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Jian Ghomeshi went to trial this month. And so, in a way, did Canadian women. The Ghomeshi trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell.
It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I am sharing my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day 25, in which I share one of my own brief experiences of online harassment and a guest post from a woman who experienced it for much longer and with much more severity. She also shares the strategy she used to free herself from the man who was stalking her.
If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow.
This is incident number forty-something. It happened last month.
On January 8, 2016, a Muslim woman named Rose Hamid attended a Trump rally in South Carolina. She wore a hijab and a t-shirt that said "Salam: I come in peace." She shared popcorn and quickly made friends with the people seated around her. It was they who apologized when she was escorted out of the rally "for her own safety," after committing the crime of being a vertical Muslim woman.
I love the interview on CNN where she says that she was not afraid, because, "I believe that people in all camps are decent people when you get to know them…I never felt truly threatened...I truly believe that the decent people would have stood up and not permitted that." "That" remains undefined, but we all know what hate-filled mobs can do. I am amazed at her magnanimity and faith in this situation. I love people but share few of her feelings about humanity.
I was touched by her action. I'm a new and infatuated Twitter user. I tweeted about it, saying, "Feeling a lot of feelings about this. Rose Hamid, you are courageous and loving." I tagged my friend Jeff Perera and hashtagged the appropriate topics: #Trump, #poli, #peace. The tweet was retweeted once and received 9 likes. It was embedded in a short post on romper.com. Not a particularly wide reach, but more successful than most of my tweets. More people heard my opinion than would if I had said nothing.
And then, the pushback. If you don't use Twitter, the following exchange might be hard to follow. But if you've ever watched a bunch of drunk people brawl, you should be able to get through it OK.
As soon as the user (who claimed to be female) mentioned my kids, I blocked her ass. I know there are rarely teeth to the 'She's not my friend. Rape her!' bark. But as Kanye learned recently, don't bring kids into beef on Twitter. Like my son's doctor assessing my (nonexistent) interest in his sex life, it's low.
The worst insults this person could imagine were to call me a) Muslim because I have "0 Swedish looks" (of course I don't; I'm an Icelandic nudist, remember?) and b) a lover of being raped (the latter sounds like a logical fallacy but actually calls into question important ideas about the separation of physical pleasure from consent, though 'love' is perhaps a poor choice of words).I reported the user, through a lengthy and inconvenient process that took 20 minutes to complete on the cracked screen of my phone.
To do so, I had to open Twitter in my Chrome browser to get the url of the harassing tweet, then copy and paste it back into the Twitter app. They then sent me a form letter asking for more information. More than what? I wanted to ask, More than those tweets that say I like -- no, love! -- being raped? It took me a few days to work out my response and by the time I did, the case had been closed.
Closed. The user's account remains open and active.
Twitter: do better.
You actively deflect abuse complaints, putting the burden of its reporting and elimination squarely on the shoulders of those who receive it. You have great lobby art. But you disappoint me.
Over the weekend, one of my favorite tweeps (yeah), Scaachi Koul, who can be seen respectfully and insightfully discussing issues affecting men on The National here, was hounded off Twitter through threats of sexual violence. She reported that she received messages saying that her supervisor should rape her after she posted an irreverent series of tweets emphasizing her search for non-white, non-male writers to reflect Canadian diversity on BuzzFeed Canada.
To no one's surprise, Lynn Coady said it better, but I too am so sad about this. I liked reading Scaachi's writing and watching her deal with trolls. She would engage them, fight them, make them look like fools. She wasn't meek, she wasn't nice, and she only sometimes followed that old adage not to feed them their noses on a plate.
She made me think that maybe women should 'feed' the trolls. That the advice not to is an extension of the advice we receive to 'just ignore' threats and harassment in real life. It's a pragmatic approach, if your goal is survival. But it's not a strategy for lasting social change. Too bad Scaachi can't safely be online to continue to model such unladlylike behavior.
I am no language-processing expert but I truly believe that this is a solvable problem. If Twitter had to pay $1 for every rape threat a woman using its site received, Twitter would find a way to stop rape threats on its site. It's a matte of priorities.
