Fighting for a digital world that’s safe for women

Bella Takeover 10-12 April, with Guest Editor Caitlin Logan

The rise of digital tech has brought great benefits to modern society and the internet is an embedded part of our everyday lives. It is questionable whether the Western World would survive a week without Wi-Fi. Yet, while online platforms have provided spaces that champion, elevate and celebrate women’s voices and provide vital forums for the voices of the marginalised, this doesn’t come without threat.

Online and tech abuse

Women and girls in all corners of the world are regularly subject to tirades of abuse, both in online spaces and through digital tech. This abuse can happen anywhere, at any time and to anyone, and our growing reliance on the digital world is allowing this to become ever-more prevalent.

As with many forms of violence, online abuse sees women disproportionately affected. In online spaces, women’s safety in using their voices, sharing their opinions and engaging in debate cannot be guaranteed. Even women who don’t participate online – for whatever reason – but who own digital tech, can be targeted. And although online and tech abuse happens in a virtual world, the consequences for the victims are very real. This type of abuse is a form of gender-based violence and shouldn’t be over-looked or left out of discussion as we press for gender equality.

Online and tech abuse can include:

  • Posting an intimate image on social media without consent; for example, an image which was shared with a once trusted partner. This is known as “revenge porn”.
  • Receiving an unsolicited picture of an erect penis. This is cyber-flashing.
  • Receiving consistent, distressing messages on your social media messenger. This is harassment.
  • Being name-called (“slut”, “whore”, “skank”) on an image you have shared online. This is abuse.
  • Having personal, private or sensitive information shared about you online, with malicious intent. This is doxxing.

Reinforcing harmful norms

As well as facing abuse in online spaces, traditional gender norms are often exacerbated for women and girls. Young women scroll through Instagram battling against a stream of unrealistic body images, detox tea diets and imperfections covered by unrealistic beauty standards. Many women are driven offline with digital fatigue or are under consistent pressure to present an idealistic version of who they are, for instant gratification.

This pressure, combined with the threat of online abuse, mean that online and digital spaces can be hostile worlds for women and girls to navigate. But, it’s not all bad. In Scotland, there are a number of amazing women’s rights organisations who are demanding that change happens fast and keeping gender equality high on the national political agenda.

Fighting back

A relatively new sister on the block, The Empower Project is an intersectional, feminist organisation with a focus on responding to violence and abuse in the digital age. Founded by Ellie Hutchison, the charity is small but fierce, operating with a bottom-up approach, making it as easy as possible for communities to engage and participate in the charity’s mission: supporting communities to lead change to end violence against women and girls in Scotland.

At the start of 2019, Elena Soper and I were appointed as Co-Directors of The Empower Project. With varied experience of the women’s and human rights sector, joining the management team at TEP is equally exciting and challenging. The opportunity to lead change and support women and girls in designing our community response to tech abuse is amazing.

The Empower Project’s approach to tackling online abuse has activism and revolution at the heart. Our recently launched, ‘Don’t Be a Dick’ campaign called on policy makers and practitioners to take cyber-flashing seriously. It gave people the opportunity to tell us about their experiences and how cyber-flashing impacts on self-esteem and relationships. We heard from a Mum whose daughter received unsolicited “penis pics” from boys at school; strangers subjecting people on social media to pictures of their erection. Cyber-flashing is a crime, and we’ll be pressing for serious action to be taken on this issue.

Tackling tech abuse is vital as we work to make Scotland a gender equal society. Whilst there are a number of laws in place to protect people, enforcement can often be lacking. As with all types of gender-based violence, people respond in different ways. We want to prevent online abuse happening altogether, but also to educate young people specifically around consent, good sex and how technology can have detrimental impacts on sexual autonomy.

In all communities, we can take individual actions to help end tech abuse. We can use our voices offline, talk to political representatives, relatives and friends. At the same time, we want to hold tech companies and social media platforms to account and continue to demand that they ensure everyone’s online safety.

In the coming months, we have an exciting programme of activity planned with The Empower Project:

  • We’ll be running training sessions across Scotland asking: what is your experience of tech abuse and how does it impact on your community?
  • Our annual AGM and fun feminist event is coming later on in the year.
  • We have some awesome campaign plans on the horizon…so stay tuned on social media.

