• Paula Koller-Alonso

Our Cyber Space: An Unregulated Place

Cyber sexual harassment is on the rise, and is targeting younger women

When I was 13, social media was only just on the rise. We created our first Facebook accounts. Our first email addresses to log onto Facebook. Our first photos for our profile pictures. We’d poke our first crush.

But we also had our first conversations that made us feel uncomfortable. We were told not to accept any friend requests from strangers. To not post any photos with drinks in fear of university admissions departments. To not share any provocative photos that could possibly entice older men.

Even back in 2007 we, the girls, were already told to limit our activities on cyberspace, as there are bad people out there who wish us harm. To not do certain things that could provoke, attract, tempt people who had bad intentions. Instead of trusting in the system to protect us, parents, teachers, guardians, told us to be careful.

But that’s a narrative we as women are used to. Out on the street we put our keys between our hands to protect ourselves. In clubs we cover our drinks with our hands to prevent having them spiked. At work we do not wear “provocative” clothing to fight off any sexual harassment. So why should it be different online?

The Reality of Social Media

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, have always been unregulated. It’s what has given them such power to continue collecting data and using it to their advantage. However, this unregulated nature also increases the risk of women in cyberspace. The diffusion of new technologies and access to the internet has not only reinforced existing forms of violence against women, but also created new methods, such as cyber sexual harassment.

Cyber sexual harassment is defined as unwanted sexual conduct on any digital platform. It is also recognised as a form of sexual violence. It can encompass a wide range of different behaviours and methods that use digital content on a variety of platforms, ranging from social media, to dating apps, to chat rooms and online video games.

Types of cyber sexual harassment span different kinds of criminal conduct: a person’s images and videos being shared without consent (e.g. upskirting or revenge porn); a person receiving sexual threats, being coerced to participate in sexual behaviour online (e.g. rape threats, sextortion); a person being targeted by and systematically excluded from a group with the use of sexual content (e.g. body shaming, rumours about sexual behaviour); a person receiving unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content (e.g. rating peers on attractiveness).

In the European Union, 20% of women have experienced cyber sexual harassment. 14% of women also said they had experienced cyber stalking since the age of 15. As often, these numbers do not reflect the true quantity of women who are afraid to report, are not aware it is occurring to them, or are enticed into believing this is normal behaviour.

And it might be true that in the last decade the exponential growth of social media, and the simultaneous lack of regulation has made us believe that this is normal. Has allowed society to normalise this type of behaviour. Has led us to think that this criminal conduct is just something that we can never control, so we should learn to protect ourselves.

So instead of trying to regulate the platforms, or incriminating the perpetrators, women are advised to “not feed the trolls”, to “go offline”, or to “change your privacy settings”. Because if someone writes something nasty under your photo, maybe it’s because your Instagram is public. Because if someone shares nude photos, maybe you shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. Because if someone threatens you online with rape, maybe you should not have flirted with a stranger.

We are told to use silencing strategies against cyber sexual harassment, instead of raising our voices and fighting against what is criminal behaviour. Imagine telling a victim of robbery, “what do you expect if you wear Gucci shoes”. Imagine telling a scam victim, “what do you expect if you open that link”. Imagine telling a victim of cyberbullying, “what do you expect if you’re not cool”.

We wouldn’t. So why should we advise women to change their online behaviour instead? In fact, between 63-83% of women who experienced online abuse or harassment changed the way they use social media platforms. And these silencing strategies are actually more dangerous than fighting the problem and than raising our voice.

This is because silencing women only reflects and contributes to the normalisation of cyber violence and sexual harassment. But in the meantime, the targets' perspectives are covered up and their stories are not being heard or shared. As the European Parliament said, women are thus “being victim-blamed for patterns they are not responsible for and victims of”.

In the meantime, women are advised not to challenge and just to resist such abusive language. Yet, not only are we then letting the harassers and perpetrators win and continue these blatant cyber crimes, but we are discouraging women from raising their voices when injustices are being perpetrated.

Instead, we should ensure that perpetrators do not hide against a façade of anonymity, and that cyber sexual harassment is reported and spoked up about. Perpetrators of any type of violence and abuse should always be brought to justice. But those who believe they can use the absence of rules and accountability of online spaces, should be shown that we are logging their behaviour.

I wish I could tell my 13-year old self to block that creepy guy who kept sending me friend requests. To post that photo if I thought I looked great. To tell my parents about the cyberbullying I encountered. To report that older man who sent me inappropriate photos. But instead I'll tell this to all 13-years olds now. Because if we tell the younger generation now, maybe they will never have to go through the abuse we faced.


Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space

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