Digital abuse is the new frontier of domestic violence

Women frequently report feeling bound to their abusers through technology, as though they can’t get away.

Women frequently report feeling bound to their abusers through technology, as though they can’t get away. Photo: Jasper James

After a protracted three-year divorce finally dissolved her marriage, Cindy* expected she would finally be free from her husband’s emotional and physical abuse. Email and text messages soon put paid to that idea. “A recent one read ‘I'm going to kill myself and I'm going to do it in front of you.’ He also emails me hateful messages on a routine basis,” she says. “Alas, it's the only way we have left of communicating about kidsharing, so I can’t block his e-mail address.”

The current cultural dialogue regularly concerns itself with “trolling” and harassment online via otherwise anonymous pests, but less attention has been paid to those who utilise social media, email and texting to extend the reach of their domestic abuse.

This is perhaps because a mindset persists that the internet is (still) something of a ‘new frontier’, and therefore harassment that occurs in the digital realm is just “something that happens online” (with the helpful solution given by armchair commentators often being “just don’t go online”). The reality, of course, is that abuse and harassment that occurs online or via smartphone is incredibly distressing.

Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, says ‘digital domestic abuse’, as this US-centric report puts it, is on the rise in Australia. “Yes, we’re aware through family violence services, police, legal workers and from women themselves that technology-assisted stalking and controlling is quite pervasive and certainly on the increase in Australia. Increasingly women are contacting support services with experiences of being tracked, stalked and harassed via text message, facebook and other mediums. Women frequently report feeling bound to their abusers through technology, as though they can’t get away.”

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Indeed, the very reason many of us use social media - that is, a sense of closeness with distant friends, and a way to stay continuously in touch - is in effect increasing the reach of abusers, who might once have been limited to what power they could exert face-to-face or via the phone.

Smartphone apps that allow users to track their partner’s movements via GPS, for example, have been reported as tools of abuse. These apps, typically designed to allow parents to keep track of their children’s movements, take on a sinister new role in the wrong hands.

“Tracking women’s movements via GPS apps is a particularly common tactic,” McCormack reports. “Women are often surprised that their partners or ex-partners are able to keep tabs on their every movement without realising that their phones are facilitating his stalking. Smart phone technology has developed rapidly in the past few years and it has been difficult for those working in the field to stay abreast of the technological developments.”

Even at the less technologically-advanced end of the spectrum, digital harassment and abuse can still be overwhelming, as Cindy’s experience illustrates. And, distressingly, she’s not alone in that experience. “I know so many women in my divorce support groups who struggle with this type of harassment,” she says.

“Repeated digital harassment is definitely a growing issue here,” says Mi Fon Lew of WIRE Women’s Information. “We are hearing more stories from women who contact us for support, information and referrals. One in three calls we receive is about domestic/family violence, and unfortunately, social media and mobile phone and digital technology is yet another way [current and ex] partners can exert control and power over women.”

Psychologist and No To Violence manager Rodney Vlais says that the 24/7 reach of social media and smartphones are attractive to men who aren’t satisfied with the amount of control they can exert unaided. “Men who use violence against their current or former partner often do so to control her actions and to limit her world,” he explains. “The violence often has a purpose, so that he can maintain power over her, to stop her from doing things that he doesn't want her to do, to make her do certain things, or to punish her for not meeting his demands. Fear is often used here. Social media provides a new way for these men to monitor her movements, control her social word, harass and limit her freedom by keeping her afraid.”

Sarah* met her ex-boyfriend on a popular music forum, where their courtship unfolded via forum posts - and, later, so did his abusive behaviour. Angry after they’d had a disagreement, he began posting excerpts from their private correspondences, aware that she’d recognise them immediately. “He didn’t mention me by name, but was posting messages I’d sent him early in our relationship - sexts, basically - adding things like ‘Isn’t it gross when women say things like this?’ to much applause from other forum members.” Sarah’s boyfriend’s message was clear: stay in line or I’ll humiliate you again.

Behaviour like that of Sarah’s ex, much like threatening to release private photos or sex tapes online, is often likely to be met with victim-blaming mentalities - “Well, you shouldn’t have taken the photos in the first place” - or, again, dismissed as just a bit of an internet kerfuffle, when they should be seen for what they are: abuse.

“It's very important [we take it seriously],” explains Vlais. “This behaviour is often intended as a tactic to maintain and increase the man's power and control over her - to punish and humiliate her for not meeting his demands, to remind her that he is still controlling much of her life, to keep her feeling afraid, to disrupt her social connections and friendships. It's not something that ‘just happens’.”

McCormack and Fon Lew both encourage the greater community to play a part in upholding standards online (particularly if abusive behaviour such as humiliation or revealing sensitive material is carried out publicly, such as on Facebook), and to keep records of abusive messages, comments and posts.

And, as Vlais notes, to remember that “Whatever he might be thinking that (to him) justifies his abuse, it's never okay. It's never the victim's fault. You have the right to feel and be safe, to not be humiliated, to be treated respectfully. It's his responsibility to stop the abuse.”