Thank you for the opportunity to address this committee this afternoon to speak on the nature and extent of cyberviolence against girls and women and the best practices to address and prevent it.
I will discuss pertinent issues in the context of two key areas that I understand the committee is examining, because my work is moving in that direction, building on earlier research on cyberbullying and sexting.
The role of universities in addressing online and on-campus rape culture is one area. A second one is the impact of hypersexualization of women and girls in popular culture and media. The third is opportunities to engage these sectors with universities encountering such practices.
I would like to emphasize at the outset that sexual violence, whether online or offline, cannot be reduced or prevented without increased recognition of rape culture as deeply rooted within every aspect of society, and that there is a need for concerted, long-term, collaborative efforts by key segments of society to unearth, dismantle, and address it.
The definition of “rape culture” that best describes my understanding of it, drawing on feminist theories, is as follows, and we'll be providing references with a proper brief: rape culture is the way in which sexist societal attitudes, assumptions, and language tacitly condone, minimize, and/or normalize sexual violence, mostly against women but also against other genders, through institutions, communities, and individuals.
Rooted in discrimination, rape culture surfaces—and this is important—along a continuum of intersecting sexist behaviours which include jokes, innuendoes, harassment, online and offline threats, non-consensual distribution of intimate images online, physical assault, and rape.
There are several challenges for universities. Canadian universities have come under significant student criticism and media scrutiny for slow or inefficient responses to reports of sexual violence. Examples involving cyberviolence include sexually offensive postings, such as a dental school case in which students created a social media page and discussed raping their female classmates after drugging them with chloroform, and one in which male student leaders joked online about raping a female student union president because of her leadership position.
Some of the task force reports that followed some of these widely publicized incidents observed that although rape culture in broader society is mirrored within universities, few empirically based studies have focused on the influence of media and popular culture on the university communities. They also highlighted a lack of communication between central administration and faculties and a lack of clarity on reporting processes and responses that ensured due process.
Policy administrators and the legal community, including judges, are often out of touch with young women's or in fact young people's realities and evolving social norms in an online society, as we have seen. Many of you may have heard about the recent rape case at Stanford. It is important to remember that university and high school students are prolific consumers of social media and popular culture, comedy, sexist and misogynist online jokes, music lyrics, hypersexualized advertising, etc., but it is adults who, by and large, create and perpetuate this type of content, so why are we surprised that young people internalize it?
Shifting norms and a higher threshold for sexism and homophobia start at a younger age, and this goes back to our research on sexting and cyberbullying. In this research we looked at young people between the ages of nine and 17. We found that at least 65% said that they would engage in the non-consensual distribution of intimate images and sexting for fun or to make friends laugh—65%—especially the age group between 13 and 17.
The legal intent in online offensive postings is difficult to establish. I'll just tell you about two scenarios that we gave the students as part of our research. We received some interesting findings.
The first scenario was that Dana is drunk, and a video of her being drunk is posted online. Does Dana have a right to be upset about it? Ninety-eight per cent of the students, both male and female, said that yes, she has every right to be upset about it because her parents will find out she was drunk at a party.
The second scenario was that Ashley sends an intimate video or photograph of herself to a boyfriend, in trust. That boyfriend takes that video and puts it online. Does she have a right to be upset? Well, 51% said it was not okay for her to be upset because she brought it on herself, supposedly.
There was less emphasis on the breach of trust by the boyfriend or on him having any accountability for his actions. The irony is that victim blaming is so prevalent in our society, and as we have seen in recent cases under the criminal justice systems both in Canada and the U.S., it's mirrored in how these teens are behaving or thinking. This increases the threshold for rape culture. It becomes normalized in the way our young people speak, the music lyrics they listen to, and the violence and sexism they witness in popular culture and gaming, but it's also part of adult society. It ends up that applying traditional institutional policies and punishments is of no use, because they are no longer relevant. Social norms have changed and need to be addressed through responses that resonate with young people and responses that are comprehensive and holistic.