The Empower Project is disruptive, passionate and determined to create spaces where the voices of all can be heard, challenging online abusers and there fighting to end violence against women and girls in Scotland. If you want to make change and you’re passionate about young people, tackling tech abuse and feminism – why not join us? Find out more at theempowerproject.co.uk/become-a-member

Need help?

If you’ve experienced online or tech abuse, it can feel scary, unsettling, or overwhelming. It can feel like you’re alone, but you’re not. There are organisations out there that can help you.

 

  • Childline: Support for under 18s, but lots of useful information for everyone about how to report cyber-flashing on different platforms.
  • Chayn: A fantastic resource for survivors to access lots of different support tools online
  • Rape Crisis Scotland:The national resource for those who’ve experienced sexual violence, with details of local groups and support services.
  • Scottish Women’s Aid: The national resource for those who experienced domestic abuse, with details of local support services.

 

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  1. Susan Tichy says:

    So glad to see this post, and be introduced to The Empower Project. I suggest you interrogate the phrase “violence against women,” which perpetuates denial of male responsibility. The lack of agency in that phrase makes violence into something that happens to women, miraculously without action or agency by men. I understand that the phrase has functioned for a long time as an umbrella covering the spectrum of aggression, from verbal to lethal. But grammar is not a victimless crime, and we have to keep looking for the small, corrosive habits that govern perception. Just now I typed “abuse”–another word that focuses on the recipient, not the perpetrator–before changing to “aggression.”

  2. SleepingDog says:

    This is clearly explained and presumably much needed, but somewhat unclear on what data is being used and collected, what methods are being trialled to minimize such behaviour, and how the success of these methods are to be measured.

    Presumably you will need to target offenders and potential offenders. When there is anonymity, creating demographic profiles of offenders can be really tricky. From my limited understanding, there appears to be significant female-on-female cyberbullying, slut-shaming, even rape threats. For a certain frequency of offences, it helps to understand if they are skewed towards many offenders/infrequent offences or few offenders/frequent offences. And it may be difficult in some cases to distinguish the behaviour of bots (directed or undirected to such behaviour) from humans. A robust psychological explanation of such offences given various conditions would also be necessary. And it’s an evolving environment.

    There may well be attempts to enclose part of the Internet by terrorizing and driving out women and girls, as seems to have happened in extreme cases judging by the Gamergate saga. While games today may have significantly more female protaganists (as well as female character options), and football games may now have women’s teams, there are still problems with female representations in games. Recently there was controversy over videoed virtual violence against a female non-player character (a suffrage campaigner) in Red Dead Redemption 2, which took on the style of a hate crime when shared on Youtube; yet that game had a pro-suffragette mission and most non-player characters can be attacked in an open world. Some guidelines for developers and social media may be required.

    Yet: a problem with our corporate/mainstream media is that it greatly over-sexualizes areas of life for presumably ratings and clicks. This can be seen in recent dramas/comedies about gamer culture. A great many games have no sex at all, and for many others it is irrelevant (top-selling Rocket League and Civilization, for example). Every attempt to sex something up creates conditions for discrimination or at least bias, and sometimes awkward attempts to support diversity.

    There is also a problem of (I think still) declining share of women in new technology jobs, since the days when many women were employed as programmers (something to do with keyboard associations perhaps), and some toxic environments. Developer site Stack Overflow have released their 2018 survey, which shows 92.9% male, 6.9% female, 0.9% other globally (higher female numbers in countries like UK with higher percentage of students too). Trends to watch.

    And it should be remembered that there are some very female-friendly spaces on the Internet, perhaps in moderated online learning services and the like, where a diversity of people explore and discuss signficant issues, and sometimes find common ground, or appreciation for their voice and perspective.

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    I think it harmful to weaponize gender and specifically sexual terms. Decades ago, I was in a progressive bookstore here in the States, and pointed out to one of the people working there, a button for sale that referred to “too many dicks” in government. There is a price that’s paid for adopting this sort of terminology.

    It’s commonplace to express aggression, hatred, and injurious intent with sexual metaphors–I don’t need to name them. The fact that they are common, does not mitigate their role in our sexualizing aggression, which in a social ecology as feedback loop, acts in turn to lend patriarchal distortion to sexuality. We live in a toxic environment, and our expressions are both effect and cause of some of this.

    It is also degrading and reductive to refer to an individual or an entire class of people by gender or sexual slurs. I’d like to think this is obvious, and obviously a bad practice–especially for those of us to aspire to do and be better. I’ve had occasion, as no doubt have others of us, to point out in conversational exchanges that it is not necessary to “have some balls” or “grow a pair” to be courageous, for example. Other examples are numerous and easy to think of.

