When Canadian teen Amanda Todd committed suicide after intimate photos of her were circulated online, the media referred to the circumstances as a case of cyberbullying.
But according to a Vancouver-based women’s advocacy group, online harassment has a “hugely disproportionate impact on women and girls” and needs to be called what it is: cyber misogyny.
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“Cyberbullying has become this term that’s often thrown around with little understanding of what the underlying causes of this harassment, this hate speech, these threats, actually [are],” said Kasari Govender, executive director of the Vancouver-based West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).
LEAF uses the term cyber misogyny "to reveal the underlying discriminatory attitudes,” Govender said in an interview with Francine Pelletier, guest host of CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition this week.
“We think it’s important to name the forces that are motivating this in order to figure out how to address it.”
While the term cyberbullying suggests that women and men are equally victimized, it’s much less common to see cyberbullying directed at men, Govender said. Online hate speech or harassment directed at men is usually racist, homophobic or transphobic in nature, she said.
Cyberbullying “isn’t a problem that only impacts women and girls, but it is a problem that disproportionately impacts women and girls,” Govender said.
'Revenge porn' a major concern
According to LEAF, cyber misogyny differs from regular bullying in that it uses online and digital communication tools to harass women and girls solely because of their gender.
One of the most prevalent forms is the distribution of intimate images of someone by text message or email without their consent. Similar to this is so-called “revenge porn,” in which aggrieved individuals publish intimate photos or videos of a former partner online with the purpose of shaming them.
Women are also more vulnerable than their male counterparts to cyber-stalking, which is when an individual sends “unwanted advances” online, even using spyware to monitor another person’s activity online.
Most of this online harassment falls through the cracks of Canada’s criminal code, meaning the online realm remains a “wild west” when it comes to civil rights, Govender said.
In Saskatchewan this year, a man was acquitted of theft and mischief charges in a revenge porn case after publishing nude images of his ex-girlfriend online. The judge found the accused’s conduct “despicable,” but could not charge him under existing laws.
This lack of regulation, combined with widespread misogyny online, effectively limits women’s speech on the internet, Govender said.
When women are threatened, stalked or harassed online, it “shuts women’s voices down and means that in fact they’re not speaking, they’re not able to participate in those same forums,” Govender said.
In the absence of legal protections, many women and girls who are harassed online feel that their only option is to close their social media accounts and stay off the internet, Govender said.
That was what police told Amanda Todd’s mother when she reported that her daughter was being harassed, Govender said.
For most young people, that is “not an option,” because online social networking and texting are “so much a part of youth culture,” Govender said.
“And it also really dismisses the potential of the internet to be a very positive place.”
The pros and cons of Bill C-13
Govender and her organization are supportive of parts of the controversial legislation put forward by the federal government that would crack down on online harassment.
The government should enact legislation that keeps “women and girls safe without engaging in [a] wholesale override of freedom of speech and privacy rights online.”- Kasari Govender, West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund
Bill C-13, also known as the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, would make it illegal to distribute intimate images without consent. But other provisions of the bill would expand police powers, including creating what some say would be an incentive for warrantless disclosure of information to police. This has raised concerns among many, including Canada’s privacy commissioner.
LEAF wants to see the bill split in two in order to expedite the passage of the measures that directly target online harassment.
“My concern is that if it’s passed as a whole that it will actually be held up quite significantly because there will likely be a constitutional challenge to its use,” Govender said.
She is hoping that the legislation can be tweaked to “keep women and girls safe without engaging in [a] wholesale override of freedom of speech and privacy rights online.”
Bill C-13 passed second reading in the House of Commons in April. A committee report on it will be considered by the House and Senate when Parliament resumes in the fall.
Govender said the federal government’s refusal to reconsider the aspects of the bill with the potential to infringe on privacy “really takes away from its commitment to ensure that women and girls are safe."
Listen to Francine Pelletier’s full interview with Kasari Govender on The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One, just after the 9 a.m. news.