In this regard, I want to emphasize and highlight the power of social media to uproot rape culture and promote positive cultural change. Social media provides—as we have again seen in some of these recent cases—a wide platform for standing up to sexual violence. Critical and educational dialogues can be carried out over social media to unearth and expose rape culture. People can stand up to offensive online postings.
It has enabled—for example, in the Jian Gomeshi case very early on—people to come forward through #rapebutneverreported, which went viral, as well as the one in Quebec that was in French. The Stanford rape survivor's heart-wrenching statement was spread prolifically online, and people were upset about the lenient six-month sentence, which drew harsh criticism. The response by the rapist's father as well—that his son would pay a high price of six months for 20 minutes of action—also drew a very angry response. The New York Times, for example, noted that this suggests that society has begun to turn the page and stand up against sexual violence and that the Internet has been instrumental in raising awareness.
How much time do I have left?
Big-stick sanctions won't work. We're obviously looking for greater accountability on the part of perpetrators, but this cannot be achieved by harsher, reactive laws within our criminal justice system, because when rape culture is so normalized, such laws will not necessarily help young people understand where they are going wrong or where they crossed the line to engage in illegal activities.
One example is the application of child pornography laws that are designed to protect young people being applied against them when they engage in sexting, especially at a younger age. For example, a number of 11- to 13-year-old students who were playing with Snapchat got their female classmates to send them pictures; these students were charged with distribution, possession, and production of child pornography. In the Maple Ridge case in 2011 in British Columbia, in which a girl was gang-raped and a teen posted it online, the teen was sentenced to write an essay on the evils of the Internet, which just shows how disconnected some of the judges are and calls for a need—and this is just one case, along with the Stanford case—for education of judges and people in the legal profession.
The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, although it has a section on non-consensual distribution of intimate images, is not likely in and of itself to have great impact on reducing this kind of behaviour.
As conclusions and recommendations, it's essential for universities to reclaim responsibility—and I'm just going to focus on universities here, being from one—and as central educational institutions of higher learning to take ownership and to educate on owning the problem. We have the capacity to develop curriculum models and policy models that would position Canada at the forefront internationally on an informed and evidence-based strategy on addressing sexual violence.
We have started this process at McGill—and I'd be happy to give more details in the question time—working with several universities and arts and media sectors towards understanding how each sector either tacitly condones rape culture or can mobilize change through changes to policy and practice.
Thank you very much for this opportunity.
This is my first time speaking to a parliamentary committee, and I'm very happy to be here. For the first time in my life going to speak slowly, I hope.
I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about cyberviolence against young women and girls. Given my limited time, my comments today will centre around one of my areas of expertise, which is the non-consensual redistribution of consensually created and shared sexual images. This is commonly referred to as revenge porn, non-consensual porn, or virtual rape, as some people call it, although none of these terms are accurate descriptors, in my opinion. Given that the language that we use to understand and shape our responses to cybersexual violence is important, I'm happy to speak to why I think these terms are not the most accurate in the question-and-answer period, if you'd like.
Many girls and young women whose sexual images and videos are non-consensually redistributed experience this as a violation of their sexual autonomy and their privacy. Possible consequences include psychological and emotional distress, negative impacts on interpersonal and romantic relationships, and concerns about the inability to secure employment or the potential loss of employment. In addition, we know that the threat of redistribution is being used to intimidate, extort, and harass individuals.
I'm going to leave questions of prevalence to others. I know somebody from MediaSmarts is going to be here, and I think Jane may speak to that in the second panel. Instead I'm going to provide you with a somewhat challenging and potentially alternative perspective on how to reconceptualize the problem and to do no harm in our attempts to address cybersexual violence.
Status of Women in Canada, in its brief called “Sexual Violence Against Women in Canada”, has already acknowledged that intersectionality—which is how the intersections between different aspects of a person's identity and social location can leave some people more vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence than others—ought to inform Status of Women of Canada's research and endeavours.
I, along with other researchers today, have highlighted already how girls and women who experience non-consensual redistribution suffer differently and disproportionately from most, although not all, boys whose images are non-consensually redistributed because of sexual double standards, which importantly are always already raced, classed, ableist, and heteronormative in nature.