    All this has nothing to do with puritanism or repression of expression; it has to do with not ceding territory to the colonization of language and feeling by patriarchy.

    This concern having been stated, the article presents helpful resources, for which we can thank the author.

    1. Caitlin Logan says:

      Hi Daniel, I see your point, but I would just point out that in this case the term “dick” is being used because that campaign is about cases where people quite literally send unsolicited pictures of their “dicks”, so it’s not so much a metaphor for gender as reference to something which is actually happening – although obviously being used in sort of an irreverent way to catch people’s attention. Not sure if that makes it any different in your eyes.

      1. Jo says:

        I agree with Daniel’s point about terminology. The practice being discussed is a criminal offence…the sending of obscene images.. and should be treated as such. Introducing slang when trying to address the seriousness of the offence only serves to trivialise it. It’s not helpful in my view.

  4. Elaine Fraser says:

    I am gender critical and so the phrase ‘gender equal society’ does not mean much to me. Gender for me and many women is a social construct .

    There is an elephant in the room here.

    No mention of the slur ‘TERF’ currently thrown at any women who dares to voice an opinion on or off line . The silence from the male-dominated Indy media and twitter sphere ( with perhaps one exception) is deafening and will not be forgotten.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Elaine Fraser, and not only the media, but among many activists in movements where support for feminist perspectives might be expected. I followed the aftermath of activist Helen Steel’s experience at the Anarchist Bookfair, where apparently she was harassed by a thirty-strong group claiming to be trans activists who objected to her defence of two other activists handing out leaflets about dangers they perceived in the Gender Recognition Act. Of the various positions that arose from that which I read, for me Steel’s is the most reasonable.

      The picture of the continuum of abuse that this article covers is perhaps more complicated than simple stereotypes. This is why we need more data. Displays of male “ostentatious virility” or laddish banter may disguise a lack of sexual interest in women rather than a surfeit. In societies where men are expected to act in gendered ways towards women, fear of appearing effeminate may push some men further along the continuum of abuse, if only in public. Or maybe not. I have heard stories of inexperienced males relieved that they were not, after all, expected to live up to aggressive stereotypes they had been exposed to in pornography.

      Someone who recently compared drag artistry to blackface was apparently accused of hate crimes them-self, yet they were only essentially repeating what Germaine Greer had written in her Abuse chapter in The Female Eunuch as long ago as 1970, and indeed what one drag artist confirmed in an article in the Guardian.

      There was a recent BBC documentary on trans kids presented by a doctor which makes a similar point about a lack of reliable research data on which to base treatments, and the same kinds of (apparently rather inarticulate) abuse cropped up there, trying to prevent women speaking amongst themselves at a meeting.

      It’s useful to read a book like Angela Saini’s Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It, to get a feel for how much feminism and female scientists have improved science (and indeed, social science, science fiction and philosophy). Modern technology has found that the brain is more plastic than thought when I studied psychology, and the concept of a biologically-gendered brain seems to lack evidence (it’s strikingly general purpose and adaptable). Although this doesn’t please all ideologies.

      1. Elaine Fraser says:

        Twitter has been banning women for a long time now for daring to voice opinions. Men can say the same things and not be banned. Men can hurl abuse on twitter and threats of violence at women with no consequence. The general population are unaware of the onslaught on women sex based rights, never mind our right to freedom of thought, expression and assembly. Few MSPs are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. So called ‘progressive’ males on the left have suddenly all gone quiet. I do not believe for one minute that yer usual suspects are not aware of this debate. They’ re aware alright but in the end its not their rights that are impacted so hey ho!
        I am an ordinary women who has this year (2019) attended a public womens meeting where we required paid security due to threats of harassment. As someone said on twitter its unbelievable and like something out of a sci-fi yet here we are. There are lots of articles available to read on this. Prof Michelle Moore has very clear thinking on this. And ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ charts where it all begun – in US university campuses where market forces have changed students into ‘consumers ‘ and academics now have to just suck it up , unscientific magical thinking , or literally lose their jobs.

        1. Elaine Fraser says:

          There will now follow a short interlude …………….so much for Guest Editors …………………………….and new writers ………..

          ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….nothing to see here folks ……………………….move along now ………………………..tumbleweeds

          1. What does this mean Elaine?

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