When pharmaceutical tycoon Martin Shkreli—yes, the same Martin Shkreli that raised the price of a life-saving AIDs drug by 5,000 percent—asked Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca to be his plus one to Trump’s inauguration, her flat out “I would rather eat my own organs” reply was unsurprising. But Shkreli’s response wasn’t. He proceeded to harass Duca on Twitter, including photoshopping his face onto a pic of Duca and her husband and using that photoshopped pic as a new Twitter DP, as well as creating a collage of Duca’s personal photos he sourced from online searches and uploading it as his banner image.
The online battle prompted Twitter to suspend Shkreli’s account and renewed the conversation about the online harassment faced by women—a challenge that Webbing with Wisdom, a new Canadian cyber self-defence website run completely by women, is hoping to combat.
Tara Farahani, one of the researchers involved with the website, says Duca’s experience is all too common.
“Just by virtue of being a young woman online, we’re targeted,” says Farahani, 25. “Very quickly, insults become sexually specific or turn into harassment.”
Farahani and her colleagues spent two years speaking to more than 300 young women in the Toronto area to learn more about their experiences and identify ways to help them. The result is Webbing with Wisdom, an online resource that includes posts on everything from Tinder safety tips and what to do when “Bae wants me to sext” to spotting online sex traffickers.
The site, created by St. Stephen’s Community House, METRAC, and East Metro Youth Services, is close to Farahani’s heart. FLARE caught up with Farahani to learn more after the site’s launch on January 12.
Anyone can be a victim of cyberbullying, but why was it important for Webbing with Wisdom to be female-focused?
We agree that this is an issue that doesn’t only affect women. But, predominantly it is young women that experience this—and the trans community as well—because the type of subject matter that we’re covering is very tied to gender, and the way that we sexualize young women more often than young men.
Also, I know you said cyberbullying at the beginning, but one of the things that was really important for us with starting this project was moving away from that term, because this context is very specific to sexual violence. When we think of cases like Rehtaeh Parsons or Amanda Todd, they were specifically about utilizing language and images that were sexually exploitative to blackmail them or harass them. We built this website and did the research to bring up the urgency of this specific subject, which we call cyber sexual violence, that falls under the cyberbullying umbrella.
Good to know. As a woman on the internet, what has your personal experience been?
It can be as little as sharing a comment and having someone slut-shame you, making you feel unworthy, calling you names for just expressing yourself online. In my case, around three or four years ago, I had a cyberstalking experience. I was being followed and messaged on different social media platforms by someone I knew but with whom I no longer had contact.
What did you do?
I was lucky in that I work in an atmosphere where people were knowledgeable about this kind of thing. My colleagues said, “Tell this person that you don’t want to hear from them again and then after that, don’t message them anymore.” What happens with cyberstalking, if they send you 50 messages and you respond to one, there’s an assumption that after the next 50, you’ll respond again. That’s what they want. So I didn’t message this person, but over the course of a year, this person kept finding me on different social media platforms, kept deleting their account after I blocked them and making new ones. After about a year and a half of messaging me with no response, it did stop—but I only knew not to respond because of support I received, and the fact that I was told specifically what to do (and even then it took quite a long time).
How did cyberstalking impact your life?
I kind of just suffered for a year, because there was nothing that I felt like I could do. I found that I would be going about my day, and for instance, I’d be at a family dinner and all of a sudden my phone goes off and I see this message from someone I don’t want to have contact with anymore. It’s a very invasive feeling. With our devices, it’s with you at home. This person is messaging you and making you uncomfortable in your own home. It’s not something you can ignore by going offline, because when you come back, it still exists. We often tell women to log off, turn off your phone and don’t think about it. But that doesn’t make a difference. Asking women to go offline is asking them to remove themselves from an entire online world, so it’s not a viable solution.
That seems to be a consistent message across Webbing with Wisdom’s site. Even with sexting, for example, the message isn’t to stop doing it, but rather, let’s talk about how to do this safely.
That was a very purposeful approach that we took because we wanted to take the shame out of it. Just telling girls not to sext reminds me of the gym teacher from Mean Girls who says, “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant, and die.” We wanted to take a harm-reduction approach. We lay out the risks, but also talk about if you want to do it, here are the safety points that can help keep you a bit safer.
One thing that jumps out about the site is the language that’s used, with posts like “Oh. My God. Becky. Look at her butt…” and “Leave Me the Frig Alone!” It’s not what I expected from a website about online safety.
That language was very intentional. We wanted to be able to speak to and relate to even the youngest of women dealing with this and leave out jargon that we found in a lot of other sites. We went through a lot of youth websites and it seemed like they spoke more to service providers and parents than the young people themselves. We wanted to speak with girls and young women in their language.
In addition to resources for victims, the site also includes information also has information on how to make sure that you’re not the one shaming others online. Why is that important to include in the same space?
We all have learning experiences. It’s important that as we talk about the conversation around what to do if you’re being slut shamed, we should also address the need to check yourself. It’s recognizing that we can all contribute to this culture. Sometimes people are bystanders, they witness it and don’t step in, or sometimes we might perpetuate it without even realizing it. Or maybe we realize it, but we don’t know how to go back and be accountable and apologize.
Shifting that conversation seems to be an overall goal of the site. How else do you hope to do that?
A lot of what we do is shifting that conversation and looking at predators online so we can start taking those people out. For example, when we talk about sex trafficking, a lot of pimps will go online and comment on girls’ Instagram pictures. They’ll shower the girls with compliments about their appearance and, let’s say a young woman doesn’t have that awareness that this happens; for her, it’s just compliments. But if she had some awareness around human trafficking and how pimps use this as a tool, perhaps she would see it at a warning sign.
How has the response been since the launch?
Really good. It’s nice to see some outside feedback. A lot of people are talking about how the language is youth friendly and overall, people seem to really like the storytelling component [women writing about their personal experiences with cyber sexual violence], and the fact that we made the information concise and to-the-point.
Going forward, what is the next step for the site?
One of our big dream items is to put a live counselling chat on the website. We want young women who are experiencing cyber sexual violence to have someone who has knowledge around this specific topic to help guide them.
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