If we want to protect girls and women from predators and abuse, we must keep pace with new technologies and media.
The attempted rape in the latest Lara Croft game and reports of child abusers using the social gaming site Habbo Hotel has resulted in a renewed debate about technology, new media and violence against women. This debate is not new. During the mid-2000s a version of Grand Theft Auto was released that allowed gamers to regain health and lose money through “transactions” with women involved in prostitution, and the women could be run over or shot. On its release, there was a similar public outcry and calls for the game to be boycotted and banned.
Each time a new game or form of technology is introduced that enables, condones or arguably promotes violence against women and girls, the same questions resurface and then disappear: namely, what is the impact of these games on those who use them, what harm do they pose to children and society more broadly, and what regulations should or should not be put in place to mitigate any potential harm?
Over the years, attempts have been made to control, remove or defend an individual game, rather than consider it in the broader context. In the last 12 months: Twitter has been used to name a victim of rape, contrary to the law entitling rape victims to anonymity; a man was convicted of harassing his girlfriend, anonymously, online by posting explicit photographs of her over the internet; a location application introduced on Facebook has enabled people to monitor their partners’ whereabouts at all times; men have been convicted of sexually exploiting young women whom they were able to control by buying them mobile phones and then sharing numbers among their group; and sexually explicit videos continue to be posted online without the consent of the women who feature in them.
Whether it is stalking through social networking, harassment through text messages, or humiliation through the posting of videos, technology is changing violence against women. Furthermore, technology allows those who advocate and use gender-based violence to come together and share their views, often trolling and threatening columnists who speak out against such violence.
The pace of change has been so rapid that it is not surprising that practitioners and parents – who each day are attempting to support and protect women facing violence and abuse from partners, peer groups, families, or people they have never even met – are still firefighting. In reality, the impact that technology is having on the facilitation and endorsement of violence against women cannot be combated by ad hoc responses.
From mobile phones to social networking sites, technology has become part of the way we live our lives, both good and bad, and this trend shows no signs of receding. Gender-based violence is now ever-changing. As one young woman who was stalked by her boyfriend on Facebook put it: “He doesn’t need to be near me to see me, shout at me or hurt me, so how do I get away from him?”
Undoubtedly, public and professional awareness of the risks posed to women and girls via technology has improved over the past few years, but the pace of our response to the abuse needs to match the pace at which it is occurring, and that is a challenge yet to be met.
• Carlene Firmin is a principal policy adviser at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England. She is writing in a personal capacity