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.”

 

18 comments

  • After reading your story, i find it extremely one sided towards men being the instigators.
    I as a male have been going thru the same nightmares listed in your article only it has been done by jealous women.
    the constant rumor spreading, hacking, harassment of my friends and any new girl i meet. It is beyond a joke, and what can be done to stop it? can police do anything?
    to imply its only men that are morons, is completely wrong
    im a victim and am continuing to be a victim all because of jelousy and it effects a whole range of people and creating not just my life hell but all my friends lives aswell!.

    Commenter
    muffed
    Date and time
    February 17, 2014, 9:38AM
    • very nice article but just needs the obvious to be pointed out, woman do it as well.

      Commenter
      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      February 17, 2014, 9:43AM
      • Interesting to see that this is only apparently a female problem with only male perpetrators.

        I'm sure there's some good statistics to back up the obvious assumption of this article right?

        Commenter
        Freddie Frog
        Date and time
        February 17, 2014, 10:38AM
        • Hey fellas, you do realise that this is a site with content tailored to women right?

          Now, I'm not saying that it's perfect or that it can be one-sided but it's tailored for women so I take what is written as such. I moved towards DL because of the nonsense on other news sites (how many times do I want to be called a frigid, bogan, gold-digging cow?)

          You don't have to agree and at least you can comment but just remember where you are. It feels like we have more and more men on here shouting down women who (mostly) want a reasonable discussion.

          Commenter
          Ripley
          Location
          Hunting Aliens
          Date and time
          February 17, 2014, 12:09PM
          • Content tailored to women doesn't mean that men don't have any interest in the content. In much the same way that a reasonable amount of the comments on stories in Executive Style ( which is apparently the rough equivalent to Daily Life) are from women, some comments on Daily Life are almost inevitably going to be from men and some of those are going to disagree with the article and other commenters. Female biased presumably doesn't mean that men cannot be part of the conversation, and hopefully have something useful to add. The better male commentors on here like DM, Markus etc are generally pretty balanced in what they say and the moderators seem to do a good job of keeping out obvious male trolls. If feminism is about equality then presumably that means men are allowed to express their opinions as well even if it is on a proudly female biased website?

            Commenter
            Hurrow
            Date and time
            February 17, 2014, 1:28PM
          • Generally I'd agree with you Hurrow, I think it's a little petty to constantly complain about being left out, but when the ommission of one gender's point of you goes so far as to paint the other gender as criminals, I think it's a different story.

            I'm a male, I've been stalked, it's not fun.

            Commenter
            late1
            Date and time
            February 17, 2014, 4:44PM
        • I'm curious as to why men who want to read about this from a male persepctive don't go browsing on Executive Style?
          Daily Life is, as it says, 'a proudly female biased website with content tailored to women'.

          Commenter
          Kate
          Date and time
          February 17, 2014, 12:38PM
          • Maybe its the fact it is on the front page of a major news site and the articles/opinions are regularly featured among the lead headline stories with no mention of the subsection they come from.

            Commenter
            Silky Johnson
            Date and time
            February 17, 2014, 1:14PM
          • I'm starting to think it has something to do with not paying for a subscription.

            Commenter
            Ripley
            Location
            Hunting Aliens
            Date and time
            February 17, 2014, 1:15PM
          • i thought IT Pro, was the male equivalent of Daily Life, and Executive Style the counterpart to the Lifestyle section... I dont even what?

            Commenter
            man cuddles
            Location
            melbourne
            Date and time
            February 17, 2014, 3:59PM

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