I have critiqued child protection, law enforcement, and legislative efforts, which capitalize on sexual double standards in their own efforts by deploying “slut-shaming” when they encourage young women and girls to abstain from digitally representing themselves and their sexuality if they don't want to be victims of non-consensual redistribution.
Today I'd like to urge the committee members to maintain a focus on intersectionality as they move forward with the development of responses to cybersexual violence, and in particular I'd like to ask you to consider how the harms of non-consensual redistribution not only stem from discriminatory attitudes towards girls who break the boundaries of convention by displaying themselves as sexual beings, a.k.a. sluts, but also—and this is the challenging part—how these harms stem from the perception of these girls as porn stars.
I would like to ask us to bring whore-phobia and porn-phobia into our discussion of cybersexual violation.
By “whore-phobia” I'm referring to the stigma faced by sex workers—women in porn, those who are doing street and indoor sex work, and strippers. As some scholars at Carleton, at University of Ottawa, and sex activists have argued, whore-phobia includes conceptions of sex workers as dirty, immoral, hypersexualized vectors of disease.
By “porn-phobia” I'm referring to what I conceive of as moral panics about the so-called pornification of culture and the perspective that even consensually created and distributed porn is at best low-value speech and at worst inherently degrading, objectifying, and a violation of women's sexual autonomy.
I'm a porn studies scholar and cultural criminologist. My research on the legal regulation of public sexuality and sexual expression evidences how the category of “whore” acts as a marker for those who are deemed not worthy of victim status or who are hypervisible as victims in need of saving by the state against their wishes.
Whore-phobia and porn-phobia tacitly inform our understanding of and responses to the non-consensual redistribution of sexual images—that is, when young women and girls subjectively experience the violation of their trust and their privacy as a violation of their body, they do so in part because our prurient society nevertheless maintains discriminatory attitudes toward sex workers and the sex industry. We can see this in the historic and ongoing mistreatment of sex workers by police and the state, as well as in recent campaigns by sex workers aimed at humanizing sex workers, such as the “Prostitutes are people too” campaign, developed by the Halifax-based sex workers' group Stepping Stone.
When we, with the best of intentions, construct the non-consensual redistribution of a girl's sexual images as “the worst thing that can happen to her”, as detrimental to her relationships and career, and even as a life-threatening event, we are relying on whore-phobia and porn-phobia to do this. We are not only harming the girls whose images have been redistributed—because we are giving them the message that they should feel horrible about this redistribution—but we are also unintentionally doing harm to another highly marginalized group of “othered” girls and women, those in the sex industry.
Therefore, given your mandate to understand cybersexual violence's connection to systemic and pre-existing discriminatory relations such as sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, I am asking you to also consider how sex workers themselves are particularly at risk of violence, sexual or otherwise, when we construct public displays of one's sexuality in these extreme terms and come down on them as hard as we do in legal terms.
In terms of responses, while it is extremely important to educate young people about how their shifting sexual and communication norms intersect with and sometimes contravene legal categories such as assault, sexual assault, harassment, defamation, and the distribution of child porn, equal emphasis—as Shaheen also said—must be placed on educating law enforcement, crown prosecutors, judges, Parliament, ourselves, educators, parents, and teens about discriminatory attitudes toward quasi-public, non-monogamous, and non-normative sexuality and its representations.
As I have argued extensively in my research, charging teenagers who non-consensually redistribute their peers' sexual images with child pornography charges is a grossly disproportionate response to the offence and goes against the intentions of those who first drafted those laws. As an expert witness now for two constitutional challenges to the application of child porn laws in the non-distribution context, I can attest to the fact that these laws are being misused against racialized youth—in one case an indigenous girl and a racialized young man—who had no intention of distributing child pornography, nor even causing harm. The second distribution case was an individual boasting about the attractiveness of his girlfriend.
