FEM­I­NISM’S ON­LINE RE­NAIS­SANCE

A #hash­tag revo­lu­tion is un­der way. Just how far can the so­cial (me­dia) move­ment go?

Elle (Canada) - - Society - BY AN­TO­NIA ZER­BISIAS

t was just another tweet—one of the tens of thou­sands I have fired off out of frus­tra­tion with the fe­male con­di­tion. But this par­tic­u­lar 140-character blast burst out from a place much deeper, much darker, in @An­to­niaZ.

I co-cre­ated the hash­tag #BeenRapedNeverReported. I tweeted it on Oc­to­ber 30, just three days after the shock­ing al­le­ga­tions against Jian Ghome­shi first came out in the Toronto Star. A num­ber of un­named women had charged that the CBC ra­dio host had punched and choked them while they were dat­ing. (As of this writ­ing, none of th­ese al­le­ga­tions have been proven in court. Ghome­shi’s lawyer, Marie Henein, has said that he will plead not guilty to seven sex­ual-as­sault charges and one count of over­com­ing re­sis­tance by chok­ing.)

When the news broke, many so­cial-me­dia users wouldn’t—couldn’t—ac­cept the pos­si­bil­ity that th­ese ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual vi­o­lence against a Cana­dian cul­tural star might be true. They ques­tioned why the women waited so long, in some cases years, to make th­ese charges. Why hadn’t they gone to the po­lice in­stead of the me­dia?

It didn’t help the women’s case that, on the af­ter­noon of his dis­missal from the CBC, Ghome­shi wrote a much­cir­cu­lated Face­book post ac­cus­ing the pub­lic broad­caster of dump­ing him be­cause of his predilec­tion for what he claimed was “a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey” kink. That post got more than 100,000 likes plus some 50,000 shares.

Ini­tially, count­less “in­no­cent un­til proven guilty” tweets were fired off. Green Party leader El­iz­a­beth May wrote: “I think Jian is won­der­ful. Likely TMI for an old fo­gey like me, but his pri­vate life is none of our beeswax,” echo­ing many oth­ers—in­clud­ing for­mer Lib­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter Sheila Copps, who posted “@jianghome­shi The state (and the CBC) have no place in the bed­rooms of the na­tion. Good luck and stand tall.” But after the Toronto Star and other out­lets be­gan to publish de­tailed al­le­ga­tions, and as more ac­cusers came for­ward, many of Ghome­shi’s orig­i­nal sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing May and Copps, apol­o­gized for their tweets. The next day, May posted a state­ment say­ing “I apol­o­gize to those who feel I let them down by ap­pear­ing to ‘take sides’ and dis­be­lieve the women who were in­ter­viewed by the Toronto Star,” while Copps later wrote a col­umn say­ing that her tweet was a “griev­ous per­sonal lapse in judge­ment.”

Still, when one of the ac­cusers, ac­tress Lucy DeCoutere, stepped out of the shad­ows and onto the front page, some of the tweets about her were vi­cious. But some­thing most un­ex­pected also hap­pened. Many on so­cial me­dia—in­clud­ing a lot of men—stepped up like never be­fore. They paid at­ten­tion, they called out the trolls and they voiced their support.

But that wasn’t enough for my friend Sue Mont­gomery, the Mon­treal Gazette’s jus­tice re­porter. She mes­saged me via Face­book to ex­press her out­rage and pain, ask­ing me to join her in sign­ing a list that we would cir­cu­late among other women who had been raped and never re­ported it.

I’m not one for lists. Which is why I took a breath and tweeted, at 2:55 p.m. on Oc­to­ber 30: “#ibelievelucy #ibelieve­women And yes, I’ve been raped (more than once) and never re­ported it. #BeenRapedNeverReported.” Over the next few hours I tweeted some more, first a bit war­ily and then a call to arms: “If all women who’ve been raped stepped out of our shame & shared, we would make the stigma go away! #BeenRapedNeverReported #ibelievelucy.”

Then came my three-tweet outburst, served up with a what-the-hell-why-shouldI-hide-it-I-didn’t-do-any­thing-wrong at­ti­tude that came with more than 40 years of dis­tance—not to men­tion despair and dis­gust with how rape cul­ture was still a thing, and a big thing at that: “It was 1969 when, if you found you were the only girl in the rec room and no par­ents were home, it was your fault. #BeenRapedNeverReported” I tweeted. Soon after, I fol­lowed with “1970: My friend’s friend from out of town ‘for­got his wal­let’ in his ho­tel room, it will only take a minute. #BeenRapedNeverReported” and then “1974: A half-empty 747 to London. Trav­el­ing alone. Fell asleep in h

my seat in the back. Thank Dog for the stew­ardess. #BeenRapedNeverReported.”

