WORDS || Alicia Scott
In Australia, victim blaming is one of the most common yet harmful forms of sexism facing women. Often occurring in regard to sexual assault, victim blaming is when a victim of a crime or mistreatment is deemed responsible for the perpetrator’s harmful actions, which legitimises the institutionalised oppression of women by men. And while it remains a pervasive issue in our society, feminists across all fields continue to challenge the cultural norms that foster victim blaming as acceptable behaviour.
Journalist Clementine Ford’s recent act of solidarity for victims of sexual harassment is a vital lesson into the importance of women speaking out against sexism. In June this year, Ford took a stand against Channel Seven’s Sunrise reportage of an American “revenge porn” website that published intimate photos of four hundred women from South Australia. David Koch initially posed the question, “What’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?”
Ford ignited public debate by sharing a semi-topless photo of herself on her Facebook page in protest of Koch’s degrading language. Rather than victim blaming, Ford challenged the view of some men that women are sexual objects that can be humiliated by sharing nude photos without consent.
While Ford was inundated with praise from her seventeen thousand Facebook supporters (which has now grown to over fifty-three thousand), she also received a frightening amount of sexist messages from men, including requests for nude photos, and more serious threats of rape and violence. Subsequently, Ford shamed the perpetrators by sharing screenshots of the sexualised threats with her Facebook community.
Ford told Sydney Morning Herald, “The reason why I’ve chosen to speak out and name and shame perpetrators is not because their messages personally upset me, it’s because I know we live in a culture where women feel scared to speak out about these things because of what will happen to them”.
Feminist scholar and Professor of Media at Macquarie University, Catharine Lumby, pinpoints how men often use sexualised language when insulting women to demean their sense of purpose.
“There is a licencing of the dehumanisation and objectification of women in our society. We know when women are loud and speak out they will be sexualised … it doesn’t matter what kind of body you have; there will always be sexual commentary on it. Clementine Ford did something brilliant – I totally applaud her – for being brave and saying, ‘this is my body, get over it.’”
Lumby emphasises how all feminists who speak out have had similar experiences to Ford: “For someone who has been a public commentator, journalist and thinker, every week I would get a series of emails from men that would say awful, revoltingly sexual things. Every woman I know in my position has the same stories,” Lumby stresses.
Despite receiving unwavering support for outing the men who sent threats of physical and sexual violence, Clementine Ford was temporarily banned from Facebook for violating ‘community standards’. In a twisted turn of events, it seemed that Facebook’s own policies deem it perfectly okay for men to assault women online but not okay for women to call them out on it.
Ford’s experience makes us question how does Facebook really protect women, and users in general, from harassment and vitriol. In fact, the reason why Ford shared the perpetrators’ names was because she did not feel that Facebook has any appropriate mechanisms to deal with these kind of situations, and rightly so.
With over a billion active accounts worldwide, it is inevitable that Facebook’s ‘community standards’ will not represent everyone’s values equally, given the huge diversity of cultures, languages, and societal behaviour. Lumby, whose research interests include gender, social media and ethics, argues that there are helpful mechanisms available to users who are threatened on Facebook, but it is not all black and white.
“Facebook does have rigorous procedures, the question is how effective are those procedures. A lot of people don’t know how or where to complain due to a lack of promotion. In social media, there are grey areas where we know online vitriol aimed at women is rife and sometimes it’ll be taken down and sometimes it is actually criminal behaviour, but a lot of the time it is sexualised language.”
Lumby was commissioned by Google Australia to research a way forward for media regulation.
The feminist scholar noted that media convergence makes the current landscape increasingly democratic, which has a positive effect on how women are represented and treated online.
“In the past, media was regulated by governments so the only time you saw women’s breasts was in a sexually explicit context, like Page 3 girls and Playboy. Now, media users are also media producers, which allows Facebook to be a very democratic space … the new [online] era shows us that there needs to be community debate and Facebook is a forum for us to have those debates, which is really positive. An Internet filter will not work technologically.”
While Facebook and other social media websites are responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for users, it is important to acknowledge the hyper-sexualised western culture they are operating in. Rather than focusing on why Facebook does not ban men who threaten women with physical and sexual violence, we should be focusing on what cultural norms make men feel entitled to threaten women in the first place. Thus, creating social change will have a more lasting effect on how women are represented and treated rather than surveying people’s behaviour online.
Notwithstanding the hardworking women who persistently challenge the status quo, Professor Lumby believes a shift in cultural norms towards a more equally gendered society will happen if feminists engage young men and boys in the discussion.
We should be focusing on what cultural norms make men feel entitled to threaten women in the first place.
Lumby advocates, “I really believe we need to start young with conversations about ethical behaviour. We need to open our dialogue with young boys as well as young girls. A lot of the incredibly sexist frameworks that we live in have been so entrenched that unpicking them and undoing them takes a lot of time.”
It was later revealed that some of the abusive messages Clementine Ford received were from three fourteen-year-old boys at Adelaide High School, who were suspended for joking about violence against women. Yet Lumby suggests that effective education would be more beneficial for the teenagers than direct punishment.
“I don’t think suspension is helpful. Educational programs won’t work if you tell men or boys what to do. It’s about developing empathy by getting people to think through the impact of their actions. Women can be sexual beings but they are also mothers and sisters. So it’s about dissociating the objectification of women and moving towards a more subjective attitude where men potentially see all women as the ones they already care about.”
Ford, speaking out against women being victim blamed created an unprecedented groundswell of support and activism amongst men and women. Heroine feminists like Ford and Lumby boost the morale of younger generations who strive for a more equal society.
Lumby reiterates, “It is really important that we keep holding hands across generations around change, because it wont happen overnight but hopefully it will happen eventually.”