Twitter allows me to talk to and share opinions and information with people I would not otherwise meet (ahem, Ai Wei-Wei and Raffi). It's amazing and I wish I had discovered it earlier. But when I recommend it to other women, their response is always the same: it's mean. It's intimidating. Women with creative power and intelligence, with good ideas and compelling work, just don't have the time or energy to deal with the crap that comes with entering public online spaces with a female name.
Somewhere on Twitter I was discussing its tendency to close harassment reports. Another woman said that she thought that the people who monitor abuse reports should have to prove that they themselves have been on the receiving end of online harassment. This got me thinking: what if there were such a certificate? What if we considered not necessarily the reception of harassment but the survival thereof to be a badge of honor? So I made one! You should get one!
You can fill out the form to get a certificate appropriate to your situation by clicking here. I will send you a certificate, though I am way behind on issuing them. Sorry about that.
* * *
In doing this month-long project, I have ben careful to monitor my exposure to readers' responses. Ater the first day, when a male commenter told me that there was nothing wrong with grown men lurking around unaccompanied preteen girls with erections in their shorts, I stopped reading the comments on rabble.ca; some days I get my husband to tell me approximately what the reaction has been, and some days I don't. The comments are moderated and occasionally a string of angry responses will indicate that someone, whose work is now deleted, must have said something truly terrible.
In terms of other platforms, Facebook has generally been supportive; Snapchat continues to bewilder me; and I haven't been on Instagram because I haven't had time. But Twitter is important for me professionally. It's what G-chat was eight years ago. I can't just not check it for a month. But... ew.
After a few disheartening exchanges, I asked for a little help from my friends. I am now buoyed by my dream team goon squad, a small group of women monitoring my Twitter account for ridiculousness. I thought it would be cool to have a man -- someone who doesn't normally receive the kind of sexualized hate that women often do -- for the job (see white males? You do get job offers!) but the people who were most available and I knew the best were women. They read, retweet, block, and respond to notifications and messages.
It is a labour of love and support for me. It is like a dream. Of course, knowing that it's not me behind the screen has done much to neutralize threatening behavior I would otherwise receive. What fun is it to harass that narcissistic liar bitch's friend? Only a little.
The social support approach shares and thus depersonalizes the burden of harassment. It's also used by HeartMob, an initiative by Hollaback Girl in which people who have been harassed online can receive emotional support and assistance in processing their complaints. They're looking for volunteers, if you're available.
My experiences with harassment have been minimal considering the amount of time I have spent online. Today, I am honoured to share a guest post from an absurdly intelligent woman who experienced severe harassment on Facebook. What's more, although she received no support from the authorities, she figured out a way to stop it in its tracks. Badass.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine invited me to join a Facebook group about classical music. Facebook was something I considered more of a joke than reality and I thought, why not, and joined this closed group. At first it was fun. The members, mainly men aged 45-70, seemed to bring up different topics in a civilized way.
I wrote a comment one day; apparently my comment was such a surprise that one of the members directly asked me how I could have such extensive knowledge regarding this composer and so on. I didn't feel like explaining but it soon became clear that I had gone from what the admin described as "the prettiest member of the group" to someone who happened to have actual knowledge and insight. Apparently, this was not a good thing.
I received a friend request from the group member who had asked me a question. I hesitated since I had a rule at the time never to accept friend requests from people I had never met but made an exception thinking how dangerous could it be? That man turned out to be a decent human being and a few months later he defended my views when several group members were mocking my opinions and thoughts in a thread (most members seemed to write negative remarks about women in general). That discussion led to a few more friend requests from men I didn't know.
My way of using Facebook had changed a lot by then and I now felt what's the big deal, it's just an online thing. One of the men, however, immediately started sending me private messages and although I explained that I didn't have any interest in anything other than discussing music, his messages became inappropriate.
