Cyber violence against women

Gender-based violence present in the digital space reflects the everyday violence women face in a violence-prone society.

People’s attitude towards technology is a phenomenon deserving a longue durée approach.1 As early as in the Luddite movement it has been problematized that the relationship between people and technology can be violent: that is, that people can destroy machines, as well as that they can use them to “destroy” other people. 

From the historical point of view, hence, the use of technology for harmful purposes – or, more to the point, the emergence of a modern form of digital violence – doesn’t represent a novelty, but a continuum of historical violence.

Violence in the digital space is mostly manifested in relation to imaginary or real differences / threats / risks, i.e. gender, sex, race, class, political or religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. Similar to traditional forms of violence, digital violence is also motivated by struggles / reaching for power and domination. To actualise the act of digital violence or not remains a choice of the potential perpetrator. The perpetrator always has a choice to act differently, that is, he has a choice not to commit violence.

Intersectionality of violence

Digital violence is not a hermetic phenomenon. It has the property of spilling over and influencing different dimensions of our existence, as the experience of people who have suffered this form of violence testifies. Digital violence most often occurs in combination with other forms of violence (physical, economic, psychological, sexual…), but it can also exist independently.

These are the conclusions of research conducted by the Alternative Centre for Girls in 2019; The reason for turning to non-institutional support systems (SOS services and Safe Women’s Houses) in 64% of the researched cases were traditional forms of violence (physical, economic, psychological, sexual), although in these cases elements / traces of digital violence were also found. In the remaining 27% of cases, persons addressed non-institutional support systems primarily because of gender-based violence committed through the use of information and communication technologies (hereinafter ICT). In 9% of cases it was not possible to distinguish between the two and decide whether the reason for turning to the support mechanisms were traditional forms of violence or gender-based violence committed through ICT. Analysis of the experience of persons who have suffered some form of digital violence indicates the “elusiveness” of this form of violence.

In the victims’ / survivors’ experience different forms of violence intertwine, gaining priority at different times and for different reasons, because the mechanisms of their perpetration and consequences were similar. Whether it has been recognized and named or not, a precise distinction of digital violence within the continuum of violence can only be made “artificially” for analysis for research purposes.

Partly because of that, there is currently no generally accepted definition of digital violence. Various terms are used, such as online or cyber violence, violence committed / aided by the use of technology / information and communication technologies, violence in the digital environment, etc. According to the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, gender-based violence against women committed through the use of ICT is an umbrella term used to denote all types of harmful and illegal behaviour towards women in the digital space. The definition of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights takes into account the character of technology, as a rapidly changing phenomenon. This means that it anticipates that technology can serve as a means of committing new and currently unknown forms of violence, which is close to the feminist view on the matter.

Photo: Brad Flickinger / Flickr

Gender-based violence against women committed through the use of ICT differs from the so-called cyberbullying, which mainly refers to peer violence (among minors) in the digital space. However, the gender dimension of cyberbullying is a phenomenon that is reluctantly talked about, because it is mistakenly believed that violence among children is not motivated by gender and sex differences, although numerous studies indicate that cyberbullying affects girls more.

Given that digital violence is not gender neutral, the feminist approach to digital violence focuses on a critique of the value system that supports a culture of blaming the victim / survivor and misogyny. These phenomena have found their way into digital space, where due to impunity and the lack of clear social condemnation, they flourish in various formats. The risk of violence for women and girls in the digital space is significantly higher than for men. Unfortunately, this is confirmed by the case of the tragically deceased Serbian blogger Kristina Kika Đukić. Judging by the allegations that appeared on web portals, there is reason to suspect that the violence she went through was motivated by her gender. 

…Many young and successful women active in the world of digital networks warn against and testify about various negative experiences, including suffering violence motivated exclusively by the fact that they are women. Many public figures in our country and throughout the world, with movie actresses being the loudest among them, warn of the epidemic of abuse of women on the Internet. The fight for equality on social networks is actually a fight against gender-based violence. Feminists who deal with digital violence warn against the reproduction of patriarchal norms in the digital space. They also problematize the dominant contents and narratives, be it that in the profit-oriented essence of digital space, they are shaped by the logic of sexual objectification and exploitation of women and girls.

Legal perspective

The point of view we take to problematize the issue of digital violence defines a lot. If we approach the issue of digital violence from a legal point of view, we will find ourselves in the realm of domestic and international laws, which do not regulate all harmful actions and behaviours in the digital space. It is important to acknowledge that not every form of aggression or malice in the digital space is punishable. If someone sends a message that we are ugly, there is a high probability that we will not feel comfortable, but there is also a high probability that something like that would not be sanctioned by law.

The Criminal Code of the Republic of Serbia sanctions various crimes that can be committed in the digital space, such as persecution, security threats, insults, taking unauthorized pictures / videos, sharing and publishing, etc., but as technology is a rapidly evolving phenomenon, the practice of adapting and applying the law in the new circumstances lags behind. Hence, the initiative to pass the so-called Kika’s Law is understandable from a psychological point of view, but also not entirely justified from a legal perspective. In the long run, what we as a society need is to build a culture of dialogue in the digital age, that is, to nurture non-violent, assertive communication, as a prevention of potential digital violence. It is also important that we develop the capacity to understand and support the Others and the Different ones as a society. It is important to build capacity to recognize and understand “subtle” forms of violence such as harassment on the internet.

We learn from the GREVIO report that the application of a relatively new legal act criminalising persecution was hampered by a significant negative media response, which included trivialization of persecution in public discourse through allegations that the act would criminalize flirting, coupled by a general misunderstanding of the nature of persecution, and a lack of awareness of its unacceptability and serious consequences.[ note]Milena Vasić, Proganjanje putem interneta– zakon, sudska praksa, iskustva korisnica, 2021.[ note]

The legal tolerance for cyber violence is reinforced by the fact that the criminal offense of insult, one of the most common offences in the digital space, is not prosecuted ex officio, but on the basis of a private criminal report. Given the overall economic situation, the inefficiency of the institutions, but also the lack of information, the persons who suffered an insult in the digital space usually don’t initiate a report.

Taking unauthorized photos or recordings, as well as making public or posting someone else’s text, portrait or recording, is also a criminal offense that is not prosecuted ex officio, but on the basis of a private criminal report. This crime is most often committed against women, by abusing content of the so-called sexual connotation, which is colloquially called revenge porn. Feminists point to the problematic nature of this term, which implies the “guilt” of women. The key term in the context of these crimes is the lack of consent, that is, unauthorized publication of recorded material in cases where a person has given consent to be photographed or filmed for private purposes, but has not given consent to the material to be made public.

The wide spectrum of abuse in the digital space represents a serious social challenge. Neglecting the gender dimension of digital violence can cause great social damage. It is important that we work on comprehensive prevention, which would put the human rights at the centre of protection. It is important that we get rid of the fear of technology as a phenomenon whose development we cannot influence. Finally, it is important to understand that the sources / causes of digital violence are not in technology per se, but in the complexity of interpersonal relationships, which we can make better and more functional through a “new social contract” in the digital age.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Dec 23, 2021.

  1. Fernan Brodel, Spisi o istoriji,SKZ, Beograd, 1992, str. 155–188

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