Cyber misogyny: the new frontier for hate

On August 3, 2013, 14-year-old Hannah Smith hanged herself in her bedroom. In the weeks leading up to her death, Hannah was subjected to cruel taunts and insults about her weight and a family death on Ask.fm, a question and answer social networking site that allows anonymous participation. According to Hannah’s father, she went to Ask.fm to look for advice on the skin condition eczema. Instead, she got bullies on Ask.fm urging her to drink bleach and cut herself.

Last week, I started a series about the different ways sexism is impacting girls and women today and how feminism can be utilized to help them. This is the second post in that series. This post is about cyber misogyny.

In many ways, cyber misogyny is an old issue taken to new extremes. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, hate speech, stalking and threats have long been problems for women. However, in real space, where people’s identities are known, it is easier to identify and punish abusers. The Internet offers expanded opportunities to perpetuate harassment and abuse. At the same time, it allows abusers to avoid social and legal consequences for their actions by hiding behind anonymity. In its report “#CyberMisogyny: Using and strengthening Canadian legal responses to gendered hate and harassment online” West Coast LEAF calls the Internet “the new frontier for hate.”

The term cyber misogyny encompasses a wide range of conduct. In this post, I will discuss the five types of online violence discussed in West Coast LEAf’s report.

  • Revenge porn

Revenge porn can loosely be described as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Revenge porn is often associated with the termination of an intimate relationship and is disturbingly common. According to the US-based Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, one in ten ex-partners has threatened to expose a risqué photo of their ex. Sixty per cent of them follow through. Ninety per cent of victims are women.

It is not only teenagers who are affected by revenge porn. This year, well known celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Kirsten Dunst had intimate photos stolen and released publically. In Canada, the Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba had nude photos taken by her husband posted online without her consent.

Revenge porn is so prevalent numerous websites exist for the sole purpose of ruining people’s lives by posting embarrassing photos or forwarding them to family members, friends and business contacts. Because of websites like these and the hundreds of thousands of daily viewers, women have lost jobs, economic opportunities and personal relationships.

Studies by Cyber Civil Rights show that 47 per cent of revenge porn victims contemplate suicide. Ninety-three per cent suffer significant emotional distress.

  • Sexting

Sexting is the sending of sexy, nude or partially nude photos via cell phone. Recent studies show that sexting has become a fairly common practice among young people as part of their sexual exploration. In a study involving students in grades 4-11 across Canada, researchers found that eight per cent of students in grades 7-11 with access to a cell phone have sent a sext. Twenty-four per cent have received a sext. The numbers rise as students get older.

While youth seem to feel ok about sending sexual images of themselves to others, when those images are forwarded without their consent, the results can be devastating. Just under one quarter of teens who said they had sent a sext of themselves reported that the person who received the sext forwarded it to someone else.  Several teen suicides have been linked to the forwarding of nude photos and the resulting harassment and abuse.

  • Online sexual exploitation of children and youth

Online child sexual exploitation includes child pornography, luring, child prostitution, child sex tourism and child trafficking. The number of child sexual exploitation reports received by Cybertip.ca, a national tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of youth, has increased from 179 reports in 2002/2003 to 7,913 reports in 2009/2010.

The vast majority (90.2 per cent) of reports between September 2002 and June 2010 pertained to child pornography.

  • Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking includes monitoring email communications, sending abusive messages, sending viruses, using the victim’s online identity to send false messages to others and using online sites to collect a victim’s personal information and whereabouts.

Technology, including social networking sites and global positioning systems, facilitate stalking behaviour by making it easier for perpetrators to keep tabs on the activities and location of their targets.

These technologies also make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to escape their abuser. Electronic communications now play a role in nine out of ten domestic violence situations.

Statistics from the U.S. Justice Department suggest that 850,000 American adults, mostly women, are targets of cyberstalking each year. A study of youth conducted by MTV found that more than half surveyed had experienced abuse through social and digital media. Seventy-six per cent felt that digital abuse was a serious problem for people their age.

