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Social media and sexual harassment

Today I unfollowed someone on Twitter and told them why, which is something I have never done before. I’ve unfollowed people before – because they are dull and tweet too much, because they are smart arses in love with their own cleverness, because they have political views with which I disagree or find offensive. But I’ve never bothered to tell anyone why before, mostly because it is my choice and my offence and really, they can keep on doing what they want and if I don’t follow them, then I have freed myself from that space and concern.

However, today I did bother. Today I thought it mattered.

Since I have been on Twitter I have generally found it a relatively safe space, which is interesting given how public a forum it is. Apart from the porn-bots, generally I have been free from sexual harassment, from unwanted innuendo, from those types of things which leave one feeling icky and a little violated. I guess this is because one has a strong degree of control; we can follow and unfollow at will, and in extreme cases block or protect our tweets. These things leave Twitter safer. For me on Facebook it has been exactly the same, again because I can control who is my friend. Interestingly with Twitter, despite the fact that I have not met in real life over half of those I follow, I have still managed to generally avoid bad places.

So it is slightly jarring when you find you are following someone who makes you feel uneasy, and yet you can’t quite bring yourself to unfollow. Having followers in common, led me to feel a degree of peer pressure – is it OK to exit from this? A bizarre reaction when these are virtual companions in a virtual world, but showing to me how easy it is for the kinds of externally imposed “rules” women are expected to behave by can embed themselves deeply. But, after a certain point, one has to draw the line. If women cannot empower themselves to speak against harrassment in an area like Twitter, where can they be? The final straw was when this older man made very pointed comments about a much younger woman’s (potential) sex life. Now, I don’t know whether she found it offensive, and that is a call for her, but I did. So I unfollowed.

I thought about it for a bit. I recognised that, if no one ever calls people on their behaviour, it is hardly fair to expect them to change. So I did, publicly amongst that peer group. I don’t necessarily expect that my statement will lead to a change in behaviour. But if I didn’t make the call, then there would definitely be no way I could expect a change. By doing it publicly, I risk subjecting myself to humourless-feminist types comments/unfollows, but that is besides the point. Interestingly so far, and reinforcing the fact that I like my Twitter community in general, the only two tweets in response have supported my comments. By making the call publicly, on the other hand, one hopes to empower other people to do the same thing – so call others on behaviour they find harassing, racist, sexist or homophobic and to unfollow others they find threaten the safety of their space.

I don’t propose Twitter vigilantism – seeking out those communities on Twitter which you are definitely going to find offensive and trying to reform them, really, it is probably not going to work. But if people enter into your space, or seek to enter into it, I think it is important to share with them the rules that you consider important.


6 responses to “Social media and sexual harassment

  1. A man talked about sex with a younger woman? How dare he!

    As this conversation didnt involve you why is it your business when people talk about sex? If the woman was uncomfortable or found it inappropriate that is her call, not yours.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      (a) it wasn’t a conversation, it was a one-sided set of leery comments
      (b) if you understand power dynamics in sexual harassment scenarios you would know that age and gender do make a difference
      (c) I did not comment on the particular incident directly to the person involved; it was the cumulation of similar behaviour directed at a number of different women (including myself) and that was simply the final straw.
      (d) I care not if people engage in two sided happy consensual discussions about sex. Talk about sex as much as you want if you have a willing partner. I agree that that is entirely people’s own business. But don’t make smarmy comments at women filled with sex laden innuendo that are not returned or encouraged if they are visible on my twitter feed.
      (e) it is public if I can read it. Private would involve DMing.
      (f) why does this bother you so much?

  2. I’ve been thinking about this too, although not specifically with regard to sexual harrassment. It is indeed a public forum and the people participating don’t necessarily know who/where people are, the context to what they’re saying and their own personal comfort zones. So while it seems unfair to blame people for overstepping boundaries they might not know exist, I’ve seen a lot of quite unnecessary snarkiness/passive agressiveness in response to what were fairly innocent conversations. I haven’t really seen too much in the way of harrassment or bullying.

    Personally, I try to just let go of all the ubiquitous smartarse-ism and patronising comments that an anonymous public forum seems to attract. (Although I admit that stuff does REALLY irritate sometimes.) I draw my own lines in the sand. If someone oversteps those lines I respond to them publically to simply say I’m blocking them for it. Then I block & move on. (I’ve actually only done it once and it was in response to a pro-life argument from someone who I’d have assumed had been following me long enough to realise I wasn’t going to jive with that.) I think if someone publically and deeply insults/offends/oversteps the line, it’s only fair to publically let them know. I suppose everyone develops their own stance on this as and when need arises.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      I agree. Most of the time one just ignores – and so often it is hard to pick the tone of what is being said and why. And we all say something inadvertently offensive to someone at some time. In a sense that is why I think it is occasionally useful to tell people – you can’t be sure that they realise the way their contributons are being read, and the way that they might offend people. If you tell them, they may have lost you, but they may consider thinking about why and possibly even adjusting behaviour. Or they may not give a shit. But if you don’t tell them, then obviously they can’t be expected to change.

  3. Zoe

    When I read this post, I thought immediately I knew who you were talking about. So I tracked back through your twitterfeed, and yep, same person.

    I unfollowed him after that too, but didn’t say so. I wish I had, and thank you for doing so. I just checked his feed on reading this, and it’s more of the same.

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