Moving forward, I would like to encourage committee members to consider how sex-positive feminism is an important theoretical frame to engage with in discussions of online sexual violence. Promoting women's pleasure and their right to cybersexual expression should be a critical part of education about responses to sexual violence, whether online or offline. Indeed Jane Doe, who sued the police for failing to warn women in downtown Toronto of a serial rapist, has argued that our educational responses to rape, offline and online, should include a sex education curriculum from a young age that includes discussions of “pleasure, communication, mutual appreciation and technique”, and these days, digital sexual expression is technique.
The federal government has already made positive steps in this direction with the introduction of updated sex education, including education about respect and consent. I am hopeful that we will continue to move forward with a critical lens on our discussions of cybersexual violence. I look forward to discussing this further in the question-and-answer period.
Part of the idea about constructing sexters as objects of thought is that, for one, my particular project was very interested in understanding sexters as subjects of sexual production creation. In particular, when we think of sexters as objects of thought, partially what we're doing is turning them into objects of study without hearing how they themselves are experts on their own sexualities and their own sexual expression. When we study sexting and sexters as objects without also understanding how young people understand themselves and their sexting practices, we construct them as objects of study and we do not learn from them about their shifting cultural, communication, and sexual norms.
For me it's been extremely important to speak to young people about how they understand sexting, how they understand sexual representation in the digital age and their own sexuality. I think many of us here have found that for young people today, there are lots of panics around hypersexualization and the sexualization of young people, lots of fears about exploitation of young women, that don't take into consideration how sexual expression by young women is in fact an integral part of their self-development, their autonomous self-understanding as individuals with autonomy, who are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects. This is in fact very important for how we understand how best to respond to sexual violence, because when we create women as passive objects that the state always has to come and rescue, we are doing them a disservice in many respects.
Many of my findings have young women saying that their use of technology to express their sexuality is often not a product of peer pressure; it is not necessarily a direct.... That's not to say that there is no correlation, but it's not necessarily a causation of porn, an emulation of porn, or even a sexualized culture. Instead, they understand themselves in many respects as sexual beings within this culture, and they are able to express themselves as such in ways that they find useful. These expressions obviously come with harms and repercussions, but it is also important to understand their pleasures and their affordances.
Hopefully that answers your question.
Thanks very much to both of you for coming in. Either of you can answer any of the questions.
I'm coming here as not only a parliamentarian but as a mother of an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old, and I'll be honest: when I look at my daughter, it is fearful. I wish I looked like my daughter some days, but as a parent—you're going to hear from me as a mom—I am concerned about sexting. When I think about myself growing up in the 1980s, if I wanted a photograph of myself, then it was going to have to be published at Maxwell's—Maxwell's is in St. Thomas—and it was going to have to be done at a photographer's. They'd have to create those images, whereas now the ability to take a photograph of yourself of a sexual nature and text it is an immediate thing.
One of my concerns—and I recognize we're talking about norms—as a parent is about creating that as a norm, because I had a standard for myself in which I wanted to not be embarrassed. I recognize that we want to have a positive sexual growth and I believe in that, but I also think that sometimes normalizing it can also have its own issues, and there has to be a moral code on this.
As a parent, I think a lot of the education starts at home. If we're going to talk about homophobia and things like that, then we have to recognize the conversations we have at the dinner table are what our children are learning first before they go off to school.
As two specialists in these areas, what is the message that we as parents and parliamentarians are supposed to be sharing with our youth? What is normal, and what is not normaI? I would not feel comfortable saying that sexting is appropriate.
Some of the research we did with seven-year-olds to nine-year-olds showed that they talked about sexting being common at that age. It is already normalized. It's not normalization by adults; it's normalization by the kids themselves, within their social spheres. As Lara said, a lot of it occurs as the hormones start raging and as they become teenagers. Young people are experimenting sexually, but the forum has changed for this kind of experimentation.
Somebody else, and I can't remember who it was, described it as flirty fun. This has almost replaced being in the back seat of a car. The concern comes when there's non-consensual distribution. Consensual sexting seems to be okay as long as there is no assault or rape that's filmed, posted online, and then distributed, or when it's done without consent.