  • Hate speech

Messages promoting hate and glorifying violence against women proliferate on the Internet. Unfortunately, thanks to a recent amendment to the federal Human Rights Act, gender-based hate speech is no longer prohibited under Canadian federal law.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for outspoken feminists to be threatened with rape and murder for their online presence. In 2007, well-known blogger and software developer Kathy Sierra shut down her blog and cancelled public appearances after she was subjected to threats of rape and strangulation and her personal information, including her address and social security number, were leaked. This year, feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian cancelled an appearance at Utah State University after an email threatened the deadliest school shooting in American history.

In 2006, a study showed that individuals writing under female names received twenty-five times more sexually threatening and malicious comments than those writing under male names.

Unfortunately, cyber misogyny in its many forms is too often trivialized by the public. Many consider online bullying an inconvenience that should simply be ignored. Others respond that “boys will be boys,” especially on the Internet. This leaves women with a stark choice: tolerate the abuse or opt out of life online.

So what can we do, as feminists, to protect women and girls from the serious repercussions of cyber misogyny? According to West Coast LEAF, the varied nature of cyber misogyny means that there is no quick fix, and a wide range of strategies will be required. Three such strategies are information gathering, law reform and public education.

  • Information gathering

In order to create effective solutions, we need to fully understand the problem. West Coast LEAF recommends the government create a new office housed within the federal Ministry on the Status of Women to conduct research, facilitate dialogue and make recommendations to government about appropriate legal responses to cyber misogyny.

  • Law reform

A major contributor to the prevalence of cyber misogyny is that on the Internet, lawlessness reigns. Holding harassers and hatemongers legally accountable for their actions is one way to educate the public and send a strong message that these behaviours will not be tolerated.

On December 9, 2014, Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, became law. This legislation makes it a criminal offence to knowingly publish, distribute, transmit, sell, make available or advertise intimate images. The Bill also provides courts the authority to order the seizure of intimate images and to order the custodian of the computer system on which the image is made available to delete the material. Only time will tell, but one major impediment to the effectiveness of this legislation is that it only applies to Canadian servers.

Unfortunately, in addition to these important cyberbullying provisions, the Bill also includes broad law enforcement provisions which have raised significant privacy concerns and are likely unconstitutional.

While the cyberbullying provisions of Bill C-13 are a step in the right direction, they are not enough. As we’ve seen in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault, criminal law is often not an effective means of addressing violence against women. Criminal convictions are rare and often come at a significant personal cost to the victim. As such, we should be exploring other legal options that are more victim-friendly.

As an example, provincial governments could enact legislation creating a “cyberbullying” tort which would allow victims to sue for cyberbullying. This way, victims could receive monetary compensation for the harms experienced.

Provincial governments could also follow Nova Scotia’s lead and amend Education Acts to create a legislated duty on principals, vice-principals and teachers to take disciplinary action in cases of harassment and abuse, whether it occurs on or off school property, when such behaviour has a negative impact on students’ ability to feel safe and learn at school.

The federal government should also reinstate the hate speech provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act repealed in June.

  • Education

Another way to promote a culture of respect, acceptance and ethical behaviour in schools is to make sure that human rights and non-discrimination are an essential part of the school curricula throughout a child’s education. Education about good “digital citizenship” is also crucial.

Jessica Logan, an Ohio high school senior, ended her life after her ex-boyfriend forwarded a nude photo of her to everyone at her school. For months Jessica was cruelly harassed by the other girls at her school who called her a slut and a whore. Her mother found her hanging in her closet on July 3, 2008.

Jessica Logan, Hannah Smith, Hope Witsell, Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and others ended their lives because of the effects of cyber misogyny. It is time we took this issue seriously. In case you needed another reason why we still need feminism, this is it.

