My Story! — Amanda Todd
On September 7th, 2012, a Canadian teenage girl, Amanda Todd, posted a video on YouTube titled “My story: the struggle, the bullying, the suicide, self-harm”. Amanda hasn’t spoken a single word throughout the 9 minutes long video. She only showed handwritten cards, one after the other. What Amanda wrote on those cards was her story that started 3 years before. She was only thirteen, in the 7th grade, and had just moved to a new town to live with her father. Amanda used video chat on the Internet to make new friends in her new town and school. Through the video chat service, the young teenager started receiving compliments on her beauty, then a stranger started asking her to show her breasts on the webcam. Amanda resisted his insistent demands for a year before complying with them. Thus started her suffering that lasted till her suicide on October 10th, 2012.
The stranger threatened to send her naked photo to her family and schoolmates if she wouldn’t give him a “show”, and thus he got more photos to threaten her with them. Despite submitting to his demands, Amanda was surprised when she found out that her photo was being circulated over the Internet. The police informed her of this information at 4 o’clock in the morning on 2010 Christmas vacation day. The next two years of Amanda’s short life were a series of repeated events: moving from one town to another, and from one school to the other, escaping her stalker who, regardless of her efforts, has always managed to find her each time. Each time he would find her acquaintances, her schoolmates, her teachers, etc., and expose her to them. Her schoolmates catch the info and use it to humiliate her. She suffers emotional stress, starts drinking, her distress deteriorates, and she starts self-mutilation and attempts suicide. After spending some time in hospital, her schoolmates would call her a psycho. She was never out of this circle until her last suicide attempt was successful, after a month of posting her video, a last cry for help that fell on deaf ears.
Only after her death that people were interested in Amanda’s video. It received 1.6 million viewings in three days after her suicide. Today it has been watched 14.8 million times. Amanda’s suffering wasn’t a secret for the two years preceding her death. Many knew about it, some informed the police that she was a victim of online sexual extortion, but the police informed her parents that there was nothing they can do. Today, 10 years after her death, a trial of her stalker, abuser, and blackmailer has just started in June 2022.
The way Amanda’s story shocked millions of people, in Canada and throughout the world, makes her case seem to be a rare exception, but the truth is the opposite. Today, ten years after Amanda’s death, what we know about millions of similar cases has become much more than what was known then. But it is still not enough to combat the constant perpetuation of such cases and others that can be categorized as what we today call cyberviolence against women through digital technology tools. Why is it difficult for our societies across the world to deal efficiently with such a widely prevalent phenomenon, that causes such harm and damage and in many cases goes as far as loss of lives? The roots of this societal inability to stop cyberviolence against women are themselves the roots of societal inability to stop violence against women in general, and before that to stop the discrimination against women in its myriad forms. This fact constitutes the general framework only through which can cyberviolence against women phenomenon be conceptualized.
For a more detailed understanding of the cyberviolence against women phenomenon, Jessica West suggests in “Cyber Violence Against Women” (West, 2014) a set of pertaining questions:
- In what way do women experience cyberviolence against them?
- How this kind of violence impacts women’s lives?
- How do women resist and fight back against this kind of violence?
- How does society respond to victims of cyberviolence?
What is Cyberviolence Against Women?
A 2017 report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) explains that cyberviolence against women and girls hasn’t been fully conceptualized yet, and by the time the report was issued, there hadn’t been a European legislation that deals with it. The problem with defining cyberviolence against women is first that the concept of cyberviolence itself still needs to have a well-defined framework while it is still common to deny that acts committed through electronic media, and the Internet, in particular, can be considered violent in the traditional way. Suzie Dunn, in a chapter titled “Is it Actually Violence? Framing Technology-Facilitated Abuse as Violence“, in The Emerald International Handbook of Technology-Facilitated Violence and Abuse :
While international human rights standards, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (United Nations General Assembly, 1979), have long recognized emotional and psychological abuse as forms of violence, including many forms of technology-facilitated abuse (United Nations, 2018), law makers and the general public continue to grapple with the question of whether certain harmful technology-facilitated behaviors are actually forms of violence.
What generally distinguishes Cyberviolence is the ease of committing it due to “the anonymity of violence perpetrators on the Internet,” (West, 2014) which makes them feel immune to retribution. Those who don’t commit violence in daily life, offline, may find the courage to commit it through a medium that allows them to hide their identities. On the other hand, the damage suffered through cyberviolence is long-term. In most cases, it might outlive its victim due to “digital permanence”, i.e., the fact that content posted to the Internet, due to being copyable, exchangeable, and storable for an endless number of times, it is impossible to guarantee its disappearance, either on its own or even with insistent attempts to erase it. The damaging content will continue to hunt its victims for as long as they live, producing more outcomes that can’t be guaranteed to cause less damage with time.
