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Myths about sexual violence and social media

[This post deals with sexual violence and social media, including explicit descriptions of sexual violence. Please exercise self-care.]

As an feminist in the 21st century and a public educator, I've had to do a lot of thinking about social media and its connections to sexual violence.

What I've learned is that there exists a ton of myths about it. This makes sense when you consider that social media is a really recent phenomenon and therefore, we're grappling with how to deal with it; not simply in its relationship to violence, but how it's shaping our world in a host of new ways we have yet to really understand.

There are few people who are talking about sexual violence and social media and I would argue, there are even fewer people than that who are getting it right.  For an amazing example of people who are getting it right, check out Steph Guthrie and Jessica Spence's piece at WiTOpoli.

This list of myths could easily have been an FAQ because I find myself answering a lot of questions from well intentioned folks who are really at a loss with how to deal.

Buckle your seat belts, kids!

Myth #1: This is a completely different beast

Fact: No. Social media is new - yes. But that's about the only thing new here. We're dealing with a new tool to inflect an old pain on womyn. What's happening on social media today would have happened a decade or even 100 years ago, had the technology existed then.

Which leads to the next myth...

Myth #2: What we're seeing today is a reflection of a generation of corrupt youth

Fact: No. Just... no.

Look, I wish I only heard this once, laughed it off and kept on walking. But I hear this all the fucking time. This tsk-tsking that 'Back in my day, we never would have done this stuff.' Sure. BECAUSE FACEBOOK DID NOT EXIST IN 1965. But you think that house parties were safe havens for womyn back in the day? Doubtful, buster. In fact, I know they weren't.

The only thing different between today's youth and previous generations is that today's youth are inundated with technology and ways to connect that did not exist previously.

Furthermore, who raised these kids?! Whenever I hear of a parent lamenting the youth of today, I recommend they take a long look in the mirror because these kids inherited a world that was not of their making.

Myth #3: Well, if girls stopped taking those slutty selfies, we wouldn't be in this boat.

Fact: Victim blaming isn't helping anybody AND you're looking at the wrong place.

The biggest issue with the 'Stop taking selfies, you whores' approach (besides the obvious shaming of young womyn's sexuality) is that you're purposely framing all photos of womyn online as consensual 'sexting'. Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons were slut shamed for photos that were taken against their consent. Can we please recognize that, once and for all? Amanda Todd did not realize her photo was being taken. Rehtaeh Parsons was unconscious and had no idea her photo was even being taken.

As for all those other 'consensual selfies' that end up being posted online and circulated through schools, who do you think circulated those photos? Perpetrators of violence and enabling bystanders, that's who.

If I consent to giving you a naked photo of myself and you send it to half your hockey team, it is no longer consensual. That isn't feminist policing; it's the law.

So, instead of asking "Why did you send a naked photo of yourself?" (assuming of course that it was even consensual), why not ask this:


Because when you assume that photos being circulated just happens, then you either don't know how the internet works or you don't care about ending the violence.

44% of youth have seen a 'sexting' photo that was intended for someone else.

Photos go viral because people make it happen. Which means we can make it not happen.

Myth #4: It's a gender neutral phenomenon

Fact: Not so.

Yes, people of all genders experience violence via social media. 100%. However, to assume that just because the targets are of every gender that it's gender neutral is both naive and highly problematic.

The nature of the violence varies greatly based on gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, etc.

The impact of having a nude picture of yourself being circulated through the school when you're a young womyn is tremendously different than a cock shot being circulated.

Look at Rehtaeh Parsons. The infamous photo of her that circulated through the schools involved a guy having sex with her while she threw up out a window. And yet, he was a fucking hero. 

Both are nude. One is committing a crime and violating another human being, the other is vomiting out a window and semi-conscious and yet, she was demonized.

Don't tell me this isn't gendered. When we claim otherwise, we're playing right into the hands of rape culture.

Myth #5: It's a form of bullying.

Fact: Bullying is a broad, empty, generic term for violence that actively masks the root causes: misogyny, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, trans*phobia, xenophobia, etc.

Bullying is a term that makes parents, teachers, educators and policy makers feel like they're making a difference. It's empty and meaningless and if you don't agree, ask any youth in Ontario who are mandated to listen to 'anti-bullying messages' through their secondary schools. They'll tell you.

The use of the term bullying also plays right into the hands of apathetic elders who claim that 'today's youth are wimps'. The usual, "When I was a kid, I was bullied and it made me tough. Today's kids are all soft and coddled".

Until we name it for what it is, nothing will change.

Last but not least, Myth #6: There's nothing we can do.

Fact: There's hope!

I recently attended a conference that was problematic in many ways, namely because it gave absolutely no concrete ways we can make a difference. It felt like a two day session of "The situation is dire. Our youth are deeply traumatized. So, there's that."

Yes, I'm biased because I developed the damn thing, but campaigns like teach people about bystander intervention. Instead of focusing on the actions of the victim, it questions those who were passive or enabling bystanders. What will YOU do when you get a photo sent to you? What will YOU do when you hear that a photo of X classmate is being circulated? What kind of person do YOU want to be?

Another amazing campaign is That's Not Cool. A US-based campaign, it looks at a ton of different forms of violence perpetuated by technology in a tone that is accessible to youth and their parents. It's cheeky, it's interactive and it focuses on tangibles; something that is so often missing from a conversation that can easily stay focused on theory rather than looking at the practical.

Then, there are organizations like Hollaback! which show how technology and social media can be a tool to address sexual violence. 

Technology is inherently neutral. It's how we use it that decides its impact.

But demonizing all social media or acting as though it's just a matter of going offline is no longer possible. The technology is here to stay.

To me, the key to addressing sexual violence and social media is addressing sexual violence and social media. Not 'bullying' or 'boys will be boys' or 'well, if girls weren't so slutty these days' or any other rape apology crap.

To me, the key is talking about bystander intervention and the many ways we implicitly or explicitly support this type of violence.

 This stuff is not inevitable, folks.