Mean­while Sue (@mont­gomery­sue) was also tweet­ing: “He was se­nior flight at­ten­dant. I was sum­mer stu­dent flight at­ten­dant. Learned later there had been many vic­tims. #BeenRapedNeverReported”; “He was my grand­fa­ther. I was 3-9 yo. Cops wanted to know why I waited so long to re­port it. #BeenRapedNeverReported.”

We had never shared th­ese sto­ries be­fore. Was it out of shame? Self-blame? Pre­fer­ring to for­get? Were we telling our­selves the as­saults no longer mat­tered? Weren’t we sur­vivors, strong, not vic­tims?

It just felt right to let ’er rip. And, con­sid­er­ing what hap­pened next, it was in­deed a tip­ping point, a per­fect storm that had been build­ing up on so­cial me­dia for months. Mostly women, but also some men, poured out their sto­ries on­line. And then more did. And then more.

@aeter­nam­cordis tweeted: “Guess what. Me too. #BeenRapedNeverReported”; @cor­gisaurus wrote: “I was 16. I thought it was all my fault. I thought I’d be in trou­ble. I lied to my friends & fam­ily to cover it up. #BeenRapedNeverReported”; and @gin­ger­lee posted: “#BeenRapedNever Re­ported Be­cause I still can’t say the words out loud. I can type or write it, but say­ing the ac­tual words, no. Can’t do it.”

In just 12 hours, the hash­tag was trend­ing, first in Canada and then in the United States. Be­fore sun­rise, I’d re­ceived emails from re­porters ev­ery­where. Many web­sites, in­clud­ing the Huff­in­g­ton Post, Cos­mopoli­tan and even Glam­our in France, posted sto­ries. At mid­day on the 31st, ac­cord­ing to the Star, #BeenRapedNeverReported hit nearly eight mil­lion Twit­ter im­pres­sions, reg­is­ter­ing ev­ery­where from Aus­tralia to South Africa.

In Que­bec, the hash­tag be­came #Agres­sionNon Dénon­cée and, for a full month, Sue and I jug­gled in­ter­view and talk-show re­quests from coast to coast and all over the world. Even Al-Hayat, one of the lead­ing panArab dailies, did a story on the Ara­bic ver­sion. By year-end, #BeenRapedNeverReported ranked on many Top 10 lists of the most im­por­tant so­cial-jus­tice hash­tags of the year.

SPEAK­ING OUT

Was #BeenRapedNeverReported lit­tle more than a vir­tual global girls’ night where we all got to­gether to bitch about the aw­ful things boys do? What ex­actly does hash­tag fem­i­nism ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish in real life? For one thing, it has been rais­ing aware­ness. Peo­ple are talk­ing about how common sex­ual as­sault is, how few rapes are taken to the po­lice and how just a tiny frac­tion of those re­sult in con­vic­tions. Dis­cus­sions on the mean­ing of con­sent have started—and there’s talk of mak­ing it a com­pul­sory part of ed­u­ca­tional cur­ric­ula. Sex­ual-vi­o­lence sto­ries have be­come real news—on front pages and not just rel­e­gated to prime-time crime shows.

The day after Sue and I first tweeted it, Julie Miville-Dechêne, pres­i­dent of the Con­seil du statut de la femme du Québec, stunned a Ra­dio-Canada host dur­ing a live in­ter­view by re­veal­ing that she, too, had been raped and never re­ported it. Sim­i­lar ad­mis­sions came from other prom­i­nent Cana­dian women, among them Alexa Con­radi, pres­i­dent of the Fédéra­tion des femmes du Québec, On­tario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and even Copps, who re­vealed that she had been sex­u­ally as­saulted dur­ing her first year as an On­tario MPP and

also raped by a man she dated more than 30 years ago. The is­sue of why women who are sex­u­ally as­saulted keep the crime to them­selves, blam­ing them­selves (“Why did I have that third drink?” “Why did I wear that skirt?” “Why did I ac­cept that ride?”), was be­ing talked about. In Toronto, po­lice chief Bill Blair urged vic­tims to re­port to his Sex Crimes Unit, of­fer­ing “re­spect­ful and com­pas­sion­ate” treat­ment.

