WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, September 18

 A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, June 19

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

  • At this week’s Toronto Police Service Board meeting, the board voted to adopt reforms on carding that were previously proposed in 2014 but rejected by Bill Blair. The decision to reform the practice instead of ending it contradicts Tory’s previous promise made last week. Under the new policy, officers should tell residents as much as possible that they have a right to refuse to provide their information to police, and they should only be stopping people when there is a genuine public safety concern.
  • There are still questions as to what will happen to information that has been collected thus far from carding, and how new provincial regulations may affect the practice once they’re implemented in the Fall. The TPSB meeting also brought news that chair Alok Mukherjee will resign, who has been vocal about carding reforms. His potential successor Andy Pringle has connections to both Tory and Bill Blair.
  • Stephen Harper announced federal funding for Tory’s SmartTrack on Thursday. The funds promised may cover up to a third of the proposed budget for SmartTrack. The feasibility of the the SmartTrack plan is currently being studied.
  • Women in Toronto’s food industry are taking up the hashtag #KitchenBitches and planning a September panel on harassment in the workplace. The campaign, largely spearheded by The Black Hoof’s Jen Agg, was inspired by the story of Kate Burnham who has taken her complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
  • Canada’s Chief of Defence Tom Lawson received major backlash for saying men are “biologically wired” to commit sexual assault.
  • In Ottawa, the OC Transpo service has developed a new tool to make it easier for bus riders to report incidents of sexual harassment.
  • As we all reflect on the Charleston shooting, learn more about the Emanuel AME’s tumultuous history and click here if you’d like to donate to the church itself.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, April 24

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, April 3

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

  • At this week’s city council meeting, council accepted Rob Ford’s apology for his racist remarks but opted not to have the councillor attend anti-racist training. Council also rejected a motion to combine accountability offices, and will seek a third party assessment to review the four accountability offices.
  • The Toronto Police Services Board met yesterday to discuss the practice of “carding”, though the board ultimately voted to defer any decisions of the new rules until its next meeting on April 16th. For more background on the issue, check out these recent pieces from VICE and NOW.
  • Cheri Dinovo’s bill to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth passed its second reading at Queen’s Park this Thursday, garnering support from all 3 provincial parties.
  • The Ontario minister of community safety and correctional services is urging the federal government to reject the recent amendments to Bill C-279, as “it’s essentially legalizing discrimination” for transgender Canadians
  • The Ontario Attorney General concluded its review of Canada’s new prostitution laws, declaring them to be constitutional. Premier Wynne had previously express “grave concerns” as to the laws constitutionality, and coalition of organizations are urging the province not to enforce the new law, for fear that it will continue to put sex workers in danger.
  • Toronto was among several Canadians cities which hosted protests this Thursday to urge a retrial in the Cindy Gladue case. Alberta prosecutors announced they will appeal the non-guilty verdict.
  • As of April 1st, approximately 70,000 temporary foreign workers lost their legal status in Canada, following the new “4 and 4” rule which forces labourers to leave the country after 4 years and wait another 4 years to re-apply for a work permit.
  • Although women are overrepresented in public service, they are noticeably underrepresented among the sector’s top earners.
  • Last weekend, the Broadbent Institute hosted the Progress Summit in Ottawa, including a keynote from feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian. Toronto school trustee Ausma Malik also attended and discussed her views on being a millennial in politics with Maclean’s.

How-To with Idil Burale: Building bridges for community safety

This is the first post in a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Cherise Seucharan

How do we prevent crime instead of always having a reactive response to it?”

This was the question Idil Burale began to explore in the summer of 2012 when gun violence in her Rexdale community rose to an alarming high. Idil, a former MaRS Studio Y fellow and a columnist for Spacing.ca, worked to establish the Toronto Police Service’s Somali Liaison Unit. The initiative has reduced the crime rate through developing bonds between community members and police officers.

idil headshot

Step 1: Identify the issue

A longtime Rexdale resident, Idil had not been involved in her community until the gun violence in her neighborhood began making headlines. “I started recognizing a lot of Somali names in the news,” she said, referring to the almost bi-weekly reports of gun deaths that summer. She started asking questions, and was soon invited to a community meeting of mothers concerned about their children’s safety.

