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