The Power and Danger of Going Digital for Women

The Daily Kos originally published this op-ed on November 25, 2016. Click here to read the original. In March this year, on International Women’s Day, a young female reporter was sexually assaulted on the streets of a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City. Andrea Noel’s assailant ran up behind her, lifted up her skirt, and pulled down her underwear, causing her to fall to the ground. A private security camera captured all this on film, which Noel quickly tracked down. Refusing to ignore or conceal what had happened, Noel bravely posted the video on her Twitter account. But sharing her experience online only sparked more acts of violence against her. Online, a wave of reactive posts questioned why she was walking alone, the dress she was wearing, and her decision to report the crime and seek justice. The barrage culminated with online rape and death threats, which became menacingly real when suspicious men began following Noel and when a green laser pointer landed on her forehead while she was inside her apartment. Soon after, Noel packed up her life and left Mexico. Violence against women is nothing new. The UN estimates that, worldwide, one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence, constituting what the UN calls a “global pandemic.” This violence occurs in the home, often in the form of domestic violence perpetrated by an intimate partner, as well as in public spaces like the street Noel walked down. And, increasingly, this violence also occurs online. What’s unusual, and deeply troubling, about Noel’s story is the interplay between violence in person and online. The internet is an extension of the public spaces we occupy and is subject to the same patriarchal norms and behaviors that govern the streets. The acts of aggression women confront every day on the street—whistles, come-ons, and physical assault—translate into similar unwanted violence online. And, as Noel’s situation illustrates, sometimes aggression in one space can amplify and incite violence in the other. New UN research focused on internet violence estimates that three-quarters of all women have experienced gender-based violence on the internet. This is disconcerting because it shows that violence against women is growing in new, unchartered, territories. And, to compound the issue, many of the aggressive posts targeting women online are made anonymously, making it difficult to hold perpetrators accountable. Today, on UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it is imperative that we recognize and denounce the multiple forms of violence lived by women and girls worldwide. It is also critical that we stay aware of the ways that violence against women is evolving in our increasingly digital world. The internet has the potential to be a tool for free speech, expression, and empowerment. However, like any new medium of communication, the internet is shaped by our cultures and the gender inequalities that persist offline. Just like the wage gender gap, there is a technology gender gap, and it is growing. In 2016, there is an estimated 350-million-person gap between men and women who have access to the internet. Not only do fewer women have access; their experience online also diverges significantly from men’s. As the journalist Laurie Penny brilliantly describes, “A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the Internet.” Just as a woman’s clothing choices can provoke sexual assault on the street, her expression of opinion can incite online aggression. This manifests in a wide range of gender-based violence that can strike at any time from behind a screen. From online stalking to abusive language to threats of rape and death, women and girls suffer and quickly learn they do not have the freedom to express themselves online as men do. This aggression often leads to self-censorship and female silence, both online and off. But plenty of women, like Noel, are fighting back. In New York, Hollaback!, a nonprofit dedicated to ending harassment in public spaces, invites women to document incidents of street harassment with their smartphones and share them online. (If you haven’t seen it, the organization’s video documenting a woman’s experience with street harassment as she walks through New York City for 10 hours is eye opening.) In Mexico, the activist Catalina Ruiz-Navarro caused an empowering Twitter storm when she asked women to share their first experiences with gender-based violence using #MiPrimerAcoso (“#MyFirstHarassment”). These examples demonstrate how the internet can be a powerful tool to raise awareness about violence against women and to provide women a space to vent, find solidarity, and transform what is usually framed as a shameful experience into something empowering. But, as powerful as these campaigns are, taken alone they are not enough to meaningfully curb a culture of violence against women. So what can we, collectively, do? First, we must recognize the fact that violence against women is a persistent, malignant issue, and that it disturbs private, public, and online spaces. And that encouraging, or even just allowing, violence against women online has real-world effects. Individually, we must denounce online harassment firmly and swiftly; and the online platforms that assailants use must embrace zero-tolerance policies and enact them effectively. But even this is not enough. In Andrea Noel’s case, the Mexican authorities failed to take her concerns seriously, and as a result, the virtual and real-world aggressions against her intensified to a point where her situation was no longer livable. That is unacceptable. Worldwide, governments and their law enforcement arms must both take notice and take action. Societies that permit violence against women are devaluing half of the world’s population. Whether it’s offline or on, women and girls deserve a life free from violence. Today, on November 25, let’s remember that.
Dana Preston is the Program Manager for Gender-Focused Initiatives at Hispanics in Philanthropy, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Latino equity, voice, and leadership throughout the Americas. Dana oversees various projects combatting violence against women in Mexico. One of HIP’s partner organizations, Grupo de Acción por los Derechos Humanos y la Justicia Social, was part of the online campaign #NoTeCalles, “#Don’tStaySilent,” a call to action in Mexico that promotes a culture of reporting violence against women and features Noel.