Photo penises, humiliating comments, direct messages with threats, leaks of intimate content, impersonation of accounts on social networks… These are some of the facts that girls and adolescents face every day on the internet. A space, the virtual one, essential for their social development, but in which macho cyberviolence is a constant. Protected by a false anonymity, thousands of young people have found new ways to validate themselves through the reproduction of the most rancid misogyny on the networks.
According to data from the National Statistics Institute, Adolescents are the group in which the number of victims of sexist violence has increased the most. Also that of denounced, being more than 70% under 18 years of age. Some alarming data that shows the lack of protection of our girls and adolescents against violence, also in the digital world.
The National Observatory of Technology and Society reports that in less than 10 years, in Spain, the crimes of contact through technology with children under 16 for sexual purposes have multiplied by five. Our girls and boys are in danger, but digital education is still conspicuous by its absence. Sexist cyberviolence is one of the most widespread threats on the Internet and to address it, it is necessary to conceptualize it correctly.
The two faces of digital sexist violence
Andrea Rodríguez is a clinical psychologist specializing in gender violence and in hypertextual we have spoken with her to better understand this phenomenon. “On the internet they mainly cohabit two forms of sexist violence, interpersonal and symbolic“, tells us. The first is the most easily recognized by most people and is favored by virtual anonymity. “The impunity they feel in the networks gives free rein to their misogyny and behind a screen it is easier for them to dehumanize their victim.”
Symbolic violence is more normalized. In the words of Rodríguez, “this ranges from filters, designed mainly for women, to porn or likes, one of the most obvious forms of social hierarchization in networks.” For our expert, the most rewarded profiles are those that best embody gender stereotypes. “The profiles with the greatest social capital are profiles that fit the normative and in turn dictate the norm”, since they are the most imitated.
Instagram: starting box for sexist cyberviolence
An investigation carried out by the Women’s Institute revealed that 80% of young women between the ages of 16 and 24 have been victims of sexist cyberviolence. Situations of sexual-affective harassment are the most frequent. Specifically, messages that insist on a sexual encounter after having rejected that person and unsolicited sexually explicit comments and photos.
Although other behaviors such as insults and threats, humiliation after a refusal or the dissemination of real or directly false intimate content are also common. Behaviors in the networks that reflect the worst face of the prevailing machismo in society, also among the youngest.
Although these are common situations on all digital platforms, Instagram seems to be the one that most reflects this type of dynamics. Due to its configuration and its volume of use, the investigation denounces that all types of sexist cyberviolence originate mainly from this social network. Which, without a doubt, constitutes an environment conducive to digital violence against women, both in its interpersonal and symbolic versions.
However, neither the frequency nor the harshness of these virtual abuses seem to be enough to raise the alarm necessary to guarantee the security and digital integrity of girls and adolescents. According to the same study, 65% of the young women who suffer this macho cyberviolence have never asked for help. This shows that the sociocultural mechanisms for the normalization of violence against women continue to function perfectly from an alarmingly early age.
Staying in bed or not eating: the reality of sexist cyberviolence
For the expert Andrea Rodríguez, the consequences of this digital violence are multiple and depend on several factors. Although she, she maintains, “in general, a large presence in networks, in the case of girls, is a risk factor for an early sexual debut, the development of an eating disorder or hypervigilance about their own appearance.”
Rodríguez also highlights the danger posed by free access to pornography from ever younger ages. “The high consumption of porn in men correlates positively with a greater presence of macho attitudes”, he comments. “The porn mainstream it eroticizes violence, making it very likely that in the first sexual relations many girls will be pulled by their hair, spit on, hanged or try some non-consensual practice”.
In quantitative terms, the research of the Women’s Institute reflects that around the 60% of the affected adolescents felt insecurity, disgust, helplessness and fear. Many also felt guilty. And up to 40% of them came to declare that they had become depressed, had episodes of anxiety or paranoia, and had developed eating disorders.
In the opinion of Andrea Rodríguez, social networks are yet another mechanism through which aggressors exercise their control. In this way, “victims do not get rid of their aggressor even when they are in different spaces.” “It is very difficult, for example, to cut off communication with an abusive partner if they can contact you via WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Telegram…”.
Possible solutions to a bleak panorama of digital sexist violence
For the young participants in the research of the Women’s Institute, the responsibility of digital platforms is essential. Something in which much, if not all, remains to be improved. They suggest the creation of emergency protocols for situations of sexist cyberviolence and facilitate the reporting process. Something that they also request from the Administrations.
The European Parliament, for its part, maintains that it is urgent to define an appropriate legislative instrument to combat digital gender violence. A measure that is supported by Lawyers for Equality. Almudena López, a practicing lawyer and president of the organization, defends the importance of “creating a single definition and understanding sexist cyberviolence as one more extension of gender violence”.
López maintains that the current legal mechanisms are insufficient. Although many of the behaviors of macho cyberviolence are collected generically in the legislation, the problem lies in the means for its investigation. “Many of these crimes can be committed anonymously, creating false profiles and accounts.” The wide spread and immensity of the virtual world, he declares, “can leave many criminal behaviors unpunished.” For this reason, he is committed to a uniform international policy and to an endowment of sufficient material and technological means. Also for implementing prevention policies.
In the opinion of clinical psychologist Andrea Rodríguez, the most important thing is to train. “I will never tire of saying it, these types of social changes are carried out through education,” she explains. She is committed to educating boys and girls from an early age, but also to professionals. A fundamental measure on the road to a more egalitarian society.