To support myself whilst studying for my degree, I work part-time in a clothes store on the customer services/refund desk. Recently, I was serving a customer who was on her phone speaking to the police about her sixteen year old daughter.
The phone call lasted no more than two minutes. The woman was clearly agitated and angry. After she’d hung up she apologised to me for using her phone whilst I was serving her. I insisted that there was no need for an apology as the call sounded urgent. She then explained exactly why she’d had to make the call.
Her teenage daughter had received several indecent images from a stranger via Facebook messages. These images were mostly of an erect penis. The girl told her mum and understandably, her mum was disgusted and outraged that a complete stranger had been contacting her daughter in this way. Her mum replied to the stranger in a new message warning him/her (the pictures were of a man’s genitals, but she was unsure if the person sending the image was male or female) to stop or she would report them to the authorities. She spoke to her daughter and told her to inform her if anything like this happened again. The next thing she knew; her home address had been posted over facebook, and this ‘stranger’ implied that they would come to ‘visit’ her. This threat had led her to call the police. After telling me these details, she said something along these lines:
‘The police are going to do nothing. This ‘stranger’ clearly knows who I am because they know where I live. I don’t care if this person’s threatening me, I can deal with that, but what I can’t deal with is the fact that this person has messaged my daughter and according to her, hundreds of other girls on the internet. What if just one of those girls is too scared to speak up? What happens then? How far will it go?’
What my customer said next was equally as disheartening. The elderly woman behind her in the queue praised her bravery, to which she replied:
‘It’s a whole other ball-park these days. When we were younger, it was just a weird old man breathing heavily down the phone, now it’s just…’
She didn’t finish the sentence. She highlighted what projects like ‘Everyday Sexism’ and ‘No More Page 3’ are superbly articulating: women have been subject to intimidating, sexist behaviour for decades and it will not stop until we all speak up and re-enforce the fact that this is NOT ok, and it never has been. If this young girl had been ‘flashed’ in a park, if her mother had been verbally threatened in the street, perhaps they could have filed a complaint, contacted their local authorities, or at least warned neighbours/family members of what was going on. It seems in this instance, that because this behaviour is taking place on the internet, it is not regarded as a serious threat. The police are unable to help.
It is no exaggeration to say that this kind of internet harassment is becoming commonplace. I was recently branded a ‘dumb chick c**t ‘by a complete stranger for writing a blog about the band Joy Division (apparently they’re a ‘Man’s band’ so my ‘superficial, little girl’ mind can’t handle them). In the public eye, women like Caroline Criado-Perez receive rape threats via twitter for campaigning for better representation of women in the media. Internet abuse is real and it’s damaging and it’s just a more sinister development from the ‘heavy breathing’ down the phone and the men exposing themselves to young women in the park (It happened to me when I was fifteen, it was repulsive). Just because the tactics have changed, doesn’t mean it can be ignored, it needs to be re-addressed. It’s difficult to give concrete answers about how to tackle this, but the fact that this woman spoke openly to me, a shop assistant and the customers in the queue behind her, makes everything seem potentially easier to deal with. Speaking out should never be discouraged, it is one of the most powerful things you can do. It should be emphasised in school curriculums as early as possible. We shouldn’t just allow generations of girls to keep quiet and hope these things will just sort themselves out. Men and women are better than this. It’s time we all accepted that the internet is a part of real life, and what we view on our screens does have an impact on our lives.