As work and school moved went virtual so did gender-based violence. With online harassment and abuse, ‘there isn’t really an escape’

A little over a month ago, Emily Feairs, a self-employed Toronto communications and career coach, was attending a virtual conference for women entrepreneurs when an unwelcome guest crashed the meeting.“It was a small group, and we were all chatting and getting to know each other while we waited for a few other people who were registered,” recalls Feairs. “And then the chat was suddenly over-run with this really old-school image made from emojis that was obviously meant to be a woman licking a penis.”Feairs continues: “And there was music blaring and it was played on a five to 10 second loop of these very explicit lyrics. Even on the lowest level it seemed like it was busting my speakers.”The host was unable to mute the sound or evict the guest. Everyone left and started a new session a few minutes later. And, although they laughed about it, Feairs says she was shaken up and thinks the others were, too, which would be par for the course with people who experience gender-based violence. Although a lot of talk about the threat of gender-based violence in the age of COVID-19 has focused on domestic abuse and women’s safety on quieter streets, online sexual harassment and abuse is also on the rise — largely because many of us are working or going to school online. “We spoke to 14,000 girls, ages 15 to 25, from around the world in dozens of countries and found that over half of those experienced online abuse and harassment at some point in their lives on a social media platform,” says Alana Livesey, senior advisor, gender equality at Plan International Canada, which conducted the survey and published the report “Free to Be Online” late last year. “And it was even higher for girls in Canada, at over 60 per cent, so it really sheds light on this area that is perhaps not as well-researched or discussed as other forms of harassment.”There are a lot of factors at play in addition to increased online usage. Despite the fact that digital footprints are a real thing, people feel anonymous online and, therefore, say or do things they would never do face-to-face. And, on most forums, there are few effective gatekeepers.“Ever since a lot of learning went online, there’s been a pronounced change in how engagement is happening in classrooms,” says Nicole McFadyen, PhD, and instructor at York University. “Whereas before I would be in a room and was able to see what was going on, now it’s a digital space and I don’t have the same oversight over student interactions. I have no control over students taking screen grabs, for example, from their own devices and, with it, there’s a risk that students, particularly women, may not know someone else is taking a picture of them.”McFadyen, who is also a researcher at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children, points out that women having their pictures taken without their knowledge and posted online isn’t a new phenomenon, but that now there’s more opportunity, especially in school or workplaces where the powers that be require students and employees to be on camera during Zoom or Teams meetings.That requirement also opens up a whole other set of issues. “For many women who are in shared living situations, their office may also be their bedroom,” says McFadyen. “One instance that comes to mind is a woman who had her camera off and then was chastised for that, so she turned it on and then was threatened with discipline because her bed was visible in the background.” As our new work-life configurations continue to erode boundaries between public and private space, online gender-based violence takes on new dimensions.“What we heard from young women and adolescent girls about online harassment and abuse is that you can’t really escape it at home,” says Plan International Canada’s Livesey. “When I was younger, you might be bullied by a child face-to-face, but then you could go back to the comfort of your home and feel safe. With online harassment and abuse, there isn’t really an escape. It’s always kind of with you, being brought into your house or being carried with you in your pocket as you walk down the street.”Livesey says a lot of victims of online gender-based violence feel physically threatened and, as such, often use online spaces less or disconnect completely. The short-term ramifications of logging off are obvious, since women and girls are cutting themselves off from school, work and social life. On a larger level, though, this represents voices being silenced in the public sphere out of fear of abuse and harassment, threatening women’s current and future civic engagement on a societal level.“I haven’t been back to that group, actually,” says Feairs, regarding the entrepreneur meetings, “I don’t know how much of that is attached to the incident, but when I host my own events I am now hyper-conscious about comparing the list of people with the people in the waiting room. Sometimes it feels like we’re spending so much

As work and school moved went virtual so did gender-based violence. With online harassment and abuse, ‘there isn’t really an escape’

A little over a month ago, Emily Feairs, a self-employed Toronto communications and career coach, was attending a virtual conference for women entrepreneurs when an unwelcome guest crashed the meeting.

“It was a small group, and we were all chatting and getting to know each other while we waited for a few other people who were registered,” recalls Feairs. “And then the chat was suddenly over-run with this really old-school image made from emojis that was obviously meant to be a woman licking a penis.”