One day, I had written in my Facebook status that I wasn't feeling well and had to stay home. The man wrote to me that he could come to my home, tie me up in my bed and be my doctor, no clothes needed and sinful sex with him would cure me. I told one of my best friends about the entire thing and she told me to unfriend the man, block him and leave the closed Facebook group.
I didn't take her advice. Why? I simply couldn't believe that it was possible to be harassed online and certainly not in a Facebook group. I tried to deal with the man, who was about 15 years older than me, by even more directly telling him that I had no interest in his sexual life. I asked him to stop writing to me. That's when things went from what I felt was still ok to ugly and scary.
The man not only kept writing to me about sex, he started to tell me about his plans to travel to where I lived to meet me, and soon he confessed that he thought I was the perfect woman for him and the reasons why were disgusting to read. When I told him I had no interest in meeting him he started to track the events I was attending through Facebook and tried to attend the same events.
I became aware of how much information people have about you through your Facebook profile. I had never told this man where I lived but he had managed to figure it out. My first reaction was to start to change everything on my Facebook profile from "friends" to "only me" in the privacy settings, but I soon realized that that would take ages and that it wasn't fair. Why should I stop using Facebook and connect with my friends and family around the world because of one perverted man? I realized that I hadn't even noticed just how bad the situation had become.
Turns out, it's almost impossible to defend yourself against sexual harassment online. There was nothing illegal about his way of writing to me about sex and of his plans to come and see me or attend the same events as me. That's when I understood that Facebook is anything but a joke and a lot of people use it as a tool to find people they can abuse. I felt angry and helpless. I started to change my way of using Facebook and no longer participated in any discussions in the closed Facebook group, but I decided to remain a member.
Since I couldn't do anything to stop the man from harassing me online and he already knew where I lived, I decided to join his game with the intention to outsmart him. It took two months, but I managed to get the necessary information to scare him off and make him stop writing to me about sex or anything for that matter.
His mistake? Taking a photograph of an envelope with his address on it and posting it in the closed Facebook group. He shared the photo with the group to show his latest purchase of records but later took it down probably because of the address visible for all members to see. When I located his address I was actually scared for real. It turned out he didn't live that far away from me.
I told my friends; many wanted to take the law into their own hands so to speak, but I told them that I wasn't going to break the law or lower myself to his level. The solution? Offering him help. Through his messages to me I had come to understand that this man was religious and when he again wrote to me about sex I replied that I couldn't help him with his situation but that I could contact his local church and see if they had the necessary support system to help him deal with his problems regarding sex. Not only did he reply that he probably could get support from his congregation but he stopped harassing me. Apparently I had found the one thing he respected, the God he believed in.
I realize as I write this that I feel a need to make you who read this understand that I didn't see this coming and that it is important to me to not be judged by you. I do ask myself why that man picked me and I have no idea. Facebook is not that much fun no matter how hard you try to make it fun. It's just like life, you have to be careful and it's easy to make small mistakes. Any photograph you post, anything you write can be copied and used in different ways.
I still feel that I should have known better and even though I've now changed my way of using social media, the fun part is gone. I'm a grown woman and if this could happen to me then how easy would it be to harass a child online? The experience reminded me of all the things I do in my life that are motivated by fear of being harassed or exploited. In real life I always think my outfits through and I make sure to have as much control as possible when I travel or go out. Social media is tricky since, often, we have little control over it. For example, other people can post photos of you without your permission. We live in a time where it's impossible to not be photographed. Facebook offers almost no solutions to the problem. It's as if you are on your own yet surrounded by many strangers, who may not have the best intentions.
Of course nobody forces you to have a Facebook account, but it's part of today's way of communicating and I feel it is my right to use social media. In a perfect world I wouldn't have to be careful all the time and constantly watch out for possible threats. Perfection doesn't exist, however, and social media has made it much easier for people to cross unspoken lines without having to face any consequences. For now it seems to me that I must monitor my own actions, playing by the rules of a society that gets more violent each day, just for a chance at being safe.
Please be sure to exemplify online harassment in the comments today.
Tomorrow: being an unwitting masturbatory aid at a crisis hotline (no bling).
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