This week a 16-year-old girl named Jada in Houston, Texas, ended up speaking to a local news outlet after she was sexually assaulted at a party and videos and photos of the attack went viral on social media. Classmates also mocked her by taking photos of themselves lying in the same position she was in and tagging them #jadapose.
“There’s no point in hiding. Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am,” she told the reporter. The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and other feminist organizations are encouraging people to share messages of support for Jada using the Twitter hashtag #jadacounterpose and/or #standwithjada.
Jada’s case would be disturbing enough even if it weren’t such a familiar story. We’ve seen the stories of girls who have been doubly traumatized by finding photos and videos of their assaults shared online, or other intimate images shared without their consent. Although hopefully this won’t be true for Jada, we’ve seen, in many of these cases, the wheels of justice turn far too slowly for the victims.
In Canada, the tragic death in 2013 of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons led to new provincial legislation in Nova Scotia and a piece of federal legislation currently working its way through the House of Commons: Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. Does this mean we’re on the right track? What else needs to be done?
West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)’s new report #CyberMisogyny: Using and strengthening Canadian legal responses to gendered hate and harassment online is a great place to start answering those questions.
The term “cyber misogyny” is used to cover five areas:
This term is strongly preferable to the more common catch-all “cyberbullying”, which tends to undercut the seriousness of the issue as well as erase the underlying dynamics of power and discrimination.
Obviously cyber misogyny and the social narratives and power relations that underpin it must be tackled on multiple levels, but one of the most important is the law. As the report’s introduction states:
“Holding harassers and hatemongers legally accountable for their actions will serve and important educational function by denouncing those behaviours and sending the message that they will not be tolerated. Law can deter online harassment’s harms by raising the costs of noncompliance beyond its expected benefits; it can also remedy such harms with monetary damages, injunctions and criminal convictions. When the law treats cyber misogyny as the discriminatory and sexist conduct that it is, it will encourage women and girls to come forward and demand its redress, rather than suffering in silence.”
West Coast LEAF’s report directly challenges the idea that an unregulated, Wild West-style internet is necessary to protect free speech rights:
“Misogynist and hateful expression is not the kind of free speech Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms seeks to protect; instead, these forms of expression undermine women’s participation in public spaces and discourse, violate their rights to equality and freedom from discrimination, and contribute to a culture in which violence and hatred against women are normalized.”
The report makes 35 recommendations to fight cyber misogyny, including several related to Bill C-13. While C-13 was ostensibly introduced to address sharing of intimate images without consent, it contains several sweeping provisions that many legal and privacy experts (as well as feminists like Steph Guthrie) believe to be unconstitutional.
West Coast LEAF shares these concerns and states: “It is extremely unfortunate that government has made important legal reforms that would protect the rights of women and girls contingent on also enacting privacy infringing provisions that are likely unconstitutional.” Instead of advocating a wholesale adoption of the bill as drafted, West Coast LEAF’s report recommends that only those sections pertaining to hate speech and non-consensual distribution of images be passed quickly, while the rest of the legislation should be split off and subject to further scrutiny and debate.
A lot of people might not know that in Canada, you can’t get a protection order against someone who is not your “family member” (i.e. someone you are or were married to or living with, or who is the parent or guardian of your child). West Coast LEAF recommends this be expanded to include someone with whom the applicant has had a dating relationship.
The report thoroughly covers both potential criminal and civil remedies, in order to cover as many victims as possible in a range of situations. On the civil side of things, there is a recommendation that B.C. should enact legislation allowing victims to sue for “cyberbullying,” but defined somewhat more narrowly than the Nova Scotia legislation, which some believe may be in violation of the Charter.
Two recommendations address expanding the tort “unauthorized use of name or portrait of another” to include the “unauthorized use of someone’s name or image for the purpose of harassing, humiliating, distressing or exposing them to ridicule or contempt” and making it easier for victims to enforce copyright when images are used without their consent. Right-clicking and saving someone’s picture and sharing it online in ways that encourage harassment is really easy to do, and it should be much easier for victims to stop the behaviour.
In addition to changes to civil and criminal law to help victims get justice, the report offers recommendations for improvements to law and policies around B.C. schools, as well as federal changes to increase the responsibility on internet service providers to create better terms of service and act on complaints.
Ultimately, as the report states: “We refuse to believe that the internet cannot be a driver of women’s equality, or that online spaces cannot be made safer for marginalized groups. We have more faith in the internet’s potential, and in each other, than that.” It’s time for the provincial and federal governments to take action to address the existing gaps and give us the legal tools needed to stop abusive online behaviour and get justice after the fact.
In addition to the report, West Coast LEAF has rolled out an educational booklet letting people know about the current law in these areas, and a new youth workshop called TrendShift to get the discussion going with young people in schools. If you want to help end cyber misogyny you can get involved in the conversation at the West Coast LEAF Facebook page or by tweeting using the hashtag #cybermisogyny