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Trump and tram reactions show social media’s complex role in responding to sexual harassment

Intrusions from unknown men in public space form a fundamental factor in how women experience their bodies and live their freedom. shutterstock

Trump and tram reactions show social media’s complex role in responding to sexual harassment

Intrusions from unknown men in public space form a fundamental factor in how women experience their bodies and live their freedom. shutterstock

In the past week, social media has been used in two high-profile cases to powerfully speak out about experiences of sexual violence.

After witnessing and intervening in the prolonged harassment of three other women on a Melbourne tram, one woman posted an extensive “rant” on Facebook that quickly went viral.

And, in the lead-up to the second US presidential debate, damning footage emerged of Republican candidate Donald Trump casually referencing the sexual assault of women, and the entitlement he believes his economic power grants him to women’s bodies.

In response to Trump’s comments, women quickly took to Twitter to share their first experiences of sexual harassment or assault using the #NotOkay hashtag.

Although seemingly disparate, both incidents draw our attention to the pervasive sexual harassment, intrusion and violence that men perpetrate against women. These intrusions permeate virtually all aspects of women’s lives.

Likewise, both highlight the complex and uneasy role that social media and online spaces are increasingly playing as a site of women’s resistance to men’s violence.

Routine intrusions

Despite persistent myths that sexual violence and harassment are rare, these cases – and the subsequent online response – expose their commonality.

In the viral Facebook post, the frustration many women feel about routine harassment by men was palpable. This post clearly hit a nerve with women who manage the possibility and reality of men’s intrusion in public every day.

Despite the regularity of intrusion for women, expressions of harm are commonly ignored, downplayed, or dismissed by others. Women are often told, for example, that such intrusions constitute a “compliment”, “joke” or harmless “banter” – rather than a violation of their selves and a limitation on their freedom.

Perpetrators rarely face ramifications for their behaviour. Sexual assault cases are routinely filtered out of the justice system. And the vast majority of sexual assault and harassment never comes to the attention of the justice system in the first place.

This routine dismissal of women’s experiences is encapsulated in Trump’s response to the video as “locker-room banter” and a “distraction” to the (presumably) “important” issues that should be the focus of the presidential election.

Based on our own respective research with women based mostly in the UK and Melbourne, such trivialisation hides the ways in which sexual violence situates women’s lives.

Often at their height during women’s adolescence, intrusions from unknown men in public space – from unwanted comments, to flashing, following and frottage – form a fundamental factor in how women experience their bodies and live their freedom.

Such intrusions are also racialised. This means the harassment for many women is lived as an inseparable expression of both sexism and racism.

Notably, both of our projects demonstrate the embodied consequences of this routine harassment, intrusion and assault on women.

There have been contested claims that the young man involved in the Melbourne case lives with an intellectual disability. But, it is nonetheless unsurprising that women experienced his actions as harassment, even if they were not intended as such – as well as potentially highlighting the collective difficulty we all face in recognising and respectfully interacting with people living with disabilities.

One significant outcome of men’s routine intrusions on women is a decreased sense of social trust. Many women in our research projects reported being wary of, and on guard around, men in public spaces. The threat of rape as an ever-present possibility (and all-too-common reality) for women structures their experiences with intrusive male strangers in public.

What women are expected to have is “the right amount of panic”. This means responding to the routine with an eye on escalation, aware they still live in a world where they are held responsible for preventing sexual assault.

Donald Trump said his comments describing the sexual assault of women were ‘locker-room talk’. Reuters/Mike Segar

Social media: virtual resistance and harassment

Both of these examples also highlight the complex role that social media can play in relation to women’s experiences of harassment and sexual assault.

In both cases women were able to harness social media as a powerful tool to give voice to their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Social media enabled women to directly challenge the dominant narrative put forth by Trump and his ilk that such matters are “trivial”.

That so many women have chimed in with their own experiences, or shared the Facebook post, illustrates how online disclosure can function as a collective experience of validation and solidarity. Many participants in my (Bianca’s) research found online spaces highly valuable for these reasons.

Social media can also provide a space for women to obtain some sense of justice, and to achieve retribution or punishment of their perpetrator. Given many women are denied access to justice through the formal justice system, social media can provide a vitally important space in this regard.

Yet the Melbourne case in particular raises some questions and challenges about the use of social media to expose perpetrators. His actions undoubtedly unsettled the women involved. But it is questionable to what extent he “deserved” such public shaming, and to what extent this was proportionate to the nature and harms of his actions.

There are also racial dynamics here that need to be carefully unpicked. What is being, perhaps unthinkingly, reproduced in using the experience of young Asian women – two of the women who were harassed are explicitly categorised in the original post as “young Asian” women, while a third is a “young woman” – as a conduit for a white woman’s anger? Is there a tension between speaking out and speaking for?

Additionally, in now deleted Facebook posts, the Melbourne-based woman indicated she had received a stream of online abuse, including being sent “dick pics”.

Sharing their experiences on social media can often amplify and repeat the abuse women seek to expose, as much as it might also work to challenge and disrupt men’s behaviour and dominant narratives of assault.

Women across the world have mobilised the internet as a powerful force to demonstrate the range and extent of sexual violence, to challenge its trivialisation and normalisation, and to access forms of justice denied to them through formal structures.

However, we also need to recognise the internet’s role in changing how we create, ingest and distribute information, and consider the implications for harnessing online spaces to end violence against women.