Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it would take immediate steps to monitor pages and posts that celebrated violence against women. The catalyst? A viral campaign by several feminist groups that, within seven days, turned Facebook’s seediest underbelly into a public outrage.
The push began last Tuesday with an open letter to the site posted on Women, Action & the Media (WAM), which spotlighted anti-woman Facebook groups such as “Violently Raping Your Girlfriend Just For Laughs” and “Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus.” An accompanying gallery features stomach-churning images of battered women with captions like “She broke my heart. I broke her nose.”
A petition on Change.org garnished more than 200,000 signatures imploring Facebook to revisit its policies, and several advertisers — most notably Nissan U.K. — announced they would pull ads from the site unless changes were made.
Soraya Chemaly, 47, a Washington-based activist, was a main player in the campaign, along with WAM and the Everyday Sexism Project. In the edited transcript below, she speaks about her involvement and the challenges ahead.
What drew you to do this kind of activism?
I’ve always been a feminist, even back in the early days. Now, I’ve been writing as a feminist cultural media critic: the role of gender in our culture, with a strong interest in sexualized violence. I’ve written about sexual harassment in the workplace. I write about street harassment — we tend to trivialize it, but globally it’s the normalized control of women in public spaces.
It’s interesting that you write about street harassment, when Facebook has become, in many ways, a version of a public street.
We take our experiences online with us. I call it the digital safety gap — men are much more likely to say they feel safe online. . . . We can’t separate online life from the real world . . . You don’t have to go out of your way to find this [violent material] online — anyone with fingertips and eyeballs could have found it. You would type “slut” into Facebook and come back with 30 public groups.
Was there an inciting incident for you that launched this project?
When I first started writing about [violence against women online], people began writing me for help, because they were experiencing danger online. . . . One woman wrote me that the man who had raped her had essentially illustrated the rape on Facebook. A moderator might have thought, “That’s just a drawing.” But that’s not how the woman was experiencing it.
Some commenters have suggested that the solution is to de-friend offenders, not to request systemic change.
There’s something called denigrative humor, and it has negative effects on the people it’s targeting. You don’t have to willingly seek it out; it just has to be present to be hostile. Maybe it’s a friend of a friend who’s posting. Within two clicks, you can be confronted with a bleeding woman. You might not even be friends with these people to still see it.
What we were asking Facebook to do isn’t to curtail its speech further. It’s to apply its policies equally to men and women.
In recent months — especially after incidents like the Steubenville rape trial — I’ve heard more open discussion about “rape culture.” Do you think we’re getting better at discussing society’s role in violence against women?
Over the past 25 years in the media, we’ve seen how coverage of these issues has changed. We now have a media culture where we can write openly about Penn State, about Steubenville, about the Catholic Church. What we have is a peeling back of information, and everyone coming to understand what has always been hidden.
The Internet has this transformative social justice aspect. . . . You reach a point in culture where people can say, ‘This is horrible and we’re going to change it,” or they can ignore it, and it will get worse.
I believe there’s a zeitgeist in the way we’re understanding these issues.