Feairs continues: “And there was music blaring and it was played on a five to 10 second loop of these very explicit lyrics. Even on the lowest level it seemed like it was busting my speakers.”

The host was unable to mute the sound or evict the guest. Everyone left and started a new session a few minutes later. And, although they laughed about it, Feairs says she was shaken up and thinks the others were, too, which would be par for the course with people who experience gender-based violence.

Although a lot of talk about the threat of gender-based violence in the age of COVID-19 has focused on domestic abuse and women’s safety on quieter streets, online sexual harassment and abuse is also on the rise — largely because many of us are working or going to school online.

“We spoke to 14,000 girls, ages 15 to 25, from around the world in dozens of countries and found that over half of those experienced online abuse and harassment at some point in their lives on a social media platform,” says Alana Livesey, senior advisor, gender equality at Plan International Canada, which conducted the survey and published the report “Free to Be Online” late last year. “And it was even higher for girls in Canada, at over 60 per cent, so it really sheds light on this area that is perhaps not as well-researched or discussed as other forms of harassment.”

There are a lot of factors at play in addition to increased online usage. Despite the fact that digital footprints are a real thing, people feel anonymous online and, therefore, say or do things they would never do face-to-face. And, on most forums, there are few effective gatekeepers.

“Ever since a lot of learning went online, there’s been a pronounced change in how engagement is happening in classrooms,” says Nicole McFadyen, PhD, and instructor at York University. “Whereas before I would be in a room and was able to see what was going on, now it’s a digital space and I don’t have the same oversight over student interactions. I have no control over students taking screen grabs, for example, from their own devices and, with it, there’s a risk that students, particularly women, may not know someone else is taking a picture of them.”

McFadyen, who is also a researcher at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children, points out that women having their pictures taken without their knowledge and posted online isn’t a new phenomenon, but that now there’s more opportunity, especially in school or workplaces where the powers that be require students and employees to be on camera during Zoom or Teams meetings.

That requirement also opens up a whole other set of issues.

“For many women who are in shared living situations, their office may also be their bedroom,” says McFadyen. “One instance that comes to mind is a woman who had her camera off and then was chastised for that, so she turned it on and then was threatened with discipline because her bed was visible in the background.”

As our new work-life configurations continue to erode boundaries between public and private space, online gender-based violence takes on new dimensions.

“What we heard from young women and adolescent girls about online harassment and abuse is that you can’t really escape it at home,” says Plan International Canada’s Livesey. “When I was younger, you might be bullied by a child face-to-face, but then you could go back to the comfort of your home and feel safe. With online harassment and abuse, there isn’t really an escape. It’s always kind of with you, being brought into your house or being carried with you in your pocket as you walk down the street.”

Livesey says a lot of victims of online gender-based violence feel physically threatened and, as such, often use online spaces less or disconnect completely. The short-term ramifications of logging off are obvious, since women and girls are cutting themselves off from school, work and social life. On a larger level, though, this represents voices being silenced in the public sphere out of fear of abuse and harassment, threatening women’s current and future civic engagement on a societal level.

“I haven’t been back to that group, actually,” says Feairs, regarding the entrepreneur meetings, “I don’t know how much of that is attached to the incident, but when I host my own events I am now hyper-conscious about comparing the list of people with the people in the waiting room. Sometimes it feels like we’re spending so much time creating safe spaces that we don’t have time to focus on actually doing the work and creating civic engagement.”

The stakes are high, which is why awareness-raising initiatives like the Respect at Work survey that McFadyen is involved in are important. Plan International has been working to help reform digital spaces by urging social media companies to implement and enforce rules to end online harassment. It’s also important to encourage young women to feel like they have a right to be online — and safe.

“One really neat initiative that we have in several countries is ‘Girls Out Loud’, a closed Facebook group piloted in Columbia with, I believe, a thousand girls,” says Livesey. “Girls can join safely and share information, so they basically direct the conversation. A lot of the questions that the girls were asking were around COVID-19, health and how to get help, so that leads to conversations around gender-based violence and community protective mechanisms, so we’re really trying to scale it up.”

Since walking away from the digital sphere isn’t an option for most of us, now — more than ever — the only choice we have is to reform it.

This week, to mark International Women’s Day, we are running a series called ‘Women in the Pandemic,’ which examines the social impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of women.

Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based writer and contributor to the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @sismondo

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