Little Dark Age (still)

-- By MarianaFranceseCoutinho - 10 Oct 2019

I feel somewhat conflicted about the time we are living in. It is arguably the best time ever to exist as a woman – at least in the countries I have lived in so far – but, at the same time, it is not really such a great time being a woman. We can vote, yes; and own properties and work (supposedly) wherever we want, among other basic things that men have been allowed to do for centuries. Gender equality is a well-known, legally guaranteed concept. Still, it would be nice to be able to walk down the street without feeling the need to hear loud music to muffle catcalls, or without feeling uncomfortable when walking past a bar full of leering men. Even if on a certain bar there are men of the non-leering variety, that feeling of unsafety is still there, going down the street with you.

That feeling follows us in every aspect of our life: let’s not ask questions in class so as not to be bothersome; let’s not answer them so as not to appear too full of ourselves; let’s turn down these guys with a smile so as not to anger them, no matter their approach. We are vulnerable and fragile creatures, indecisive and nice, because those are the restraints we were put in. Despite the legal acknowledgement that we do not belong in an inferior, limited place, the societal struggle to keep us there (undoubtedly for our own benefit and protection) continues. Enter: the internet.

Our tools for communication are increasingly being concentrated online. The internet now contains our news sources, ways of studying and working, methods of socializing. Everything that happens off-line bleeds onto the online environment, with the added bonus that the internet allows people to express themselves freely, without tangible borders, and often with anonymity. This little bonus is a double-edged sword: it can allow you to find and interact with your brothers and sisters-in-arms in subjects that matter to you, but it also enables people to externalize all the prejudicial manure originally confined to their brains with virtual impunity. This means it is not a great time for being a woman on the internet as well.

A 2017 study revealed that almost half of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online. Women, however, are about twice as likely as men to have been targeted as a result of their gender; encounter sexualized forms of abuse at much higher rates than men; and over half of them have received explicit images they did not ask for. More tellingly, men and women have very diverging views on how important online harassment is as an issue: women want people to feel welcome and safe in online spaces, while men value speaking their mind freely. Half of women think offensive online content is too often excused as not being a big deal, while many men think people take it too seriously. A vast percentage of women view online harassment as a major problem, but only half of men do. In short, while everyone can be a victim of online harassment, women receive a different kind of abuse. We value feeling safe and not being attacked in the virtual portion of our lives. Apparently, a good amount of men think women are just making a fuss.

When researching ways for making the internet a safer space for women, I came upon a number of different suggestions. Some of those were borderline misogynistic in nature, while many others seemed to mimic recommendations for not attracting attention off-line: be discrete; do not give people a reason to talk; if possible, do not even let people know you are a girl. Self-censorship, however effective, is not the answer I want to give. It works against personal freedom. The root of the problem is not our existence or actions. I do not want to stay safe, I want to be safe.

Truth is, I do believe that we need pretty fundamental changes in society to achieve fairness to women off-line and online. The men that do not care about making the internet a safe place most likely do not care about women’s safety on the streets either; after all, their notion of unsafety is being robbed at gunpoint, not being coerced into dressing or behaving a certain way just to avoid attracting some kind of attention when you want to just be. And, unfortunately for me, I still have no idea how to go about advocating something that should be so obvious. I am lucky enough to live in a bubble of reasonable people; the men in my life are actually terrified by the notion of me becoming a traditional housewife. I do not have anyone to lecture. I do not even have enough of an online presence to be harassed anymore. I could call out the catcallers, but I have yet to encounter one in the Netherlands (and back home I would be scared to pick a fight).

Fundamental changes to the online environment, though, are a different story. A major portion of online harassment occurs where we interact with each other: social media. The good part about the internet being borderless is that you get to impose measures all over – it is not illegal for Facebook or Instagram to delete people’s posts or profiles if they do not comply with their guidelines. The bad part is that social media companies would have to draft and apply serious guidelines against harassment and, most importantly, decide to punish the very users who make them money, which is highly unlikely. Still, having social media platforms nip violence against women in the bud – of even developing dedicated teams to deal with internet safety issues and demonstrating their willingness to actually take harassment accusations seriously – would go a very long way towards making women feel safer online.

Educating women on how to protect their privacy online and how to engage with local policy makers and activists might also aid in the development of new policies to protect women’s safety online. That could be done through online campaigns by governmental bodies, NGOs or even social media companies. A tangible measure that would help with online insecurity is the creation of dedicated channels for reporting women’s online safety issues, offering guidance on what to do in case it occurs – even better if it belongs to trained law enforcement officers.

Just being listened to and being taken seriously could already have a great impact in making women feel safer online.

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