Virtual world, real fear – are women safe online?
For Day 2 of our 16 Days of activism blog series, Clare Laxton highlights the impact of online abuse and shares some tips for protecting yourself online.
“I’m always watching you. You can never escape.”
A common phrase used by perpetrators of domestic abuse to intimidate and terrorise their survivors. With the increasing use of online and digital platforms, for many survivors of domestic abuse, never has a truer word been spoken.
Monitoring of social media and emails – with passwords taken by force – and use of spyware and GPS tracking systems – survivors of domestic abuse really are being watched and tracked at all times by their abusers.
Their privacy invaded daily and bodily autonomy stripped away with threats of publishing intimate photos and videos – online and digital domestic abuse uses 21st century tools to exert age old concepts of power and control over another person.
At Women’s Aid we know that online domestic abuse is on the increase with nearly half of survivors of domestic abuse experiencing it after they have left the relationship and for the majority of survivors it being part of a pattern of offline abuse they also experience.
Online abuse by a partner or ex-partner is often not an isolated, individual incident; more, it is part of a campaign of systematic terror and abuse designed to intimidate, control and strike fear into the victim.
Yet there is a tendency to treat instances of online abuse from a partner or ex-partner as one off incidents not posing that much of a threat to women. Recognising that online abuse coming from someone who has intimate knowledge of their victim – where they live, where they work, who their friends are – should immediately raise concerns about the danger that person may be in. In fact, for survivors who have received direct threats online, in a third of cases those threats were carried out.
Online domestic abuse – behaviours such as monitoring of emails, abusing over social media, distributing intimate photos or videos (‘revenge pornography’) or use of spyware or GPS locators – can have a huge and devastating impact on survivors that is often minimised or not recognised by state agencies.
“I suffered PTSD. I didn’t feel safe in my own home. I felt scared every time I was online. I was scared to talk to friends and family online.”
“I was constantly terrified, less social.”
“Made me feel really self conscious about my appearance, the way I spoke, my personality, the effect I have on other people around me, etc.”
“It made me feel ashamed, scared, lonely and afraid of other peoples judgement when I felt increasingly isolated.”
Now is the time to act on online domestic abuse. Cybercrime generally is on the increase and with controlling and coercive behaviour becoming a criminal offence very soon there are no excuses left to ignore the fear and devastation of online domestic abuse.
In the two years since Women’s Aid hosted a conference on online stalking, harassment and abuse, progress has been made. Social media companies are improving and constantly developing their safety policies and procedures, and ‘revenge pornography’ has been made a criminal offence. This progress needs to continue and quicken as police, prosecutors, social media companies and other digital organisations start to recognise that online domestic abuse is part of a pattern of behaviour and survivors need support according to their needs.
To keep women safe online we need better understanding of the use of online platforms to control and abuse; expert advice on online domestic abuse and other digital issues at government level and better protection with civil orders; but mostly we need people to listen and believe women’s experiences and do all they can to support them.
Protect yourself and learn more
- You can find some ways of staying safe online and reporting online abuse on the Women’s Aid website
- Read our report on online stalking, abuse and harassment
Clare Laxton is Public Policy Manager for Women’s Aid. You can follow her on twitter at: @ladylaxton