Raising awareness among these young people of all genders is the best way to go. What we're doing—and I had said that I would discuss some of this in the question time—is using arts and social media sectors, as well as news media, to work with students to develop critical analysis of news media stories about sexting and non-consensual distribution of intimate images with students involved. We're engaging them in discussions, watching videotapes of situations that can occur, discussing where they might cross the line to where it could become illegal and could become harmful, and getting the dialogue going from a critical perspective.
There's a need for critical legal literacy among the public as well as in the schools. There's a need among parents, among teachers, and among policy-makers at all levels, in the schools and at the university levels. That's one, and critical media literacy is another. Engaging social media intermediaries like Facebook and others—all of these people—is important.
I think one area to focus on would be more awareness of the intersectionalities. That is sometimes overlooked because we tend to see things as black and white. It is a continuum, as Sherene Razack said many years ago, of intersecting and interlocking systems in which certain people are oppressed because of various characteristics.
In terms of the policy frameworks, I've already mentioned there needs to be more attention to bringing the various sectors together with academics. There is a lack of empirical research, so there needs to be support for increased empirical research, especially when you look at what's happening in universities and what's happening in schools. There needs to be more of a focus on evidence-based research that will address some of this, that will better inform policy, that will better inform curriculum programs, and that will engage young people and incorporate their voices, their concerns, and their perspectives, based on their norms, into policy on sexual violence as well as into curriculum.
There are many creative ways of doing this. One way that we're doing it is by bringing arts, theatre companies, and art galleries to provide spaces where girls and women can feel free to dialogue. That space can be within institutions, but it can also be attended at exhibits, or any art or cultural products—
I'd like to start by thanking the committee for the opportunity to present our research and our resources today.
Since 2001, MediaSmarts has been conducting a research report entitled “Young Canadians in a Wired World”. It looks at Canadian students' experiences with networked technology. Most of the data I'll be sharing today come from our most recent quantitative study, which was released in 2014 and surveyed more than 5,000 students from grades 4 to 11 across Canada.
Our quantitative study found that girls are significantly more likely than boys to feel that the Internet is an unsafe place for them and significantly more girls than boys fear that they could be hurt if they talk online to someone they don't know. More girls than boys also feel that their parents are worried that they could get hurt online.
Ironically, all this may prevent girls from developing the ability to manage online risk. Research from the U.K. suggests that more restrictive approaches based on an online safety model produce students who are less able to keep themselves safe and who are generally less confident and capable users of digital technology.
Another reason that girls may not feel safe is surely the frequent and often public attacks on women online. Some cases may be high profile, such as the attacks on critic Anita Sarkeesian after she launched an online campaign to fund a series of videos looking at sexism in video games.
American research has found a rise in online hate material specifically targeting women. Like other forms of hate, this rhetoric can influence the culture of more mainstream spaces.
Online misogyny was not originally connected to what might be thought of as traditional hate groups, such as groups of white supremacists. However, all such groups rely on the same ideologies of hate and appeal in a similar way to youth, particularly boys and young men who feel alienated from society.
Women who aren't public figures also attract online hostility. Over one-third of Canadian students in grades 7 to 11 encounter sexist or racist content online at least once a week. Girls are much more likely than boys to feel hurt when a racist or sexist joke is made at their expense. Boys are much more likely to say that they and their friends don't mean anything by it when they say racist or sexist things online and that they do not speak up against such content because they are usually just joking around.
Overall, girls are somewhat more likely than boys to experience online meanness and cruelty and are more likely to say that it was a serious problem for them.
Sexting is an activity that is actually less gendered than might be expected. Boys and girls are equally likely to send sexts, and there is only a small difference in the number who forward sexts that were created by the sender. There's little evidence that sending sexts is by itself a risky act. For example, one study of American university students found that many of them reported positive experiences, although Australian research suggests that girls are often sent sexts by boys as a form of harassment.
Harm is most likely to occur when sexts are shared or forwarded. Contrary to widespread perceptions that the sharing of sexts is rampant, our research found that it is far from normal behaviour. Of the 24% of students in grades 7 to 11 with cellphone access who have received a sext directly from the sender, just 15%, or 4% of all students in grades 7 to 11 who have cellphones, have forwarded one to someone else.