#BeenRapedNeverReported had capped a year of gen­dered vi­o­lence, right up there with # BringBack­OurGirls, about the kid­nap­ping of more than 200 school­child­ren in Nige­ria; #MMIW (miss­ing and mur­dered in­dige­nous women); #Gamer­gate (for the death threats against women in the com­puter-gaming field); #WhyIS­tayed, in ref­er­ence to why women fear leav­ing abu­sive part­ners; and #Sur­vivorPriv­i­lege, which came in the wake of a prom­i­nent Amer­i­can colum­nist claim­ing that be­ing a rape vic­tim is a “cov­eted sta­tus that con­fers priv­i­leges.” Twit­ter to­tally called him out.

Some of the above hash­tags were fu­elled by out­rage, oth­ers by sar­casm. They re­ceived wide­spread cov­er­age and showed fem­i­nists not as the ag­ing, hu­mour­less man-haters they’d some­times been made out to be over the decades but as young and vi­brant and with a cut­ting sense of hu­mour.

NET­WORKED FEM­I­NISM

That fem­i­nism would en­joy a re­nais­sance on­line is hardly sur­pris­ing be­cause so­cial me­dia is dom­i­nated by women. Ac­cord­ing to In­ter­net mar­keter Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of Women On­line, women glob­ally drive 62 per­cent of daily Face­book ac­tiv­ity and make up 53 per­cent of Twit­ter users. They’re more pro­lific tweet­ers and tend to be more ac­tive across sites such as Pin­ter­est, Tum­blr and In­sta­gram.

“The peo­ple who com­prise women’s so­cial net­works are more than just strangers on the In­ter­net—women trust their on­line friends and fol­low­ers,” Aarons-Mele wrote in 2012 in the Har­vard Business Re­view. “Women are in­flu­enc­ing each other’s de­ci­sions through non-stop con­ver­sa­tions on so­cial me­dia.”

“That free­dom to share real emo­tion—anger, sad­ness, re­vul­sion, joy—is what pow­ers net­worked fem­i­nism,” notes Tom Wat­son on tech­pres­i­dent.com. Wat­son is the au­thor of CauseWired: Plug­ging In, Get­ting In­volved, Chang­ing the World and pres­i­dent of CauseWired, a firm based in Bronxville, N.Y., that con­sults on so­cial ac­tivism. “There is a tena­cious, su­per-wired coali­tion of ac­tive fem­i­nists pre­pared at a mo­ment’s no­tice to blow the lid off sex­ist at­tacks.... The strong­est flavour of net­worked ac­tivism is deeply fem­in­ist,” he writes.

Net­worked fem­i­nism re­ally took off in the late ’90s and early ’00s with blogs such as Fem­i­nist­ing, Jezebel and Shakesville and their ded­i­cated fol­low­ers and com­mu­ni­ties of com­menters. It then spread to so­cial me­dia, where fem­i­nists could share their sto­ries, re­port on in­jus­tices, ad­vo­cate for re­pro­duc­tive rights and have a gig­gle by mock­ing clue­less politi­cians.

Prob­a­bly the first overtly fem­i­nist ac­tion on so­cial me­dia hap­pened in 2003, when Face­book co-founders Mark Zucker­berg and Ed­uardo Saverin, then stu­dents at Har­vard, launched Face­Mash, a “hot-or-not?” web­site that was shut down after two cam­pus women’s groups com­plained of sex­ism and racism. On Twit­ter, it prob­a­bly started in 2008, when @fem2pt0 signed on and, two months later, the catch-all fem­i­nist hash­tag #fem2 was born. From there flowed #vaw (vi­o­lence against women), #cd­nfem (Cana­dian fem­i­nism), #ProChoice, #WarOn Women and many more fem­i­nism-fo­cused hash­tags.

Re­mem­ber 2012’s # Bin­der­sFullofWomen and #Le­git­i­mateRape? Both took off when Amer­i­can politi­cians pub­licly made stupid, sex­ist re­marks. Women and men vir­tu­ally stomped them with so many LOL tweets that the cor­po­rate me­dia were forced to cover the gaffes.

A POW­ER­FUL VOICE

More hope­ful signs have emerged from south of the bor­der, where “the war on women” has made fem­i­nism rel­e­vant again—and where #Hash­tagFem­i­nism has had a real im­pact. In 2012, when the Susan G. Komen Foun­da­tion backed out of fund­ing Planned Par­ent­hood over the abor­tion con­tro­versy, so­cial-me­dia protests made it re­store its support. And just last year, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama es­tab­lished the White House Task Force to Pro­tect Stu­dents from Sex­ual As­sault.

