Report – Transforming Society – #metoo and how digital communities help to resist and recover from gender-based violence

This Domestic Violence Awareness month, Sanna Koulu and Christine Barter look at how, while digital technology can be usurped by GBV perpetrators, it can also provide unprecedented opportunities for survivor resistance and recovery. To respond effectively, research needs to better understand how technological GBV operates and how it connects with wider societal oppressions. 

In late 2017, #metoo burst onto the public landscape and sparked a global debate on sexual harassment and abuse. We remember the way the hashtag spread like wildfire across our social media channels, as numerous friends shared their experiences; the viral nature of the campaign and the power it offered to the poster to divulge as much or as little as they wanted or felt able, was revelatory.

The simplicity of #metoo, coined originally by Tarana Burke in 2006, invited participation and acted as a powerful statement of self-expression and community. The open-ended hashtag format enabled a multitude of perspectives and experiences. In this sense, it echoes the earlier Swedish campaign centred on the hashtag #prataomdet, which simply invited people to ‘talk about it’. At their heart, both campaigns empower survivors to choose their own level of engagement and expression.

The #metoo campaign has been criticised, especially around how public attention has tended to align with existing patterns of privilege. Nevertheless, the campaign has provided many people with new opportunities and spaces to share their experiences. This is incredibly valuable and reminds us that while digital technologies and environments can be co-opted as avenues for harassment and abuse, they also offer tools for connection and resistance.

Digital technologies and violence 

There is much in the digital age that requires privilege and access to participate fully. Digital literacy, as well as the availability of technology, are distributed along broadly similar lines as other forms of privilege. For example, technologically facilitated violence and abuse often become gendered: the expectation is that technology is a masculine domain and that men are ‘naturally’ more tech-savvy. This expectation can then be employed by perpetrators as a way of reinforcing abuse, such as in cases of technologically facilitated domestic violence.

In her excellent essay on domestic abuse in the digital age, Yee Man Louie explored the unique challenges that immigrants from culturally and linguistically diverse communities face when experiencing domestic abuse, noting that ‘abusers would manipulate the financial status, English aptitude, digital literacy or immigrant status’ of the victim-survivors. Yee Man Louie’s essay shows how digital literacy intersects with other aspects in the lives of her research participants and points out the importance of attending to the wider context where domestic abuse takes place.

We are honoured to have been able to contribute to this emerging discussion through a special issue we have edited for the Journal of Gender-Based Violence. You can read the editorial here. The papers cover a wide range of topics related to the gendered aspects of technologically facilitated violence and abuse, and we are delighted the special issue is now out. We hope it will shed light on the importance as well as the complexities of gender in the context of technologically facilitated violence and abuse.

The special issue covers research on several aspects of gender-based violence and technology, from how digital media can be used by perpetrators, including fathers’ post-separation use of digital technologies to stalk and abuse their children, through to innovative service delivery and challenges around digital access for young people in refuge provision. Many of the questions addressed in the special issue are sadly all too familiar, but new issues arise with the inclusion of digital media and other technologies, including smart homes. It makes sense that many service providers feel a need for more specialised training and information on how to address technologically facilitated intimate partner violence.

Gender-based violence: not just an individual issue

We started to plan this special issue during the 2019 European Conference on Domestic Violence (ECDV) in Oslo and one thing we wanted to include were perspectives on how the intimate aspects of gender-based violence connect to the broader societal issues of sexism and racism. Domestic violence and gender-based violence do not exist in a vacuum but are intrinsically connected to wider structural and cultural forms of violence: that is the aspects of culture and society that contribute to and underpin violence. As papers in the special issue show, we need to pay attention to the development and use of digital technologies and environments to ensure we don’t simply reinforce existing systems of oppression.

While technology can be usurped by perpetrators it also provides new possibilities for service delivery and response, and vital spaces for resistance and recovery. It is important to consider how those possibilities and spaces can be made accessible to everyone, and for that we need to also know what challenges this brings. For example, one paper in the special issue shows that a lack of technical hardware or private spaces can hinder participation in online perpetrator programmes.

What’s next? 

In the two years since the 2019 ECDV, we have seen the world change in unprecedented ways due to COVID-19. Global restrictions, including stay-at-home directives, have inadvertently made it even harder for GBV victims to escape and seek support. However, the unparalleled scale of change has also accelerated progress on developing and implementing innovative service responses to support GBV survivors and their families. However, as digital service delivery becomes more commonplace and digital environments increasingly provide global sites for resistance, it is more imperative than ever that we pay close attention to digital inequalities. As Shruti Jain argues, ‘Cyberfeminism cannot be viewed as the panacea for a universal claim of gender equality’.

As a society, and as communities, we need to work on tech awareness and access and on empowering victim-survivors – while also recognising and mitigating how cultural violence and marginalisation exacerbate the effects of violence and decrease access to support. Campaigns such as #metoo are just a start, and an imperfect one at that, but as we saw in 2017, they can also be a powerful catalyst for social change. Digital technology can indeed be positioned as either the worst of things or the best of things, but however it is viewed it represents an inescapable feature of all our lives.

Sanna Koulu, University of Lapland and Christine Barter, Connect Centre at the University of Central Lancashire.

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