Violence Against Women in Social Media

Written by: Dr Melanie O'Brien

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”. Violence against women (VAW) is an ongoing problem. It is something that manifests itself in many forms, physical, psychological, emotional, and verbal. However with changes in technology, VAW has evolved. The past year has seen an explosion of violence against women through social media.

Some recent and prominent examples are as follows:

Feminist and women’s rights activist Anita Sarkeesian (who uses the moniker FemFreq) campaigns for a more respectable portrayal of women in video games. She’s not anti-video games; she just offers critiques of the sexualized and violent portrayal of women in video games, and offers reasonable suggestions for alternatives. She receives death threats of a regular basis. Her Wikipedia page had to be locked because it was being hacked with pornography and profanity, as well as lies about her. One man created a video game in which Sarkeesian can be beaten repeatedly, with bruises, cuts & black eyes all evident. On her Tumblr account, Sarkeesian posted images of the abuse she received in only one week on twitter. It is shocking and sickening, and I challenge anyone to be able to read through it all. The abuse included such comments as:

  • You are a despicable whore
  • Kill yourself feminists are a waste of air also more games should have girl characters half naked
  • Shut the fuck up bitch [this comment is extremely common]
  • Fuck you’re a dumb cunt

Actress Ashley Judd (@AshleyJudd), a prominent activist for women’s rights who campaigns against violence against women, tweeted in support of her alma mater’s basketball team, and received return tweets such as ‘Go suck on Cal’s 2 inch dick ye Bitch whore’. She was called a cunt, bitch, whore, and threatened with rape and ‘anal anal anal’. Judd is a survivor of sexual assault, rape and incest. Imagine how much worse for her those violent threats are. Yet Judd is not taking it lying down, and is taking legal action against the offenders. Judd is now chair of the Women’s Media Centre Speech Project, which aims to spotlight and document online abuse and suppression of women's free speech (#onlinegenderviolence).

These are only two examples of many, but they demonstrate that there is a thematic and targeted nature to the VAW in social media. The language of the violence we see focuses on three different areas. The first is women’s weight or looks, based on the assumption that any woman who isn’t skinny isn’t attractive, with the aim of destroying the victim’s self-esteem through calling her fat or ugly. The second is the type of derogatory terms that are used: bitch, whore and cunt. All words that focus on a woman’s gender and/or sexuality, including confidence in personality or sexuality. The third theme that comes through is the type of violence that is referred to. Again, for the most part this centres on gender and sexuality, with rape being the main focus of the violence, through either ‘hoping’ the victim is raped, or declaring her ‘too fat to be raped’. While men are victims of rape, the majority of victims are women, and it is a crime used to demonstrate power over the victim. The other type of violence is death threats. It is clear is that such conduct without a doubt amounts to violence against women.

From this we see an incredibly disproportionate response of extreme violence to the harmless comments of women. How can support for a sports team lead to someone wanting a woman raped? How can looking to clothe women in video games lead to death threats? One troll told his victim that he abused her (and other women) online because she was self-confident and he wasn’t. But how does lacking self-confidence lead to targeting women with violence? There is clearly a need for some psychological research into this area.

Social media has become a significant outlet for VAW. This is due to the anonymity that it provides. Perhaps many of these trolls would never actually voice such violent tendencies to a person in real life. The decrease in human interaction caused by increased internet use, reliance on the internet and social media as a social life, means that people are losing the ability to moderate their own behaviour, and to assess what is appropriate. People are anonymous online, and they do not have to be held accountable for violence. They can get away with violent behaviour. This is something we need to fight against; we cannot let this become the norm. We must work on both prevention and punishment.

Violent online behaviour has the potential to escalate to physical violence, the more people become immune to the violence and the more they normalise their own violent behaviour. If someone you know is using abusive language towards a woman or women in general, call them out on their behaviour. Question them as to why they used that terminology and if they think it’s acceptable to say that. Make them think about their behaviour and how it affects others. Importantly, it is both women and men who need to take action. We should all create a culture around us free of violence, where violence and discrimination are unacceptable, to both men and women. Take a non-violent and non-discriminatory attitude through your lives, passing it on to others.

In terms of punishment, while of course social media providers such as Twitter are taking action to block abusive trolls and crack down on abuse, law enforcement authorities need to be more pro-active in prosecuting those who commit online violence. Yet this raises the question of whether our criminal laws are adequate enough to cover this kind of violence. Vilification laws at federal and state level are unfortunately limited for the most part to vilification on the grounds of race, with some also including sexual orientation, but none including gender. The application of the crimes of ‘threat to kill’ or ‘threat to cause harm or injury’ may be challenging, depending on the phrasing of the text (‘I hope you get raped’ as opposed to ‘I am going to rape you’). There is a need for consideration of the harm caused by online violence, and the creation of of a new legislative provision to prevent and punish this conduct.