-Kaity

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In defence of the “F” word: why we need feminism now more than ever

I started blogging a few months ago because I’d had enough of the smear campaign against feminism that has been underway for many years. Like the #WomenAgainstFeminism phenomenon on Tumblr where women would take photographs of themselves holding signs that state why they do not need feminism, such as, “I don’t need feminism because my self-worth is not directly tied to the size of my victim complex.”   Or the recent Time magazine article which included “feminist” in a list of annoying words that readers could vote to ban from public discourse. Or the public distancing from feminism by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who, for better or worse are role models for young girls.

These anti-feminism sentiments have led smart, progressive people to distance themselves from a movement that’s aim is equality. I know because I’m married to one. My partner is a strong woman. She grew up playing hockey and baseball with boys because our small town didn’t have girls’ teams. She has always known what she wants and isn’t particularly concerned with conforming to societal expectations. She is tough. She is egalitarian. But she is not a feminist.

And she’s not the only one. Most polls say that fewer than half of younger women identify with feminism.

From my conversations with my wife, I’ve learned a thing or two about anti-feminism sentiments. In many ways, anti-feminism campaigns are grounded in misunderstandings. Misunderstandings about what it means to be a feminist.

I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture – beer, bars, and muscle cars.” – Lady Gaga

Misunderstandings about what feminism stands for.

No, I wouldn’t say feminist-that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.”- Kelly Clarkson

And misunderstandings about where women are at in terms of equality.

“I don’t need feminism because men are now the true victims of discrimination.”

It’s this last misunderstanding that I’m most concerned about. It’s true that women have made a lot of progress in the last forty or fifty years. But it would be a mistake to believe feminism is no longer necessary. The way I see it, sexism still abounds. Both in the ways it always has and in completely new ways.

How far we’ve come

Let me start by acknowledging that women’s equality has come a long way since the 1970s, especially in terms of women’s education and participation in the workforce.

Young women in Canada are pursuing post-secondary education at impressive rates and are now more likely than male youth to hold a university degree. In the United States, women earn almost 60 per cent of undergraduate degrees and 60 per cent of all master’s degrees. They also hold almost 52 per cent of all professional jobs.

In terms of labour force participation, women have gone from 37.97 per cent of the workforce in 1970 to 47.21 per cent of the workforce during 2006-2010. Women have also made significant gains in certain occupations. In 1970, very few women were accountants, police officers, lawyers, pharmacists and doctors. Between 2006 and 2010, 60 per cent of accountants were women, 52.6 per cent of pharmacists, 32.4 per cent of physicians and 33.4 per cent of lawyers.

Rates of domestic violence have also declined significantly since 1999. This decline is partly due to increased social equality and financial freedom for women, which makes it easier for them to leave abusive relationships at earlier stages. However, after falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined. In 2009, the rate of self-reported spousal violence was the same as in 2004. Unfortunately, reporting rates have not improved over the years. Victims of domestic violence are now less likely to report an incident to police.

How far we have to go

Despite these significant gains, women still lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions. For example, only four per cent of CEOs in Canada’s top 500 companies are women. Ninety-six per cent are men.

Women are also seriously outnumbered among Canada’s elected representatives. Although there are more women in politics now than in 1974, when only four per cent of MPs were women, men still outnumber women four to one among Canada’s elected representatives. And the Conservative caucus is a mere 17 per cent female compared to more than 40 per cent for the NDP.

Women also have a long way to go in terms of pay equity. Even with a university degree, women on average earned almost $30,000 less than men in 2008.

In some areas, women are actually losing ground. For instance, the percentage of women appointed to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations has dropped from 37 per cent before Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, to 32.5 per cent. The numbers for judge appointments are even worse. Fewer than a third of federally-appointed judges by the Conservatives were women. By comparison, nearly 40 per cent of the judges appointed in 2005 by the then Liberal government were women. The Supreme Court of Canada’s high-water mark for women judges was four out of nine. Under Harper, we have slipped to three. As we saw with the attempted appointment of Marc Nadon, the Conservatives have no intention of remedying the imbalance.

