Cyber Sexual Violence and Academic Libraries

For the past 8 or 9 months I’ve been involved with an IMLS grant-funded project called the National Forum on the Prevention of Cyber Sexual Assault. We started out reading and discussing several books (Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Citron, Misogynoir Transformed by Dr Moya Bailey, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Noble, and Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory edited by Sofia Leung and Jorge R. Lopez-McKnight). Then we had a forum with a number of amazing speakers who talked about violence, digital privacy, domestic violence, the internet, and a lot more besides. Now I’m part of a group that is creating resources for Academic Librarians to help combat Digital Violence on their campuses. It has so far been extremely educational and rewarding work, and I’ve met a lot of really wonderful people (shout-out to the Team Leadership: Paige Walker, Chelcie Rowell, and Adam Jazairi, as well as the members of my subgroup; Liz, Lachrista, Carolyn, and Sharon).

I’ve long been interested digital violence. I’ve spent too long immersed in the culture of the internet, from Tumblr, to various forums, to Twitter, and even on Facebook, not to have seen some horrific stuff happen. I’ve never had it happen to me personally, bless all the gods, but I’ve seen it happen to friends and people I look up to. Digital Violence is all of a piece, not just “sexual” or “bullying” or the various discrete categories we divide it into. It’s not even really separated from in-person violence. The perpetrator who will start with bullying someone over their tweets may move onto sexual threats, to virtual stalking, then if the opportunity arises to real-life stalking and outright violence. It’s a pervasive problem that can affect even those who barely have an online life and threads through our every interaction online. Will this person I’m talking to begin to stalk me? Will they threaten me? What if I say something they don’t like? Violence that starts online doesn’t always stay there, and it can happen to anyone with little to no warning, and seeming randomness.

As with everything in this world, the most vulnerable among us are the most affected by this problem. Teens, women, queer folks, people of color, all are more likely to experience digital violence in their lives than anyone else. Sometimes it may be a scary thing that happens, chasing them out of their usual digital haunts, but otherwise not affecting their lives too much. Other times it turns their life upside down and inside out as they are hunted, harmed, and hung out for the entire internet to gawp at. These are the stories we hear on the news, the ones where police and prosecutors are involved, and appeals to uncaring companies to do something to curb the harm their platform is being used for. These are the stories where someone ends up losing their entire lives, or even ending up dead, usually via suicide.

One reason digital violence is so scary, is it’s so very easy to become caught up in it, from either side. We focus, deservedly, a lot of effort on supporting victims and harm reduction. But I often wonder if in this, as in so many similar issues, we are coming at it from the wrong direction. Yes we should teach people how to protect themselves from harm, and provide services for those who are harmed anyway. But we also need to be teaching people not to perpetrate harm. Some people do it out of ignorance, some people do it out of maliciousness, and some people do it because that is how they were taught to interact with the world by being harmed themselves. Not all of these categories can be eliminated through education and harm-reduction, but some of the perpetrators can absolutely be turned into non-perpetrators if we actively teach, as a society, that this behavior is not acceptable. It’s the same thing with IRL rape and child abuse, and other harms. We must, as a society, make it clear that these things are not ok and how to avoid becoming a person who does these things, or else the problem will never end.

This is a problem I’ve long worried about, and it feels good to be doing something concrete to work on the issue. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I know there’s a lot more to be done. We’re nowhere close to solving the issue of digital violence, and many more people will be harmed in the interim until we do manage to figure it out. I hope we can lead a big push for preventing it on campuses at least. If you want to know more about the National Forum, you can visit the website here.

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