But even with the recognition that digital media and technology-facilitated violence is actual violence, there is still difficulty for some to understand the gendered framing that distinguishes cyberviolence when it targets women and girls. The report by the EIGE points out that much of the statistical evidence defines a clear borderline separating the rates and impacts of cyberviolence against women compared to the same against men. Firstly, “women are disproportionately targets of specific types of violence”. The report cites a survey conducted in Germany with more than 9000 respondents whose ages ranged from 15 to 50 years, finding that “women are multiple times more likely than men to experience online sexual harassment, and with much more traumatizing impacts.” The report also cites results of a survey by the Pew Research Center in the USA, which found that “while men are a little more likely than women to experience relatively mild forms of harassment online (like name-calling, and embarrassment), women (especially in the age range of 18-25 years) are much more exposed to severe forms of cyber harassment, especially cyberstalking and online sexual harassment.” The report also adds:
The current evidence suggests that the forms of violence and the resulting harm is experienced differently by women and men.
On the other side:
Experts have warned against conceptualizing cyber VAWG as a completely separate phenomenon to ‘real world’ violence, when in fact it is more appropriately seen as a continuum of offline violence.
For example, cyberstalking by a partner or ex-partner follows the same patterns as offline stalking and is therefore intimate partner violence, simply facilitated by technology. The report cites a study in the United Kingdom that found more than half the cases of cyberviolence (54%) have involved offline first encounters.
All the above emphasizes the need for understanding and studying cyberviolence against women within the framework of gender discrimination against them in general and as an extension of offline violence against women.
Working on developing a rigorous and accurate definition of cyberviolence against women can start with using existing definitions of the legal nature of violence against women in general. As an example of a rigorous definition in the language of violence against women, we find that the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence issued in 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey, defines violence against women to be: “a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women” that means:
All acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life
Therefore, cyberviolence against women, which can’t by any means be separated from the violence against women in general, can be defined in the same form without excluding any of the damage forms included in this definition, as the term “result in” doesn’t require a direct connection. Defaming acts of cyberviolence, for instance, can certainly and as per social and cultural contexts result in physical harm amounting to murder, and sexual harm amounting to rape, while of course, it is obvious that emotional and economic (loss of job for instance) forms of harm are present, as well as suffering.
Common Forms of Cyberviolence Against Women
Sexual Exploitation or Luring
This form of violence is exemplified by Amanda Todd’s story with which this paper started. Young girls, especially those beginning their teenage, are more vulnerable to this form of exploitation due to their lack of experience in dealing with adult men, and for being impatient to be recognized as young women, as an entry permit to the realm of adulthood. The gendered nature of this type of sexual exploitation is undoubtful, as West says:
The way Amanda was manipulated online by men to remove her clothes on camera was gendered. They called her beautiful and complimented her. This kind of male attention is very powerful in our culture which raises girls to have low self-esteem and be hypercritical of their bodies.
Online Gender Violence as an Aggravating Factor of Sexual Assault
This is an exclusive cyberviolence form, as the technology tools offered by the Internet and other digital technologies have opened several new doors for an endless number of complicating factors for violence perpetrated against women offline, by adding new online dimensions through social media sites and else.
The gang rape story in Steubenville, USA, offers a clear example of this type of violence. In this incident, a group of the town’s high school, members of its football team, have taken advantage of an unconscious girl and gang raped her. The perpetrators didn’t stop at that but barraged about their doings online, publishing misogynic and violent comments over the Internet associated with photos of their victim as they were violating her naked body. They also recorded and posted videos barraging about their acts, calling their victim a “dead body” and laughing about how she was “deader than OJ’s wife” and “so raped”. (West, 2014, p. 4)
West also cites Toula Foscolos who, in a piece for the Huffington Post, describes the assault as:
The unflinching, callous, and violent degradation of a young woman. A young woman their own age and running in their own circles, whom they should have protected, and yet chose to prod, poke, violate, and rape, like she was an inanimate object; a sex toy for their amusement and pleasure
This deprived behavior of human sensitivity is not limited to the perpetrators alone. School students after these events have called the victim a “whore” and encouraged the perpetrators with comments and laughs. The victim received death threats through social media and was blamed both for the violence she suffered and then for “ruining these boys’ lives” when she reported them to the police. Again it didn’t stop there, when a juvenal court convicted the rapists, “Members of the community and even mainstream media, such as CNN and the National Post, have been outspoken in their support for the boys, their regret over the loss of the boys’ promising future and their disapproval for the victim’s conduct.” Lastly, even the judge who presided over the case, admonished youth “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media”. (West, 2014. P.5)
Cyberstalking is stalking by means of email, text (or online) messages, or the Internet. Stalking involves repeated incidents, which may or may not individually be innocuous acts, but combined undermine the victim’s sense of safety and cause distress, fear, or alarm. Acts can include:
- Sending emails, text messages (SMS), or instant messages that are offensive or threatening.