Despite these stark comparisons, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has tried to defend his government’s low rate of female appointments by blaming women. Earlier this year he stated that women don’t apply to be judges because they fear the job will take them away from their children– and that children need their mothers more than their fathers.

In BC, the numbers for judicial appointments are no better. Last fall, retired B.C. Supreme Court judge Donna Martinson wrote that only five women and one non-Caucasian were included among 31 judicial appointments since January 2009.

Violence against women is another area where progress has stalled or started to backslide. Rates of self-reported violent victimization against women have not decreased between 1999 and 2009. In 2010, the rate of intimate partner homicide committed against females increased by 19 per cent, the third increase in four years.

In Canada, the backsliding of women’s progress may be partially attributable to our government’s lack of commitment to women’s equality. In 2006, the Conservatives cut Status of Women Canada’s budget by 37 percent and closed 12 of its 16 regional offices. They also eliminated funding to women’s groups doing research, advocacy and lobbying.

This may be one reason the UN Annual Human Development Index for 2012 revealed that inequality in Canada is actually growing.

New forms of misogyny

Beyond the traditional indicators of women’s progress, we see girls facing new forms of sexism in their daily lives. In many ways, these new forms are even more pervasive and difficult to escape. Like cyberbullying, the sexualisation of women and girls in the media and the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

The effects of these new forms of misogyny are devastating. Eighty per cent of ten year old girls in America say they have been on a diet. The number one magic wish for young girls age 11 to 17 is to be thinner. With these numbers it should come as no surprise that we are seeing record declines in mental health among adolescent girls.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual violence. In 2008, over 11,000 sexual assaults of girls under the age of 18 were reported to police in Canada. Since only about ten per cent of assaults are reported, the actual number is much higher. Rates of sexual assault are much higher for certain populations of girls. Tragically, about 75 per cent of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual exploitation on a global scale. The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty per cent of them are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The way I see it, feminism is not irrelevant. Girls today need feminism now more than ever. In the next several posts, I will be exploring the new ways sexism is impacting girls today, and how feminism can be utilized to help them.

-Kaity

Picture: “feminism” by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Vancouver field hockey players forced to wear skirts for (at least) another year

If you’d have told me when I was twelve, and writing my first speeches about equality for my local Rotary Club, that my first real experience of discrimination would be at the hands of a field hockey league, I’d have thought you were joking. Then again, if you’d have told me when I was twelve that at 28 I would be forced to play a sport I love wearing a spandex miniskirt I would not wear to the bar, I probably would have had a similar reaction.

As some of you will already know, I have taken on the mandatory skirt for women field hockey players as somewhat of a pet project. For those of you who don’t already know, here it is in a nutshell.

I’ve played field hockey since I was 13. It’s a great sport. But there is one problem. Field hockey is the last remaining sport (I know of) that requires its female athletes to play in a skirt. Why is this a problem? Because, as the United Nations and Australian Sports Commission recognize, feminine uniforms sexualize female athletes. This trivializes women’s sports, lowers self-esteem, perpetuates stereotypes, discourages participation and even promotes the sexual harassment of women athletes. I could go on, and in fact I have, here.

In Vancouver, women field hockey players have asked the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League to be permitted to play in shorts no fewer than three times in the past few years. Each time their request has been denied.

The last request was made by my team on November 20, 2014.

On that day, I, along with several of my teammates, attended a meeting of the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League for one purpose: to change the League constitution to give players the choice to wear shorts as part of their uniform.

We did not have in mind anything radical. We knew that many players like the skirt and so we had no intention of taking that away from them. We merely wanted to give individual players who, like me, might not feel comfortable playing in a skirt, a choice. And so we asked that “or shorts” be added to the definition of uniform in the League constitution.

“Each team shall have its playing uniform, consisting of shirt, skirt or shorts, and socks ready for use by the first league game.”

When it came time for me to introduce the motion, this is what I said:

“My name is Kaity. I am a member of Jokers IV. I’m here today to ask you to support my team’s efforts to make field hockey more inclusive by allowing players to choose between shorts and a skirt as part of their uniform.