“There have been women on col­lege cam­puses talk­ing about sex­ual vi­o­lence for decades,” of­fers Chris Lin­der, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia who is con­duct­ing a study on the ef­fects of me­dia on sex­ual-as­sault ac­tivism and aware­ness. “But many sur­vivors have been iso­lated on their own cam­puses. In the age of so­cial me­dia, they find out that there are many more.” h

If it weren’t for so­cial-me­dia pres­sure, the young men who al­legedly sex­u­ally as­saulted Re­htaeh Par­sons might never have faced the courts. The Dart­mouth, N.S., teen hanged her­self in 2013 after pho­tos of what ap­peared to be a gang rape were cir­cu­lated on­line. A Face­book on­slaught forced Nova Sco­tia jus­tice min­is­ter Ross Landry to re­tract his de­fence of the RCMP’s decision not to lay charges. Late last year, two youths pleaded guilty to pro­duc­ing and dis­tribut­ing child pornog­ra­phy. (So far, none has been charged with the sup­posed sex­ual as­sault de­picted in the images.)

In De­cem­ber, after a group of se­nior den­tistry stu­dents at Hal­i­fax’s Dal­housie Univer­sity were caught post­ing sex­u­ally vi­o­lent com­ments on Face­book, a so­cial­me­dia cam­paign kept the is­sue in the news. The univer­sity’s re­sponse re­sulted in a wave of anger, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of the #Dal­housieHatesWomen hash­tag. In Jan­uary, 13 stu­dents were sus­pended.

But net­worked fem­i­nism has also re­vealed that the dig­i­tal sis­ter­hood isn’t as mono­lithic, nor as co­he­sive, as many might be­lieve. There are Twit­ter wars over sex-worker and trans rights be­tween “RadFems” and “Lib­eral Fem­i­nists.” There are class wars. And there are race wars. This was seen in 2013’s #Sol­i­dar­i­tyIsForWhiteWomen, which was cre­ated by blog­ger Mikki Ken­dall in an­swer to the ex­clu­sion of women of colour from main­stream fem­i­nist me­dia.

It has been ed­u­ca­tional, even for those who study and teach fem­i­nism. “As a white woman, I can learn a lot from other women’s ex­pe­ri­ences if I am open to other women’s sto­ries and do work to make my­self more con­scious of be­ing more in­clu­sive in my fem­i­nist or­ga­niz­ing,” says Lin­der.

Car­rie Rentschler, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of fem­i­nist me­dia stud­ies at Mon­treal’s McGill Univer­sity, main­tains that so­cial me­dia is a teach­ing tool. “Peo­ple are learn­ing about fem­i­nist is­sues less in the class­room and more via so­cial­me­dia chan­nels as a kind of peer-to-peer knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. There’s def­i­nitely some­thing go­ing on.”

Veteran Cana­dian fem­i­nist Judy Re­bick, who doc­u­ments how the In­ter­net is chang­ing ac­tivism in her book Trans­form­ing Power, calls what hap­pened with #BeenRapedNeverReported a “pow­er­ful move­ment.” “It was all about tim­ing; it was all about hit­ting a mo­ment,” she says. But, she adds, “the prob­lem is, there’s no­body to keep push­ing. Be­cause once it’s not on the front pages any­more, then you need a group to keep build­ing on it.” That means step­ping away from the key­pad and into the street. Tak­ing back the night. SlutWalk­ing. March­ing on Par­lia­ment Hill. Or does it? “I don’t think peo­ple or­ga­nize in the same way any­more, think­ing that they ac­tu­ally have to set up a group,” in­sists Re­bick. “The chal­lenge is to think about what kinds of struc­tures would work now.”

The per­ceived lack of struc­ture could be what is mak­ing many sec­ond-wave fem­i­nists—those who rose up in the ’60s fight­ing for abor­tion rights, equal op­por­tu­nity and pay eq­uity—think that the third wave is a wash, that young women are dis­avow­ing fem­i­nism as “the f-word” and it some­how doesn’t ap­ply to them. But now, clearly, there’s hope in a fourth wave that is us­ing tech­nol­ogy to or­ga­nize. Last fall, for ex­am­ple, Toronto Star colum­nist Heather Mal­lick de­cried “the loss of fem­i­nist lead­ers who could rally the troops” across Canada. The next morn­ing, she woke up to a Twit­ter bom­bard­ment from what she la­belled “hard-left fem­i­nists” who re­minded her that there were new lead­ers...if only she would look on­line. It’s a gen­er­a­tional, and a dig­i­tal, di­vide.

