives.
Just because it’s online does not mean it’s not real. Online becomes offline very quickly.
- Megan Meier, 13 years old, took her own life after she was harassed on MySpace by her friend’s mother.
- Ciara Pugsley, 15 years old, took her own life after she was harassed by ask.fm users as far away as Latvia. Classmates told her to kill herself.
- Amanda Cummings, 15 years old, took her own life after suffering constant harassment on Facebook and at school. The abuse continued after she passed away on her Facebook memorial page.
- Asia McGowen, 20 years old, one of the few women of colour whose death received media coverage (and only by independent media), was murdered by a man who stalked her on YouTube.
- Amanda Todd, 15 years old, took her own life after posting a YouTube video detailing the blackmail, harassment, and physical assault she endured. Moving twice wasn’t enough to stop the violence.
- Rehtaeh Parsons, 17 years old, was raped by four classmates at a house party. Her attackers took pictures of the assault and shared them widely. She was harassed and shamed at school. After the RCMP refused to lay charges despite the photo evidence, she took her own life.
Myth #3: “men get it just as bad”
We regularly field questions from skeptics who don’t believe that women experience more (or more severe) online harassment and violence than men. The truth is, while research on gendered online harassment is still relatively sparse (it’s a new area of inquiry), several studies support the contention that women are disproportionately subjected to online violence.
In fact, women are 27 times more likely to get sexually explicit/threatening messages online. In one study of IRC, bots with female user names received on average 100 sexually explicit or threatening private messages compared with the 3.7 the male user names averaged.
Working to Halt Online Abuse, an organization which has been collecting data on online violence since 2000, found that 73% of online abuse survivors were women. Men accounted for 61% of the harassers whose gender was known.
Myth #4: “it only happens to certain kinds of women”
People think online violence only happens to young women and girls, likely because their stories are considered more newsworthy, and more closely linked to popular discourses around “bullying”. The truth is that online violence, like sexual assault, is primarily about power. Our personal experience has been that the stronger a woman appears to be, the more vicious the attacks are. In our view, this is because online attacks are an attempt to preserve the patriarchal status quo by scaring women offline.
One such example of this kind of targeted attack was the recent case of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media researcher who started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money to create a video series examining how women are represented in video games.
Many people (mostly men) who are part of the gaming community took great issue with her initiative, and responded with an online campaign of venomous, torrential harassment. They left sexist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic comments on her YouTube and Kickstarter pages. They made pornographic drawings and photoshopped her face onto them. They vandalized her Wikipedia page. Worst of all, one Ontario man created a crude video game inviting the player to click on a close-up shot of Anita Sarkeesian to watch bruises and contusions appear, until her face was so bloodied it was virtually unrecognizable.
What was the game creator’s objection to Anita’s research funding drive?
“[Anita Sarkeesian] claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.”
Myth #5: “that’s just the way it is”
Steph, one of the authors of this piece, confronted the man who made this video game on Twitter and asked him if his attitudes toward women were the same offline as they are online. He (and his supporters, who besieged her with her own campaign of online harassment) failed to comprehend or acknowledge the gendered nature of their attacks. In fact, they ridiculed her for complaining about the game at all – Steph was told time and time again that “that’s just the way the internet is,” “welcome to the internet!” or other similarly patronizing things.
The police officer to whom Steph reported some of the death threats she had received also seemed to believe that “that’s just the way the internet is,” despite having a less than rudimentary grasp of how the internet works (including how to send an email). Steph’s report was treated with indifference, as the officer perceived that “this kind of thing happens all the time on the internet.” The truth is, online violence does happen all the time – because we aren’t doing anything about it. And we need to start.
Myth #6: “there’s no law against it”
To suggest that online violence is not a crime in Canada is to be painfully ignorant of the Criminal Code of Canada. In fact, we have more than a few laws which prohibit the types of behaviours mentioned earlier. We’re just not enforcing them.
What is online violence? Online violence is hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel). Online violence is hacking (intercepting a private communication). It’s identity theft. It’s stalking (criminal harassment) and uttering threats. Online violence is telling someone to kill themselves (counselling suicide). Online violence is suggesting all feminists should be killed or miserably subjugated (advocating genocide).
But do we need more laws? At the moment, it is not illegal in Canada to distribute a nude or sexually explicit photo of an adult without her or his consent. Cases like those of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd are bringing to light an old phenomenon that has become more rampant in the internet age. Particularly as mobile technologies become more accessible and widely used, it has become more common for individuals to distribute nude or sexually explicit photos or videos without the subject’s consent. Much of the time, the images or video in question are created for a romantic partner with the expectation that they remain private. But then the relationship turns sour and the former romantic partner shares it with the world in order to hurt or humiliate the woman – hence the phenomenon’s colloquial term “revenge porn.”