Those sexts that are forwarded, however, reach a fairly wide audience. One in five students say they have received a sext that was forwarded to them by a third party. Having a sext of oneself forwarded is an event that has particular consequences for girls. Though sexts sent by boys are more likely to be forwarded, there is undoubtedly more social disapproval of girls who send sexts. This may explain why those who do forward sexts don't appear to see it as an ethical issue.
We found a strong connection between household rules and student behaviour. For example, the presence of a household rule on treating others with respect online has a strong association with not engaging in cyberbullying. However, we found no statistically significant relationship between the presence of such a rule and whether or not students forward sexts.
It would seem, therefore, that those students who forward sexts do not see it as an ethical question, or that they don't see the authors of the sexts as deserving of respect.
Girls who send sexts are seen as having transgressed appropriate gender roles and, therefore, having given up the right to expect that their images will not be forwarded or shared. Much of the harm that comes from sexting seems to be related to gender-related double standards that portray girls both as innocent guardians of their sexual innocence and, if they should stray from that role, as being responsible for any consequences they might suffer as a result of their actions. U.K. research has found that these stereotypes are often found even in educational anti-sexting campaigns, showing how poorly considered interventions may cause more harm than good. Addressing this by teaching boys about the importance of consent is key both in terms of requesting a sext and sharing it. American research shows that girls who were coerced or pressured into sending sexts were three times more likely to report a negative outcome.
At MediaSmarts we support intervention strategies based on media and digital literacy. Briefly, this means teaching youth critical thinking and ethical decision-making skills, and educating them about their rights in both online and offline contexts.
With specific reference to cyberviolence against women, our approach includes conducting research to ensure that all of our interventions reflect students' concerns and authentic experiences and to inform youth about the actual rates of behaviours like cyberbullying and sexting; fostering empathy and teaching social-emotional learning skills in online contexts; encouraging youth to think ethically about their online interactions, to respect their own and others' privacy, and to recognize the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships; teaching media literacy skills that enable students to recognize, decode, and confront hate speech, including gender-based hatred, and to question the gender stereotypes that underlie online misogyny at both the individual and community level; focusing on the ethical dimension of sharing sexts, rather than excusing those who share them by blaming the senders; defining media literacy, digital literacy, and digital citizenship in holistic, comprehensive terms, in recognition of the connections between stereotyping, sexualization, healthy relationships, advocacy, ethics, and consent; teaching students about their legal and human rights and how to exercise them; and providing students with practical tools for digital citizenship and activism, both when they witness individual cyberbullying situations and in improving the culture of their online communities.
Thank you very much for inviting me to be here.
My remarks are going to focus on cyberviolence against girls and young women, although, as will become obvious as I proceed, in the seamlessly integrated online/offline world that is inhabited by young people today, distinctions between cyberspace and real space are virtually meaningless. As we know, the consequence of so-called online behaviour can be very real.
My remarks are grounded in the work that I've been doing for 15 years on the intersections of law, technology, and equality, and in particular the eGirls Project, which I co-led with Valerie Steeves until 2014, and the work of the eQuality Project, which I currently co-lead with Dr. Steeves, and for which we're proud to have MediaSmarts as a partner organization.
I'm also a member of the national steering committee of the National Association of Women and the Law.
The eGirls Project itself focused on girls' and women's experiences with online social media. In it, we interviewed girls aged 15 to 17 and 18 to 22 to ask them how their perceptions of their online lives lined up with policy-makers' solutions for online issues for children and to find out what they would want policy-makers to know about what life was like for a girl online.
Of course, technologically facilitated harassment and violence surfaced in those conversations, but so too did their concerns around mediatized stereotyping; privacy; the intense scrutiny girls find themselves under online; and corporate policies, practices, and structures that compromise their capacity to participate as equals online and off. It's this latter issue that's led us to the eQuality Project.
The eQuality Project is focused on the way that online behavioural targeting actually shapes the online environment that young people inhabit and the degree to which it sets young people up for conflict and harassment, particularly youth from diverse and intersecting equality-seeking communities. One of our current initiatives is to review and assess the efficacy of criminal law responses by looking at Canadian case law on technologically facilitated violence against women and girls.