- Posting offensive comments about the respondent on the Internet.
- Sharing intimate photos or videos of the respondent, on the Internet or by mobile phone.
To be considered cyberstalking, these acts must take place repeatedly and be perpetrated by the same person.
Cyber harassment can take many forms, but the most important include:
- Unwanted sexually explicit emails, text (or online) messages.
- Inappropriate or offensive advances on social networking websites or internet chat rooms.
- Threats of physical and/or sexual violence by email, text (or online) messages.
- Hate speech, meaning language that denigrates, insults, threatens, or targets an individual based on her identity (gender) and other traits (such as sexual orientation or disability).
Also known as cyber exploitation or ‘revenge porn’, non-consensual pornography involves the online distribution of sexually graphic photographs or videos without the consent of the individual in the images. The perpetrator is often an ex-partner who obtains images or videos during a prior relationship and aims to publicly shame and humiliate the victim. However, perpetrators are not necessarily partners or ex-partners and the motive is not always revenge. Images can also be obtained by hacking into the victim’s computer, social media accounts, or phone, and can aim to inflict real damage on the target’s ‘real-world’ life (such as getting them fired from their job).
There have been multiple publicized cases of female victims of non-consensual pornography in the EU Member States and the US over recent years, several of whom committed suicide as a result. Research suggests that up to 90 % of revenge porn victims are female and that the number of cases is increasing. There are also a growing number of websites dedicated to sharing revenge porn, where users can submit images alongside personal information such as the victim’s address, employer, and links to online profiles.
Cyberviolence in Egypt and Arab Region
In her chapter titled “Combating Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: An Overview of the Legislative and Policy Reforms in the Arab Region”, in The Emerald International Handbook of Technology-Facilitated Violence and Abuse, Sukaina Al-Nasrawi argues that “technology contributes to increasing cyber violence against women and girls which in turn leads to severe social and economic implications affecting them” (Al-Nasrawi, 2021, p. 493)
Some international statistical reports have taken the Arab Region into account, one of these is by the Broadband Commission (an initiative by the ITU and UNESCO), which found that “globally 73% of women have endured cyber violence, and that women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online.” (UN-BC-DDWGBG, 2015)
Several local reports in Arab countries have statistics about cyberviolence against women. Some of the results were:
In Egypt, a study by a group of Egyptian researchers published in the Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences found that “females were highly exposed to cyber violence” as “41.6% of the 356 female participants experienced cyber violence during 2019.” (Hassan, Khalifa, Desouky, Salem, & Ali, 2020)
Up to 45.3% of respondents reported multiple instances of exposure to online violence. In 92.6% of cases, the offender was unknown to survivors. The most common forms of violence as per the study were: 41.2% had received images or symbols with sexual content; 26.4% had received insulting emails or messages; 25.7% had received offensive or humiliating posts or comments; 21.6% had received indecent or violent images that humiliated women, and 20.3% had received infected files through emails. (Hassan, Khalifa, Desouky, Salem, & Ali, 2020)
Blocking the offender was the most common response. Furthermore, none of the cases surveyed were reported to the police, which could be for numerous reasons, victims may fear damage to their reputation through police reporting and publicization or lack awareness of laws condemning cyberviolence. (Hassan, Khalifa, Desouky, Salem, & Ali, 2020)
In Morocco, the Second National Survey report, issued by the Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Communication, has shown that “violence against women stood at 54% in 2018, and more than 13% of the women surveyed had experienced online abuse. Of these, 30% were aged 18–25 years, and 46% held advanced university degrees.” (MFSESD, 2019)
In Jordan, a 2020 study by UNICEF, has shown that “more than half of young people surveyed in Jordan were bullied online at least once.” (UNICEF, 2020) While a study by the Initiative for Progressive Communications in Palestine has found that “a third of young Palestinian women experienced online sexual harassment.” (Odeh, 2018)