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Technology and social media: yet more tools to threaten, control and coerce women

For many women the abuse, harassment and stalking they experience online is just another disturbing example of the violence they receive from their partner or ex-partner. Far from being the one-off incident of online abuse that is perceived by the police – this behaviour by perpetrators is just another way to control, threaten and coerce women. Online stalking and harassment is part of a pattern of behaviour which encompasses online abuse and street harassment as well as domestic violence and murder.

Emma’s* ex-partner stalked and harassed her online after they had broken up.

“Ultimately he sent me several hundred messages, texts, emails, and Facebook chats – more than ten messages every day in one medium alone. It was only when I contacted the police, who went to talk to him, that he stopped trying to contact me. For years afterwards, I wouldn’t answer a call from a number I didn’t know, wouldn’t open emails from unrecognised email address, and was nervous about Facebook because I was scared I’ve have messages from him. My privacy settings are as high as they can be, I never check in, and I approve all posts before they go on my timeline, because he would contact me talking about stuff I’d done as though he’d been there, and I knew he’d seen it on Facebook even though I’d blocked him.”

A Women’s Aid survey of over 300 women survivors of domestic violence in 2013 showed that nearly half of them (45%) experienced some form of online abuse during their relationship. 48% also reported experiencing harassment or abuse online from their ex-partner once they’d left the relationship. There were also issues raised with how police responded to reports of online abuse with 75% of women survivors reporting concerns that the police did not know how best to respond to online abuse or harassment.

Women’s Aid held a national conference on this issue in September 2013 which heard from experts in stalking and online abuse and harassment. The conference also heard from Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaigner that experienced what can only be described as an onslaught of online abuse and harassment following the victory of a campaign to get a woman on UK banknotes in summer 2013. Caroline talked about the graphic, sexist, misogynistic and violent abuse that she received via Twitter and the impact it had on her.

“The impact of all this on my life has been dramatic. When it was at its height I struggled to eat, to sleep, to work. I lost about half a stone in a matter of days. I was exhausted and weighed down by carrying these vivid images, this tidal wave of hate around with me wherever I went.”

Caroline also talked about the response of the police when she reported this online abuse and harassment. Initially she was told that there was nothing they could do about the rape and death threats she was receiving online. After national media coverage they did investigate what was after all a crime – the hate speech and harassment that she had been a victim of.

From the 2013 Women’s Aid conference, we have identified areas for change to prevent online abuse, harassment and stalking happening in the first place and to improve the response and support women get when they report online abuse, harassment or stalking.

• Online abuse, harassment and stalking must be recognised as part of the spectrum of domestic violence perpetrated against women. Particularly by the police and other criminal justice agencies.

• Reports from women of online abuse, harassment and stalking should be believed and taken as seriously as reports of offline abuse, harassment and stalking. They should not be looked at in isolation but in conjunction with other reports of abuse or harassment against a certain perpetrator.

• There should be effective and comprehensive training provided for all police officers and criminal justice agencies not only on dealing with reports of online abuse, harassment and stalking but also on the new offences of stalking that came into force in 2012.

• Relationships and sex education, which includes education on healthy and respectful relationships and internet safety, should be made a statutory part of the National Curriculum for all primary and secondary schools in England.

• Social media providers like Twitter and Facebook need to offer improved support to victims of online abuse, harassment and stalking and faster curtailment of perpetrators of these crimes. Without proper safeguarding of its users we don’t believe Twitter is currently fit for purpose – an issue that should be considered by the company before it is publicly launched.

• Women experiencing online abuse, stalking and harassment need support services that meet their needs. Gender specific specialist domestic violence services for women are vital in enabling them to cope and recover from the violence. Their holistic women-only support provides a safe space in which women and their children to rebuild their lives. Between 2010/11 and 2011/12 domestic and sexual violence services saw funding cuts of 31%. These cuts are drastically affecting gender specific specialise services and the women they support. Women’s Aid calls for funding to these services to be maintained. We will be running a joint campaign with the TUC from the 25th November calling for the Government to commit to maintaining these services by ratifying the Istanbul Convention without delay.

Women’s Aid strongly believes that until these changes are made women will continue to experience the devastating impact of online abuse, harassment and stalking as part of a campaign of control by domestic violence perpetrators.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

This article was written by Clare Laxton, who was the Public Policy Manager for Women’s Aid Federation of England at the time of this article’s publishing.

This article was edited by Lina Piskernik, WAVE Digital and Social Media Coordinator.

This article appeared in the 2013 edition of Fempower. Find the archive of all Fempower magazines here.

Photo by Victora Heath on Unsplash