I had originally intended to talk about three things, but I'm only going to talk about two. The first is a pet peeve of mine: why the term “cyberbullying” has to be treated with caution. The second is what needs to be done based on lessons learned from the eGirls Project participants.
The term “cyberbullying” has to be treated with caution because its generic nature just too easily whitewashes issues of discrimination and violence, which require tailored responses beyond punishing individual children or even teaching them how to properly use technology.
Research shows that young people who are perceived as different, whether because of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived disability or disability, are at greater risk of being bullied and cyberbullied. Similarly, as we've heard, girls and young women are more likely to be targeted by technologically facilitated sexual violence. In a sexist society, one form of that, the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, leaves women and girls open to humiliation, embarrassment, and reputational ruin for expressing their sexuality, for exposing their bodies, or even for others' decisions to expose their bodies, which is perhaps the most troubling of all, despite superficially conflicting messages that tell girls and women that social success depends upon emulating a stereotypical, heteronormative version of “sexy”. I put “sexy” in quotes. I call that flip-top sexuality. I don't think it has anything to do with sex whatsoever.
To the extent that cyberbullying, then, as a term, suggests somehow random targeting or random effects, I think the term has to be approached with caution, in particular when we're talking about women and girls. Otherwise we're going to miss root causes, such as misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and racism, that actually demand redress. We can't fix the problem by treating the symptoms.
The second point I want to talk about is what needs to be done. What did we learn from the eGirls' eQuality project participants?
First, consult directly with diverse groups of girls and young women and recognize the expertise of community organizations working against violence against women and in support of survivors. We cannot assume that adults' perceptions of the problems of girls and young women mesh with their own perceptions and experiences.
For example, Canadian federal public policy dialogue around children and technology has placed significant emphasis on the risk of unknown sexual predators online. The eGirls project participants indicated some concern about unknown sexual predators online, especially with respect to their younger siblings and relations; however, they demonstrated far more concern about the impact of the widespread availability and scrutiny of data relating to them and the ways in which the online environment exposed them to what they perceived as the risk of reputational ruin at the age of 12. Girls and young women may be equally at risk—if not more—of technologically facilitated violence by those they know than by strangers. For anyone working in the violence-against-women community, we've known this for a long time about sexual violence in general.
Second, recognize technologically facilitated violence against women and girls as an equality-based human rights issue and proactively address root causes rather than focusing solely on criminal law responses.
I'm a lawyer. I'm the first person to say that individual perpetrators should be held responsible for their actions, and I part company with any suggestion that an individual's unilateral decision to display his girlfriend's naked picture on a pornography site is an expression of sexuality that we ought to be giving much merit to or concern for, or that a charge in that case is necessarily wrong in those kinds of circumstances. Individual perpetrators do have to be held responsible for their actions, particularly where they're taken unilaterally.
Meaningfully addressing the disproportionate targeting of girls and young women for sexualized cyberviolence, though, requires nothing short of social transformation. That's what it's about. As a friend of mine said, “Yes, you're talking about ending the patriarchy, so good luck.” That's okay. That's what we're talking about: ending the patriarchy.
We have to address misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other intersecting oppressions that have been used as tools to keep women down, to silence them, and to keep them out of the public sphere. In the online context, they are preventing girls and young women from participating as equals. Some eGirls project participants felt it would be particularly important to address discrimination and prejudice through educational measures to combat these forms of oppression, as well as to address heterosexist stereotyping that privileges thin, white representations of femininity and sexuality that were a prominent part of the advertising they were targeted with in online social spaces.
Third, focus on the role that corporations play in structuring online interactions to compel data disclosure and make privacy protection difficult, instead of focusing on telling girls and young women what not to do. Too often, policy approaches focus on reactive responses that result in blaming those attacked for having disclosed too much and that subject girls and young women who have been targeted to further monitoring and surveillance by parents and other adults. The eGirls project participants felt that policy-makers should give girls in particular a break. That's a quote. “Give girls a break,” they said, and pay more attention to corporate practices and policies that compromise their ability to negotiate privacy in networked spaces.