Step 2: Get involved

From that community meeting, an ad-hoc group called Positive Change was formed, with the goal of creating a safer neighbourhood for Somali youth.

The group created a 10-point policy for community change, and Idil involved her local MP Kirsty Duncan and MPP Mike Colle in the process, who then brought it to the federal level. However, the slow political process meant that they still were not seeing the immediate, community level change that was desperately needed.

“One thing that we could do with our two bare hands, that didn’t require money, was reaching out to our local police,” she said. The relationship between the community and the police of 23 Division in Etobicoke was tense, and fear of speaking to the police was major factor in the number of unsolved murders. For the safety of the community, it was clear to Idil and her collaborators at Positive Change that the relationship with police was in dire need of repair.

Step 3: Build a shared understanding

“We walked into our police division and we just had a frank meeting with them,” Idil explains. “We said that this is not working for us, and we don’t think its working for you either.” At the time, the Toronto Police Service was already developing a policing model that dedicated officers to high-risk neighbourhoods. Positive Change met with the two officers assigned to the Dixon area, and discussed how they could begin to develop a relationship.

The group brought the officers to community events, and set them up with cultural sensitivity training to better understand the community’s needs. The officers also got involved in local programs, such as running basketball programs for youth.  Some proved to be unexpectedly successful; an initiative in which officers helped to paint donated bikes was very popular with the young boys.

However, ingrained attitudes on both sides were still a barrier to building trust. Rexdale residents were suspicious that the officers were only there to collect information on them. The officers working in the community also struggled to work within a police culture that didn’t understand the type of “social work” they were doing. “It took a mind shift- not only for [the officers] but for the community,” Idil said.

Step 4: Improve continuously

Slowly, the project grew roots and the crime rate in the community fell dramatically. The project faced a major hurdle in 2013 when a big police raid intruded upon residents of Dixon Road. However, the local officers committed to rebuilding trust, and the continued success of the Somali Liaison Unit has attracted press coverage and political attention. The TPS has now extended the project for another two years, and scaled it across the entire service, reaching Divisions 31, 51, 12, and 32.

Idil has continued to work with the TPS, and is currently on the committee of the Policing and Community Engagement Review (PACER) which oversees improvements to policing.

You can do it!

Idil recommends that anyone with an interest in community safety to contact their local division, or attend the Community Police Liaison Committee, which occur every month at every police division. She is adamant that anyone with an interest in improving their community can make a positive contribution, no matter how small the act. “Political engagement is an everyday transaction,” she says. “You can build your city Monday through Sunday, at any time.”

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, January 30

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

  • The City of Toronto has rejected the line of credit offered by the province to balance the city’s budget. The draft budget Tory revealed last week was dependant on receiving this loan. As the budget continues to be debated in council, it is unclear what adjustments will be made to move forward.
  • Toronto police are investigating an incident that was caught on videotape this week, in which young black man is asked for his vehicle documents but never told why he is being investigated, and is eventually arrested. The exchange took place in an area where residents have previously complained about unnecessary police interactions, as documented in the Community Assessment of Police Practices survey.
  • Researcher David Hulchanski has updated his research on Toronto’s income inequality, revealing that the gap continues to widen. While incomes are increasing in 28% of the city, incomes are dropping in 40% – largely in the inner suburbs.
  • A Toronto police officer was acquitted of an assault charges this week, after beating a journalist during the G20 protests. After charges were dropped, the reported shared her story with the Toronotoist.
  • The University of Ottawa is taking steps to address sexual assault on campus by implementing key recommendations made by a sexual violence task force. The task force was created in part as a response to the sexual assault charges against members of the school’s hockey team.
  • On Monday, the Ontario government announced various policy revisions regarding the treatment of trans inmates, ensuring that trans prisoners will be housed with inmates of their own gender. The changes were prompted by the passage of Toby’s law in 2012, which enshrined gender identity as protected under the Ontario human right code. Activists are continuing to advocate federally for bill C-279 to protect trans folks across Canada.
  • Earlier this week, the two young activists behind the We Give Consent campaign joined Premier Wynne to discuss how the topic of consent will be integrated into the new Ontario health curriculum.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, November 28

