A WHILE BACK, we started talking about cyber stalking at UV and over at GenderIT, I came across this article on cyber crime which got me thinking again. One of the things that writer Weiting Xu talks about is how women in cyberspace are particularly vulnerable in much the same way as they are offline:
On the one hand, ICT have created opportunities to combat inequality through movements and communities against issues that were once deemed ‘private’, such as domestic violence and sex trafficking. On the other hand, ICT exacerbate existing structures of inequality by enabling cyber criminals to access and misuse private information to target vulnerable groups.
Offering advice such as “stay away from chatrooms” or “don’t give give out personal information online”, advocates against cyber crime suggest that these users/consumers are ‘victims’ who should minimise their online interactions because they do not know how to protect themselves adequately, instead of addressing this through capacity building or awareness raising measures. Minority and marginalised groups that are vulnerable to cyber crime are thus even further discouraged from participation.
The problem with the ‘don’t write / don’t engage’ argument is that it once again places the onus on women. ‘Avoid men who may misbehave.’ ‘Don’t write (wear) provocative stuff. ‘If you’re going to go out there, you’re asking for it.’ Sounds familiar? So it’s interesting that after years of fighting some of these ridiculous notions when it comes to rape, we’re echoing the same mistakes in a different sphere.
The other argument commonly used against women who complain about cyber harassment is ‘develop a thick skin’. It’s a grim echo of the advice often given to women facing sexual harassment at the workplace. Unless the advances are unabashedly physical, they are often told to lump it with a laugh. ‘Lewd jokes from the boss? Just ignore it yaar.’ (As an aside, this was the kind of peer pressure that led me to put up with verbal sexual harassment for more than a month during which I steadily slid into depression. ‘Kicking up a fuss’ was the best thing I did after that.) So the problem with that argument is that the boss continues behaving like an ass, and you probably suffer humiliation and worry that you shouldn’t have to.
By ‘developing a thick skin’, we often subtly condone unjust or inhuman behavior. By telling other women to constantly do so, we apply peer pressure that’s hard to shake off. How many women have endured everything ranging from domestic violence to forced abortions because other women told them it was something they shouldn’t complain about? Both kinds of advice are just versions of the ‘adjust kar lo’ mentality that has been force-fed women for centuries now.
The third argument often used in cases of cyber stalking is ‘stand up to the bully’. Of course, this is something we should all learn to do. But when the bullying reaches levels that are hard to fight without stooping to similar behaviour, what’s the answer? For example, take the case of popular blogger Kathy Sierra who received death threats on her comments space and on social networking sites. Death threats that included mangled images of her complete with sexual innuendo. When she protested, the perpetrators disappeared behind fake IDs and vanishing server logs. Sierra was unable to continue blogging.
Responding to the Kathy Sierra case, celebrity blogger Robert Scoble said:
It’s this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop. I really don’t care if you attack me. I take those attacks in my stride. But, whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn’t happen if the interviewee were a man.
And it’s true that many of the things women face online are a reflection of attitudes towards them in the real world. ‘A culture of hate’. Awareness, sensitization and policing need to work hand in hand to change this culture — online and off it. (Or we can leave the victims to fight their own battles but I’m assuming that this site exists because most of us feel slightly differently about the world.)
The tough question here is one of free speech. What are the compromises we are willing to make? I admit there are no easy answers. I haven’t been able to reach any sweeping conclusions on what lines of control we can draw. The Internet is a new space and we’re all still fumbling around. But the fact that setting the right lines of control may be difficult should not deter us from looking at the problem. Nor should it lead us to facile, one-line solutions that threaten to silence the victims and bury it even before it can be acknowledged.