Learned Behaviour is Preventable Behaviour: Digital Abuse Of Women

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I have 365 friends on Facebook. If all of them were women based in Ireland, statistically, 73 of my friends would be victims of some form of domestic abuse.

It’s so easy to reduce issues like these to numbers. I used to think I’m sensitive to  and highly aware of those matters, particularly given that people close to me have been affected by domestic abuse (some of them still are, on a daily basis, and I can’t force them to protect themselves). I was wrong.

Women’s Aid Ireland organised a conference today in Dublin, focusing on the relatively new issue of digital abuse of women. I was listening to every word – learning, getting inspired and horrified at the same time. I hadn’t realised the scale of the problem. I didn’t know how helpless the victims are, how inadequate the current Irish legislation is, how ill-equipped we all are as a society in addressing this problem. At the same time, I was deeply inspired by the amount of work already done – by An Garda Síochána, represented by Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, by members of the Irish Bar, represented by Pauline Walley, SC, and by Women’s Aid itself.

I was particularly affected by Ann Moulds, the founder of Action Scotland Against Stalking. Ann shared her personal, harrowing story as a victim of an extensive stalking campaign during a time when stalking wasn’t even recognised as a crime in Scotland. I still can’t comprehend just how she was able to tell her story to our audience while maintaining her composure. It wasn’t even the explicit, sickening photos her anonymous stalker sent her, including one with his erected penis, that were the worst part. It was the hand-written letter she showed us, the letter she received from her stalker, describing in detail what he was going to do to her when he would get his hands on her.

Photo by Women’s Aid Ireland

 

Seeing this letter nearly made my heart stop. Suddenly, the concept of stalking – online or offline – wasn’t just bringing to mind Glenn Close and the rabbit in Fatal Attraction. You know when they say “sh*t just got real”? Well, in that moment, I realised just how real the problem of stalking and online abuse is. And I want to thank Ann Moulds and convey my great respect to her for having the incredible strength and courage to not only share her story with dignity, but to turn it into a source of inspired action (Ann’s case and her subsequent campaign is determined to be the reason why stalking was recognised as a criminal offence within Scottish Law).

As I was processing this after the conference was over, another thought struck me: why is it that the victims of online abuse (often including sharing explicit images or lies without the victim’s knowledge or consent) are the ones struggling with shame? Why are they the ones embarassed to come forward, to report the crime and deal with the additional attention it brings? What the hell is wrong with this picture?

I can’t even begin to comprehend the cruelty, the malice, the inhuman viciousness that lies behind crimes like revenge porn or online stalking. This is one of the reasons why I write stories and direct films where violence is present. It’s my own way of coping with its existence, trying to understand and tame it. But what I am certain of is that it’s the stalkers, the perpetrators of the cyber-abuse who need to be ashamed. It infuriates me that it’s so often the other way round.

Photo by Women’s Aid Ireland

 

Just a few days ago I happened to be talking to someone I thought I knew about my new screenplay and the fact that it addressed revenge porn. To my utter surprise and then disgust and shock, the person instantly dismissed the problem by ridiculing the women who are victims of revenge porn. “Just how stupid was she to let herself be filmed / photographed?!” was the question, asked with contempt.

No wonder victims are afraid to come forward. No wonder as a society we’re adding to their isolation, terror and helplessness by mocking, diminishing, blaming and misunderstanding the issue. I was trying to think of the reasons for this, and the incessant stream of sensationalist reality shows came to mind. Then there are the tastes of a generation whose “only ambition is to go viral,” as Michael Keaton’s character says to his daugther in Birdman. But violence against women is learned behaviour. I don’t want to get into the nature vs. nurture discussion here. However, I strongly believe a boy who sees men in his environment criticising rape victims for wearing shorts in a dark alley will have a harder time respecting his female partner than a boy who observes respect towards women when he’s growing up. And if behaviour is learned, it can also be prevented.

I left the conference today with that single thought. Learned behaviour is preventable behaviour. I’m holding on to it for dear life. And as today starts a global campaign of “16 Days of Action Opposing Violence Against Women,” I’m also thrilled that my short film Testimony, addressing the topic of domestic abuse against children, airs on ShortsHD in the U.S. to an audience of millions of homes. What better day for this than today, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

#16days #OneInFiveWomen #orangetheworld

Photo by Women’s Aid Ireland

*All photos by Women’s Aid Ireland

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