Concept Paper – Minding the Gaps: Identifying strategies to address gender-based (cyber)violence

Atwater Library and Computer Center and McGill University

Minding the Gaps: Identifying strategies to address gender-based (cyber)violence

An invitational symposium, May 02, 2015

While cyberviolence doesn’t only impact women and girls, it disproportionately impacts women and girls and the way it manifests towards them is unique, targeting their very gender and sexuality. Many scholars in the field now agree that girls and young women use social media in greater numbers, are disproportionately targeted, and experience cyberbullying and online harassment differently than boys and young men (Belsey, 2011; Connell et al., 2014; Craig, 2011; Mishna, 2011; Navaro & Jasinski 2013; Vandebosch & Van Cleemput, 2009). According to a Pew Research Center survey published in October, 2015, young women are particularly vulnerable to the most severe forms of harassment online, including stalking and sexual threats. Twenty-five per cent of women aged 18-24 reported being the target of sexual harassment online, while 26 per cent said they had been stalked. Whether it in social media or videogames, girls and young women are increasingly being attacked and their voices silenced.


At the same time there is a growing awareness of the potential of what Bock (2012) refers to as a ‘technology of non-violence’ and the potential for technology to be examined in the context of the prevention of violence. For example, there is emerging work exploring how social media can serve victims of shaming and violence by providing a safe space for self-expression, connection, and collaboration with other victims (Somulu, 2007). There is also promising work linked to the various apps such as those used by Holloback! and harassmap, which address the possibilities for the safety and security of girls and young women. What is needed, however, is a consideration of the uses, challenges, and benefits of technology in contexts that are neither laden with ‘cyber optimism or’ only the moral panics associated with (cyber) violence.

About this symposium

This symposium marks the end of the first year of the Atwater Library and Computer Center’s two-year project, Helping Communities Respond: Preventing and Eliminating Cyberviolence directed at Girls and Young Women (funded by Status of Women Canada). Co-hosted by one of our stakeholders, McGill’s Participatory Cultures Lab, it brings together a diverse group of invited stakeholders (community groups, academic research, education, law enforcement, health, videogame industry, technology, young people) who share an interest in issues related to cyber and sexual violence and its impact on girls and young women. The purpose of this symposium is to report and solicit feedback on the project's findings thus far and, at the same time, to begin to focus on collectively identifying promising strategies for preventing and combating gender-based violence. Central to this work is the idea of a (cyber) violence platform that seeks to address cyberviolence as well as use technology to curb violence. During the symposium, stakeholders will have opportunities to meet each other, get updated on the project, share information and insights into issues of (cyber)violence, and learn about new opportunities for participation and further collaboration.

Framing issues of gender-based (cyber)violence)                                            At the outset of this project we sought academic definitions for gender-based cyberviolence but became increasingly dissatisfied because nothing we read encompassed the range of perspectives we were encountering in our research with young girls and women. What one young person considered cyberviolence another might consider ‘everyday teen drama’, ‘just joking around’, ‘business as usual’ or “just the way things are’. Girls and young women spoke to us about how cyberviolence unfolds in their everyday lives, expressing their views about a wide range of experiences, from slut shaming to revenge porn to online intimidation. It became clear that pervasive online misogyny and harassment of girls and young women is too often normalized and almost viewed as rites of passage, ones that often result in offline consequences. The perceived (often wrongly) anonymity of online posting and evolving cyber norms that suggest that misogyny that is unacceptable offline is somehow more OK online may together contribute to the proliferation and acceptance of gender-based cyberviolence.

Accordingly, we paired down our working definition of cyberviolence to something minimalist: cyberviolence refers to online behavior that constitutes or leads to harm against the psychological and/or emotional, financial, physical state of an individual or group. Although cyberviolence occurs online it can begin offline and/or have serious offline consequences. More properly understood, gender-based cyberviolence refers to misogynistic behaviour that can flow on and off line. Indeed, we use brackets around (cyber) deliberately in the title of the symposium in order to pose questions about the relationship between offline and online behaviour.

Identifying strategies for combating (cyber) violence

Current strategies are too often focused on how to ‘manage’ young people and what to tell them, depriving them of agency and input. The approach embedded in the Atwater Library and Computer Center’s project looks instead at how young people utilize and experience digital technologies, what design features they identify as problematic, how they define the terms and the issues that directly impact girls and young women in everyday life, and what kinds of strategies or support they would consider useful.

After presenting and reflecting on the findings of the needs assessment, the symposium will feature panels and activities devoted to identifying promising strategies for combating gender-based (cyber)violence. These may include (but are not limited to):

  • Creating digital spaces that are secure and empowering (e.g. work with digital industries)
  • Exploring the use of digital social spaces as tools, taking advantage of their strengths and uniqueness to create positive interactive change (e.g. tackling issues related to online anonymity, victim blaming, cyber rights)
  • Fostering knowledge-sharing and strengthening coordination among those working to prevent or eliminate cyberviolence (e.g. police services, community agencies and educational institutions to better recognize and respond to cyberviolence, promote data collection, and explore ways to facilitate the exchange of knowledge about cyberviolence)





Bill Belsey, Faye Mishna and Wendy Craig, from Evidence 12 December 2011 cited in the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights' Report "Cyberbullying Hurtst: Respect for Rights in the Digital Age" from December 2012.

Bock, J. G. (2012). The technology of nonviolence: Social media and violence prevention. MIT Press.

Connell, N. M., Schell-Busey, N. M., Pearce, A. N., & Negro, P. (2014). Badgrlz? Exploring Sex Differences in Cyberbullying Behaviors. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 12(3), 209–228.

Duggan, Maeve Online Harassment

Navarro, J. N., & Jasinski, J. L. (2013). Why Girls? Using Routine Activities Theory to Predict Cyberbullying Experiences Between Girls and Boys. Women & Criminal Justice, 23(4), 286–303.

Vandebosch, H., & Cleemput, K. V. (2009). Cyberbullying among youngsters: profiles of bullies and victims. New Media & Society, 11(8), 1349–1371.