By Caitlin Lowry, Senior Policy Analyst, YWCA USA
Five years ago, I became the victim of a stalker who sent thousands of harassing and threatening messages to my email and across several online platforms. I spent countless hours talking to police, prosecutors, domestic violence advocates, my state delegate, therapists, and doctors; attending court proceedings; and attending state congressional meetings as a result of his harassment, which included rape and death threats, comments about the windows in my home, and a surprise visit to my workplace. I had binders full of documentation, but it wasn’t enough. Because all of this was viewed as “just” cyberstalking, few officials were willing to take the violence I was experiencing seriously. One police officer told me he couldn’t help me, responding, “Well, he hasn’t threatened to chop you up into little bits or anything yet,” and one judge asked me, “Can’t you just not go online?”
One morning, the unthinkable happened. As I left the metro to walk to work, my phone started buzzing with missed notifications. When I looked at the messages, my stomach dropped. My stalker had obtained some of my most personal information – information that could be used both to monitor and track me, and to impersonate me – which he had published online. The most frightening part of this story? It is not particularly unique.
Every day, women are targeted, monitored, harassed, intimidated, stalked, and threatened by offenders misusing technology. In a 2014 survey of victim services providers by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 97 percent of providers indicated that the victims they served were experiencing technology abuse. The perpetrators – intimate partners, colleagues, acquaintances, and often even complete strangers – text and email harassing or threatening messages, use spyware to monitor computer and email accounts, spoof phone numbers to leave threatening voicemails, launch social media harassment campaigns, post compromising photos or videos online, hack online accounts, use tracking devices to monitor their victims’ movements, and more. For instance, in May of this year, a Miami lawyer stalked and terrorized his ex-girlfriend for months, using a GPS tracker affixed to her car, masking his phone calls to her using a spoofing program, sending her hundreds of emails, following her around town, hacking into her online retail accounts, and canceling the electricity to her home. In June, a Virginia man pled guilty to using Facebook to stalk and harass his ex-girlfriend.
Technology-based violence isn’t just limited to intimate and former partners, however. Increasingly, violence against women is perpetrated by strangers in online spaces. Approximately sixty percent of the violence and harassment women experience online is perpetrated by strangers. According to a Pew research study, women experience particularly severe forms of online violence, such as stalking (26 percent), sexual harassment (25 percent), and physical threats (23 percent). What’s more is that sustained harassment comprised 18 percent. This means that the abuse was ongoing. In my case, my stalker created more than 20 Twitter profiles, four Facebook accounts, a Foursquare account, and seemingly endless email accounts to contact and harass me non-stop for years.
While these abuses happen daily, few make the news. However, as women continue to organize and fight back, we are seeing more and more prominent cases. In 2013, British activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was the target of months of violent, misogynistic abuse through online platforms. Journalist and author Amanda Hess spent months seeking a civil order of protection from a cyber stalker in 2009, and women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu have been forced to leave their homes after facing violent threats online from individuals who have claimed to have had, or have actually posted or shared, their home address.
For women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community – particularly women at the intersections of these identities – the violence is amplified. In August, Emily Gorenski, a transgender data scientist from Charlottesville, was doxxed (her real name and address were posted online) by neo-nazis after writing an op-ed for the Guardian. Twitter user Queen Bravenak was doxxed in September after a well-known celebrity retweeted a meme she had posted. And just last week, Women’s March organizer and YWCA alum and honoree Linda Sarsour received a death threat via social media in advance of a speaking engagement at the University of South Florida.
According to Jamia Wilson, executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press at CUNY, “gendered harassment is the most severe, because women are the ones experiencing [the most intense harassment]. Women of color experience racialized harassment that is often more severe.” For example, actress Pia Glenn has spoken about the gendered, racialized violence she has received online. She has discussed the speed at which interactions escalate to racist and sexist slurs. She also said, “I’ve had lynching threats. People send me terrible historical pictures of our ancestors being lynched. So proportionately speaking, if you’re not a person of color, you will not get that.”