Consenting to the capture of images for private use is not the same as consenting to public distribution of those images. It is quite obviously an act undertaken to harm the subject, and its consequences can include job loss, stalking, sexual assault, and as in Rehtaeh’s case, suicide.
Right now in Canada, there is no recourse in criminal law for adult women whose lives are destroyed by revenge porn. However, MP Robert Chisholm has put forward a private member’s bill, which would add a new section to the Criminal Code making it illegal to distribute, with malicious intent, images of someone nude or involved in a sex act without that person’s consent. Malicious intent would be presumed if the image in question was shared without consent, unless the accused were able to prove otherwise.
While the NDP has committed to support the bill, the federal government has not, and private member’s bills are rarely passed. The new section has been criticized for its presumption of malicious intent because placing the burden of proof on the accused may violate the Charter right to be presumed innnocent until proven guilty. However, this bill forms part of a conversation (both legal and social) about how we should tackle revenge porn. In the mean time, the Nova Scotia government has brought into force the Cyber-safety Act, which among other things, clarifies the responsibilities of educators in dealing with online harassment of their students and creates parental liability for online harassers who are minors.
Bottom-up cultural interventions (with the public education system playing an important role) will inevitably be necessary to eradicate the problems that underlie revenge porn: specifically, the use of women’s bodies to subjugate, punish and silence them, and the victim-blaming that many women face after any kind of sexual violation. These problems pervade many of the institutions that make up our justice system, just as they pervade our culture. The justice system is particularly unlikely to support and protect women of colour, trans women, Indigenous women and sex workers.
Trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs), one confused and hypocritical school of “feminist” thought (we’d hardly deem it feminist), has incited particularly vicious online harassment of trans women, including, but certainly not limited to, revenge porn. It’s important to note that the aggressions trans women face online mirror the offline world. Online violence is merely the latest incarnation of systemic violence long endured by many populations (including women, people of colour, and queer and trans* people). This violence is deeply rooted and will not be resolved with a new law alone.
Myth #7: “there’s nothing you can do about it”
People say there’s nothing to be done when they don’t want to take responsibility for a problem. People said this about domestic violence and sexual harassment. And there was actually a time when people believed that it was a man’s right to beat his wife or that sexually harassing women at work was a “job perk.” Change in perspective can happen with online violence too.
Three things need to happen. First, identification. As a society, we need to identify online violence as objectionable and criminal, something that cannot be tolerated. We need to call it a crime and we need to stop using trivializing language like “bullying.” We need to stop letting it go and stop looking the other way. We cannot condone violence.
Women who find themselves targets of online violence, and observers of online violence, can take steps to address it. Whenever possible, we should not let perpetrators think it’s acceptable – because it’s not. Identify it as unacceptable behaviour early. Call on your social media community to support you, and make public references to their behaviour to address any harm they may try to inflict upon you. If you wish to do so, report online violence to police. And keep records. It’s easy to record online activity – save a copy, take a screenshot. There are even tools such as Storify that can help you compile evidence in a single document.
Second, we need to educate ourselves, teachers, parents, police, prosecutors and judges about the technology, the behaviour and the harm. We are making progress. There are social media savvy people in our institutions – many can be found on Twitter – but if you find yourself dealing with a less savvy teacher, police officer or other individual, you may need to educate them.
Finally, we need to devote appropriate resources to the equipment used and technological education of personnel employed in our institutions, such as schools and police forces. Information which is so difficult to permanently erase should not be so problematic to investigate if police officers receive a complaint. To our knowledge, most police officers are not provided with smartphones. The average first response officer spends a lot of time in a police cruiser, so she or he needs to be equipped with the technology required to properly investigate online violence.
Meanwhile, teachers need the everyday tech literacy and comfort to be able to relate to students’ use of it, and incorporate it as a natural and seamless thread in class activities and assignments. Most students already know how to use social media, but they need to be encouraged to think about how they and their peers use social media, how it feeds and challenges them, and how they can create mutually respectful spaces online.
Organizations need to be supportive of these changes through policy and atmosphere. They need to praise internet savvy new people and encourage resistant members to learn from them. Training should be incentivized or mandatory. Internal policies must be consistent with operational requirements: internet protocols that block “time-wasting” websites like FaceBook or YouTube must not impede access to valuable investigative resources.
There was a time when women believed there was nothing that could be done about sexual harassment or domestic violence. In fact, there was a time when these terms didn’t even exist because the behaviour was considered so unremarkable. Now, we think it’s abhorrent. Things changed because people and institutions chose not to accept the status quo. We can do the same with online violence.
Great credit is owed to Professor Danielle Keats Citron, University of Maryland Law School, who is responsible for the most thorough and extensive research on online violence against women, without which this work would not be possible. We recommend you check out her paper.