ON­LINE COL­LAB­O­RA­TION

One of the prom­i­nent new fem­i­nist voices is Toronto po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Stephanie Guthrie, founder of #WiTOpoli (Women in Toronto Pol­i­tics). It aims to get more women into civic dis­course, and it be­gan by play­ing a pow­er­ful role dur­ing the re­cent Toronto mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion, h

en­cour­ag­ing fe­male can­di­dates and bat­tling racism dur­ing the cam­paign. It has no struc­ture. Its head­quar­ters is Twit­ter. Each mem­ber of ev­ery work­ing group is equal. “One of the prob­lems of older it­er­a­tions of fem­i­nism was that they were too de­pen­dent on one lead­ing voice,” says Guthrie. “I don’t want to cre­ate a hi­er­ar­chy, but I do want to build clearly de­lin­eated goals. How we or­gan­ize is as im­por­tant as what we or­ga­nize to achieve.”

With­out Twit­ter, there would be no #WiTOpoli. “I have found most of my col­lab­o­ra­tors on so­cial me­dia,” says Guthrie. “You can tune in to peo­ple whose work par­al­lels yours and who can in­form your own per­spec­tive and prac­tices. You can com­bine what you have to of­fer with what other peo­ple have to of­fer and cre­ate some­thing.”

But there is clearly a dan­ger in this or­ga­ni­za­tional ap­proach too, laments Lin­der. “There are peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence trolling and hate­ful mes­sages,” she says. Guthrie, like many opin­ion­ated women on Twit­ter, has been sub­jected to cy­ber­stalk­ing, rape threats and even death threats. And not all the vi­cious­ness comes from men. When Demos, a U.K. think tank, stud­ied on­line ha­rass­ment re­cently, it dis­cov­ered that women were almost as likely to call one another “slut” or “whore” as men were to use the ep­i­thets.

But even that is now be­gin­ning to have an up­side, ac­cord­ing to Rentschler. “The way that rape, sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment and even cli­mate is­sues, as in hos­tile-cli­mate is­sues on­line, are a prob­lem, so many women on­line have dealt with such in­tense misogyny that it has now be­come a space to re­spond to misogyny,” she says. A back­lash to the back­lash, you could say—one that’s also get­ting pub­lic at­ten­tion.

LAST­ING CHANGE?

So­cial me­dia has not only res­ur­rected fem­i­nist ac­tivism; it has re­de­fined it and made it more in­clu­sive, de­spite the dif­fer­ences within the move­ment. Fem­i­nism is no longer the purview of priv­i­leged women with the re­sources to de­vote them­selves to it. Be­cause so­cial me­dia is demo­cratic, avail­able to any­body with a smart­phone, voices long si­lenced or marginal­ized now have a plat­form—and a mega­phone. Or at least that’s the case in the de­vel­oped world, where women have ac­cess to the In­ter­net. There are women in many coun­tries, cer­tain Arab states or North Korea, for ex­am­ple, who aren’t part of the new dig­i­tal fem­i­nism. But then, even the men in those coun­tries face cen­sor­ship and cen­sure for de­mand­ing their rights.

While women in those re­pres­sive coun­tries may not be on so­cial me­dia, we who are con­nected are able to ed­u­cate one another about the plights of women around the world, from those fac­ing kid­nap­ping and rape in war to those af­fected by cli­mate change.

I would like to be­lieve that dig­i­tal me­dia can and will help to change the world for women. When some­thing as seem­ingly small as a trend­ing hash­tag el­e­vates our con­cerns into the main­stream, it can spill into pol­icy-mak­ing and re­sult in life-chang­ing de­ci­sions. Like this one from @Amaz­ingMavis: “To­day’s big up­date: #BeenRapedNeverReported... After 2 months I can fi­nally say to­day that I have re­ported and pressed charges.” This is just one of many tweets like this. Women went to the po­lice be­cause, via the hash­tag, they learned that there is no statute of lim­i­ta­tions on sex­ual-as­sault charges in Canada and they de­cided to tell their friends, fam­i­lies and part­ners.

There’s ab­so­lutely no doubt that mil­lions of us have been em­pow­ered by trend­ing hash­tags. If only there were ways to count them all and to mea­sure the real-life im­pact. Many peo­ple said that Sue and I were brave to come out. I don’t know about that. She and I, as pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists, are used to liv­ing life out loud, spilling our guts and ex­pos­ing our emo­tions to face­less strangers.

But now all women can be lead­ers. And all can, and should, be fol­low­ers. Where we go next is up to all of us. All it takes is 140 char­ac­ters. n

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