DAY TWO: Digital Women – Gender Based Violence in the Online Space

What happens when the same digital space that enables women to be who they want to be is also the same space where women become targets of misogynistic threats? This articles delineates the author’s experiences with perpetrators and an unhelpful police force.

Digital Women

I put my story and my voice out into the world. I braced myself – I knew what was coming…

Megan Bellatrix Archibald

Women living in 2020 have an opportunity that many women who came before them did not have – and that is the opportunity to present themselves to the world exactly as they wish to. This is perhaps especially poignant for female-identifying celebrities, who would formerly have had everything they said to the press about their lives come through the filter of a (likely, male) PR representative. However, irrespective of your celebrity status, women now have the opportunity to entirely control the narrative around their own lives, to express their views, their artworks and their expertise to a global audience – at their fingertips. We are entirely in control of our own image, and that’s what fourth-wave feminism is all about, empowering women, utilising the Internet to do it. However, this online space has opened up the opportunity for a new, unique form of gender based violence against women.

In the summer of 2019, I gave interviews to the BBC and other news outlets, concerning my political campaigning to change the current guidelines in Scotland around the eligibility of women to receive a hysterectomy due to medical conditions. The current guidelines – unfortunately my campaign has yet to change anything – state pretty simply that unless you are over 35, and have had a child, you’re not getting a hysterectomy, irrespective of the pain you’re enduring.

All of these attacks rested more on my appearance as a young woman than on anything I was actually saying. They worked off the patriarchal assumption that my only purpose, the greatest insult you could throw at me, was that I was unattractive and not fulfilling my “role” as a woman.

Seeking a permanent solution to the suffering that didn’t necessitate the use of hormonal birth control, and their side effects, I put my story and my voice out into the world. I braced myself – I knew what was coming, as soon as they put the BBC News interviews onto their social media pages. And it came – I was “a non-conformist”, on account of the lip piercing that obviously negates my ability to have bodily autonomy. I “needed counselling”. I “couldn’t be trusted with my own makeup”, never mind my uterus. The writers were overwhelmingly male. Someone found my personal email address – and my inbox was full of suggestions I “find God”, that I reconsider, “that no man would ever want to marry me if this was my viewpoint”. One man was kind enough to take my statement that “the easiest way to have my uterus removed is to die, because I’m an organ donor” literally, and emailed to tell me he hoped I died, and that I didn’t need to worry about pregnancy because no one would want to fuck me anyway. He sent a rape threat two days later.

Of course – I got off comparatively lightly. There have been women trolled to death. The law is scarcely keeping up with the technology; it was 2017 in Scotland before a law making it “easier” to prosecute revenge porn came into force. Scotland has had a law making “upskirting” (that is, taking photographs under clothing without a woman’s consent/knowledge) an offence since 2009, but with only 3.5 convictions a year on average, and teachers calling for a ban on camera phones in the classroom because of the prevalence of the practice, there’s an argument the current law does not work.

The narrative is still that, somehow, it is the victim’s fault. If a woman didn’t want their nude images online, they shouldn’t have taken them at all. If they didn’t want trolled, they shouldn’t speak out online on controversial issues. They say that most of the time, you know your rapist. Perhaps that’s the problem with existing in the digital world – it might be someone you know, it might not be, the Internet allows a level of anonymity.

In February of 2020, I found myself holding onto a wall outside a police station in Edinburgh, violently vomiting as my phone continued to light up. Someone I knew from my undergraduate degree – who had a track record of sharing photographs of people without their consent and hacking into accounts – had crawled from the woodwork again, in a rage of jealousy over an opportunity I had received. He was relentless. Inside the station, there were no female police officers on duty. I sat opposite two men, as they read my phone, the rape threats, the death threats, the barrage of abuse. They asked me if he was an ex-boyfriend, if we had ever had sex? If I had led him on? If I had ever upset him? If maybe, he just really liked me and this was his way of getting my attention?

They laughed in my face and told me that “being a bit of a dick” wasn’t a criminal offence.

I pushed for conviction under Misuse of Communications Act. They laughed again, told me that until he “actually commits a crime”, there was nothing to be done. The courage it took to go to the police station in the first place was worthless, because until he attacked me – and he’d made it clear he knew where I lived and worked – there was nothing to be done. Mercifully, upon requesting new police officers, an investigation was launched. It still ended in no charges being pressed.

To exist in the online space as a woman who is unapologetically herself, is a radical act. To be sexy, to be outwardly embracing her sexuality, is a radical act. To candidly talk about the realities of life as a woman – to discuss periods, or infertility, or miscarriage or, god forbid, show body hair – is a radical act. To speak with confidence about your area of expertise and tell the men who try to correct you that you weren’t done speaking yet and you’re more qualified on this than they are, is a radical act.

To showcase your talents is a radical act. To ignore the male gaze, to be fat, to be tired, to be spotty, to make-up free and to be in sweatpants, is a radical act. To show yourself, as a woman, without the frills, without the soft focus filter nor the excuse that “Sorry, actually, I have a boyfriend”, is a radical act. To tell a man that you’re reporting him for sending you unsolicited pictures, is a radical act. To remind a man that your personal social media accounts are not your dating profile, and simply existing there is not an invite for them to solicit you, is a radical act. And we must continue being radical, until these things are no longer considered to be radical acts.

Pretty, polite, accepting, modest, and complicit in our own dehumanisation is not the rent one should pay to exist in this world as a woman.

Megan Bellatrix Archibald graduated with BA(Hons) Contemporary Art Practice (Photography) from Grays School of Art in 2019, and is currently undertaking a Master of Fine Art Contemporary Art Practice at Edinburgh College of Art. She is an interdisciplinary artist, using photography, sculpture, digital media and painting to create works. She is also a writer on various topics, and a “critical insider” of subculture. 

Check out Megan’s instagram (@doingtheunstuck) here

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