Fourth, provide more support for girls and young women who have been targeted by technologically facilitated violence. The eGirls project participants felt there was too little focus on providing support and encouragement for targets of online abuse. Policy-makers need to make sure that community organizations working to combat violence against women and girls and to support survivors and schools dealing with these issues have adequate funding to meaningfully address these needs.
Fifthand last is again another pet peeve of mine: do not make unnecessary expansion of police power the price of addressing technologically facilitated violence against women and girls.
One of our project participants lamented that protections from online predation for girls and women were too often associated with unnecessary expansion of police surveillance powers. Once again we saw with the passage of Bill that the censure of non-consensual distribution of intimate images came at the cost of expanded police powers that were in absolutely no way limited to addressing violence against women and girls.
In conclusion, it's time for adults to take responsibility for economic and social policy decisions that have resulted in the seamlessly integrated online/offline world our children now inhabit.
I'm happy to summarize that in the answer period, if I can.
Both of those are really complicated notions to unpack. In fact, we were careful in our questionnaire not to use the term “cyberbullying” because we have a strong sense, from American research, that this is not a term that has meaning for youth. It's something they see adults using. They perceive it as something that either younger kids do or other kids do, but not themselves.
We asked about two things. We asked about meanness and cruelty online—that was one question—and we asked about making threats online, threats of physical harm.
We divided meanness and cruelty further into a number of methods: name-calling; rumour-spreading; sharing an embarrassing photo or video, which could include sharing a sext, although it had a broader definition than that; sexual harassment, which again could include sending a sext, as I mentioned; making fun of someone's race, religion, or ethnicity; making fun of someone's sexual orientation; harassing someone in an online game; and we also just had an “other” catch-all.
There are certainly other forms that we didn't ask about. We know, for instance, that online relationship abuse is a significant issue, for the simple reason that relationship abuse is a simple issue and young people carry out their social lives online as much as offline.
Finding a specific definition may not be really valuable. What is more important to us is how young people see it ethically, particularly the reasons that they choose either to ignore it or to approve of it, or even to support it.
I would simply say yes.
Obviously we do provide a lot of resources for parents. Parents and teachers are our two main audiences, as well as youth through them.
We think it's really important to provide parents with accurate information, which is why the research is so important. It's to provide parents with practical tools, which is one of the reasons we did our research specifically on the effect of household rules, for instance; and to make sure parents don't approach the issue with fear.
We did a focus group with parents. In our research with parents, we found that they felt tremendous—and often misplaced—fear. They were worried about things that were genuinely low-risk. Also, this fear was driving them away from discussing the issues with their youth, which we know is the most effective approach, and towards conducting surveillance of youth, which we know is at best neutral and has at times negative effects on youth safety and youth agency.
It's really important to encourage parents to talk to their kids, to take a positive approach, to be aware of the legitimate and genuine risks as well as to be involved in setting limits, transmitting their values to their kids, and providing them with practical tools for what to do when things go wrong.
Thank you both for being here.
I want to reiterate comments from other committee members here. In particular, I appreciate the view you and other speakers have brought, giving us a perspective from young people. I see just by some of our questions that it's an adult view of a world for children. They have a different perspective and have grown up—some of us are younger than others here—in a different place, so I really appreciate that both of you have brought that view, those voices of kids, from the work you've done together.
We heard from the other speaker as well that when we start to treat children as objects and start using words like “cyber” and create something new, in fact we're just confusing things in a way.
I'd like both of you to comment on a more general piece.
The other speakers spoke as well about the importance of using a lens that looks at the intersection of sexism, classism, and racism within this particular subject. It's important to have that lens, but I'm wondering how this fits into the overall narrative when we look at gender-based violence. Do you feel it's detracting or adding when we use terms like “cyberviolence” and “date culture”? From my point of view, it seems to kind of get us off track. It's almost as though it puts in barriers to what the real issue is. My concern is that we'll start to implement interventions and we'll have missed the point.
I'd like your general comments, Jane and Matthew.