Women of color also have a difficult time receiving assistance from online platforms when they experience violence. Mental health social worker and author Feminista Jones has written explicitly about the lack of protection and empathy provided for vocal Black women on social media platforms. For instance, when Sherronda Brown posted screenshots of the racist harassment she and other Black women had received, Facebook deleted her posts and suspended her account, but refused to take action against the harassers; Imani Gandy, a senior legal analyst with Rewire, endured racist tweets from a user for years with no action from the platform; and actor Leslie Jones took a break from Twitter in 2016 after receiving hundreds of racist and sexist tweets while receiving no assistance from the platform. Only after Jones’ website was hacked and scans of her license and passport, along with nude photos, were released did authorities become involved. As Ijeoma Olua has noted, “many other women of color – especially Black women – on the internet face the same abuse… that Jones is now facing, and we will tell you that this isn’t a harmless prank, this isn’t about hurt feelings or even the sting of a racist comment. This is a deliberate campaign of abuse perpetrated on us to keep us off of the internet, and it needs to be taken seriously.”
While we can all take some steps to protect ourselves from technology abuse (including by asking our members of Congress to support policies that will help keep women and girls safe from violence), abusers will still misuse technology, online platforms have far to go in supporting and protecting survivors, and our legal system still has far to go in responding to technology-based violence. But as advocates, we have a special duty to make sure that the services we provide are as safe for survivors of technology-based violence against women as they are for survivors of other types of gender-based violence.
Some of that involves ensuring that our service programs are technologically secure, and that we and our colleagues understand enough about technology to be able to help survivors (“What’s ‘spyware’?” or “What’s a ‘Twitter handle’?” are not things any survivor wants to hear from someone to whom they’ve gone for help). And some of it involves changing the way we view technology abuse and survivors of technologically-based gender-based violence. Perpetrators of technology abuse aren’t “just trying to scare” their victims any more than stalkers who leave threatening notes on a doorstep are “just trying to scare” their victims. Survivors of technology abuse are not imagining their abuse any more than any other survivor, nor did they provoke the abuse they are receiving.
The most important thing we can do for survivors of technology abuse, however, whether it is at the hands of an intimate partner or a stranger, is to trust and believe them. If a survivor believes they are being monitored or stalked, believe them. If they believe the threats they are receiving are legitimate, believe them. If a survivor speaks about the mental and emotional strain of receiving constant messages online, believe them. In short, we should treat survivors of technological gender-based violence as we would any other survivor of gender-based violence.
Through perseverance, luck, and, quite frankly, a lot of White, cissexual, heterosexual privilege, I was finally able to obtain a protective order that forbade my stalker from contacting me in any way. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to monitor and contact me, and my information was still posted. In order to ensure my safety, I’ve had to take some drastic steps, including moving, changing my phone number, and making changes to the way I use technology. I’ve used a password manager for years, but now I also use a private email server, and several email addresses; I have checked, re-checked, and triple-checked the privacy settings on all applications and accounts I use; my cell phone and laptops are locked with secure passcodes; location sharing is turned off on my camera and on all apps excepts for a maps feature; I use a VPN (virtual private network) on all my devices; and I never “check in” or share where I will be online. Maintaining my privacy is an ongoing challenge.
I refuse, however, to leave the internet, a place where I have found so much community and understanding. His technological harassment and violence were meant to terrorize me into silence, and I refuse to be silent. Because the solution to abuse should never be the same as the abuse itself.
Week Without Violence is part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls with YWCAs across the country and around the world. At YWCA, we know that not all violence is acknowledged or responded to equally. That’s why, for more than 20 years, YWCA has set aside one week in October as a Week Without Violence. Join us from October 16 to 20 as we hold events, share information and stories, advocate, and more with a common goal in mind: together, we can end gender-based violence.
Want to join the movement to end gender-based violence? Learn more, look up events in your area, register your own event(s), and more at our website, and join the conversation on social media!