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

Ask Your Candidate: Labour

By: Cherise Seucharan

Issues related to labour, such as wages and employment, are generally governed at the provincial level, but city councillors can still have significant impact on labour conditions. Recently, the Ford administration has claimed the drop in Toronto’s unemployment rate as one of their major achievements, and while this may have been true for the first three years of Rob Ford’s term, statistics show that unemployment has actually been on the rise since May 2014, coupled with increased in the number of precarious workers. Sandy Houston, President of the Metcalf Foundation, which recently released a report on Toronto’s workforce, says that, “The increasing numbers of people working and poor in the Toronto Region paints a troubling picture. When people can’t fully participate in society, it costs us all.”

Women are especially affected by labour policies. The gender wage gap in Ontario is currently 28%, which means female workers earn 72 cents to every male worker’s dollar. Women are also more likely to be employed in the service sector, which is more vulnerable to cuts, and are more likely to be supporting families on their income. Ask your candidate about how they plan to address these issues.

2009 City of Toronto inside and outside workers strike Mel Lastman Square. By CeciliaPang (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A2009TorontoStrikeNY.jpg

2009 City of Toronto inside and outside workers strike Mel Lastman Square. By CeciliaPang (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you plan on making improvements to the City’s Fair Wage policies? Will you introduce policies to support the growing number of precarious workers, and address the gender pay gap?

Toronto’s Fair Wage Policy, established in 1893, guarantees that people employed by contractors for the city are paid market wage rates and benefits for their respective fields. The policy needs to be continually updated to account for inflation and other factors, but in 2013 the policy had its first update in 10 years. Despite the fact that wages now take into account the new minimum wage rates and market levels, many of the wage rates still fall below, $16.60, the rate recommended by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as a living wage in Toronto. Ask your candidate if they will push for continuous updates to the Fair Wage Policy, and for wages that take into account the high cost of living in Toronto.

The Fair Wage Policy also represents the type of initiatives that can work with provincial and federal labour policies to improve worker conditions, especially for minority groups. As noted above, women in Ontario still earn less than men overall. Additionally, racialized workers earn 77.5 cents per dollar, while immigrant women earn even less, and are more likely to be working for minimum wage. Ask if your candidate would support expanding these policies to include provisions that help close the gender pay gap and support immigrant and racialized workers.

Would you privatize more city services?

While there are pros and cons to the privatization of city services, deciding to privatize any service would have a major impact on the labour force. With the numbers of precarious workers steadily rising across the GTA, unionized services address this issue by providing steady employment and a living wage for thousands of Torontonians. Under privatization, city workers have less power to negotiate and less protections overall, which have already come under fire during the past few years.

Ask if your candidate aims to privatize city services, and if so, are they willing to prioritize the right of workers in the process.

Does you support funding for Toronto’s libraries and public services?

Cuts to the infamous “gravy train” of funding to libraries and public services often translate to reductions in the staff that keep those programs running. The result is that public service workers have to take on a greater workload with the same resources. Often, full-time positions are downsized to part-time, non-salary jobs. In 2012, cuts to libraries reached a tipping point when Toronto Public Library workers held an 11-day strike in reaction to the increasing funding cuts, which greatly affected the employment of part-time workers (who were primarily women). The strike highlights the need for greater worker protection at these services which benefit many people across the city.

Ask if your candidate supports maintaining or increasing funding to Toronto’s public services.

Ultimately, the candidates we elect to City council are responsible for creating the labour climate that many of the city’s unionized workers will live in for the next four years, from outside workers to parks and recreation staff, from police officers to garbage collectors to library workers. Electing a council that will be fair and just when dealing with labour issues should be a priority for Toronto voters.

 

Ask Your Candidate: Toronto Police Service

Toronto Police | TAV59

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

By Lauren Atmore

With a city as dense and diverse as Toronto, it’s important that our police services are able to handle a wide range of community issues with tact and sensitivity while continuing to maintain order. While there is no doubt that our men and women in blue are a crucial force, several problems have arisen since the last election.