This may seem like a trivial issue, but the truth is the mandatory skirt alienates women and girls who, for a number of reasons, do not feel comfortable in the skirt.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue and some of those people have been mothers and fathers of girls. And I can tell you that I have been told many times that some of these girls would choose not to play field hockey for no other reason that their discomfort with the skirt.

The reasons vary. They include self-consciousness about body image, cultural beliefs about modesty and plain discomfort with skirts.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me really sad.

I know if you are here today it is because you love field hockey. And I know you are keenly aware of its wonderful benefits including social connections, community engagement, improved health and stress relief.

I can’t believe anyone would want to purposefully exclude women and girls from these benefits.

Especially when the accommodation is so simple, and would in no way detract from the enjoyment of players who like the skirt and would choose to continue wearing it.

And so I ask you, please, support us in making this wonderful sport more welcoming to all women and girls.”

More than anything, I hoped that this invitation to usher field hockey into a new era of acceptance and inclusivity would be accepted. I hoped to conclude this campaign of mine knowing that, at least in Vancouver, no woman or girl would be forced to quit field hockey because of how the uniform made her feel.

But the field hockey community disappointed me once again. The hour debate that ensued was not about inclusion. It was about semantics and appearances.

Some members claimed to be confused by the wording of the motion. Did the amendment mean that whole teams had to wear shorts? How could the choice be the individual’s when the word “individual” did not appear in the amendment?

Other members thought the amendment must involve replacing the word “uniform” with “designated clothing” because uniform connotes one outfit and not a choice between two. (Just like you can’t call private school uniforms “uniforms” because girls have a choice between skirts and pants, oh wait…)

But by far, the prevailing topic of discussion was how the motion would impact the appearance of the players.

One member expressed the view that as Canada’s largest field hockey league, it was important that our players looked good. Many agreed that an important part of looking good was looking all the same. Another member said her club took a particular interest in the appearance of their players. If one of their players wanted to play in a ball gown, they would say no.

Another was not convinced that any players were discouraged to join field hockey because of the uniform requirement. Her players had always considered the skirt a badge of honour. She disagreed that the skirt sexualizes athletes and noted that shorts can be sexual too if they are short enough.

One member expressed concern that referees would not be able to distinguish between the different teams if the players’ bottoms were not exactly the same. (Oh course the different jerseys and socks would be no help in that regard.)

One club acknowledged that at least one of its teams would choose to wear shorts but expressed concern that this would impact a sponsorship deal it had with a particular uniform supplier.

Sadly, in that full hour discussion, I can recall only one statement in support of the principle of inclusivity. One. But even that statement was quickly followed with a “but” and ultimately did not support the motion.

This stands in sharp contrast to the reactions I’ve witnessed from the general public. Which generally have been reactions of shock and outrage that in 2014 this is still an issue.

Ultimately, someone suggested that the motion be tabled for another day. That motion passed by a vote of 55 to 26.

Defeated, my team made one last request: that until this motion is decided, the penalty for wearing shorts be reduced to a game card notion rather than being kicked out of the game. After all, that had been the penalty for the last three years and continues to be the penalty for other uniform infractions. No one was able to provide a satisfactory explanation why wearing shorts is penalized more severely than any other infraction. Nonetheless, our request was denied by a vote of 41 to 35. And so it stands, no woman wearing shorts will be permitted to play field hockey in Vancouver.

I am generally an optimistic person. I would love to believe that the members present on November 20, 2014 really do care about inclusion and really did just need some more time to discuss the issue with their teams. Two years ago I would have. But I’ve been here before. After witnessing three failed attempts to introduce the option of shorts to field hockey, I am starting to believe that there is real resistance to equality and inclusion in this community. I hope to be proven wrong in February, when this motion is raised for a fourth time. Oh, how I hope. But I am not naive. And I am not holding my breath.

-Kaity