There is no better time to learn your candidates’ stance on these matters than now. With approximately 9,150 officers in the Toronto, York and Peel forces and a budget close to $1 billion dollars annually for Toronto’s agency alone, every candidate should have something to say about this municipal service.

1. Where does your candidate stand on the increased access to and use of tasers by Toronto police?

Toronto Police Service (TPS) Chief Bill Blair has openly supported the idea that more use of tasers amongst his force “has the potential to save lives.” Looking back on the death of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old killed in a struggle with Toronto Police in 2013, access to a taser could have made all the difference. The officer who shot and killed Yatim was a constable. At this rank, he wasn’t allowed to have and use a taser. Some argue, however, that an increase in de-escalation training would be sufficient to complement the existing force police offers currently have. “What we’re worried about is that tasers will be used when police wouldn’t have used guns in the first place,” explains Sakura Saunders of Disarm Toronto Police. “We’re not suggesting that all police don’t have arms, but that specially trained officers have guns that can be called in.”

2. Mental distress calls to emergency services are increasing. Does your candidate have a plan to handle the costs associated with these special demands while remaining sensitive to the range of needs of those with mental illness?

With over 20,000 calls coming in annually “directly related to mental health”, tactics must be put in place to ensure the safety of the public as well as the individual involved. Arrests under Provision 28, which allows TPS to apprehend an individual believed to be mentally ill, have increased 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012. A renewed effort has taken place to partner with national mental health groups to combat the increase in these confrontations, but are the right steps being taken? Does your candidate support a long-term plan for deep-rooted change?

3. What does your candidate think of measures like carding and strip searches? Are they an undue burden, evidence of systemic bias, or a helpful tool in cleaning up our streets?

With almost one third of all arrests leading to a strip search, there has been concern for several years that this tactic is overused. It has been suggested by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition that the Level 3 search rate should be closer to 5 per cent of all arrests, and that new technology such as scanners similar to those in airports can help fill in the gap. While those tools would certainly be less invasive, it could lead to more people being searched without grounds while bumping up general TPS budget costs.

Carding, the practise of police asking to see identification from just about anyone they choose to ask is a method designed to keep our communities safe. Whether this technique works in apprehending individuals carrying out crimes or in reminding people that at any moment they could be asked to identify themselves, there is no doubt that this request is not carried out equally among Toronto’s residents. For instance, though Black Canadians comprise about 8 percent of Toronto’s population, they represent 23 per cent of all random cardings – about three times that of white people. Though recent regulations have come into place regarding carding, including officers being required to let the targeted individual know their rights, it’s hard to know what measures are effective in preventing racial profiling. Does your candidate have any ideas to contribute to this debate?

4. Does your candidate have a stance on the TPS budget? Does their stance include specific areas to spend on and others to save on? 

In 2013, Toronto Police Services had a net budget of $927,740.50–almost one billion dollars–which also includes lifeguard and crossing guard programs across the city. To some, there is never enough funding available to those on our city’s front line. To others, TPS represents a force that obstructs individual liberties while adding little to community safety. Having to pay such high amounts adds insult to injury.

Whichever way you look at it, Toronto’s population is increasing year over year and as such, there are more people to keep an eye on and more situations to respond to. Could there be a better way to handle add-on costs, such as lifeguard and crossing guard services? Should wages be frozen to help cover growing costs of technology, or should the budget be expanded to cover the needs of both officers and citizens? When costs are spread out to the community as in the case of paid duty services, there appears to be a decrease in use when the costs go up. Is there any way this can be mitigated so events can properly supervised?

Finding a balance when it comes to community safety and those who enforce it can be difficult. It’s easy to say that you can’t put a price on health and safety but each year, requests are made to increase budgets, to increase benefits, to increase technologies designed to streamline procedures, and each year many of those requests are denied. The City doesn’t have infinite funds to cover all of the needs of this essential service. The candidates we elect, however, are the ones who decide what to spend on and where to save.

The 7 Deadly Myths of Online Violence Against Women

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.

Online Violence

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.

Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter Campaign to raise $6,000 to make a video series which would explore and deconstruct common stereotypes in female game characters. In just a few days, pledges reached $158,922.

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.

 
Further Resources