I remember the first violent message I received on Instagram. It was a real hate bingo: he laughed at me, told me that no one would want to look at my “dirty” crotch – even if his language was worse, of course. He asked if “bitches” like me, moaning until they “get what they want”, was “what our country was going to get to”, before reminding me that nothing was going to change. He ended by saying that he hoped I was “senselessly” gang-raped by 20 men. But, he didn’t use the word “men”. He used a racial slur instead, ending the post with five middle finger emojis. I remember how my chest tightened and I felt hot with fear.
That day marked my first appearance on a major mainstream television channel. I had been three months into a campaign I had started to raise awareness about non-consensual upskirt photography, something I had experienced that summer at a music festival. As I patiently waited for a band to come on stage, a man had put his hands between my legs, pulled up my skirt and took photos of my crotch, sharing them with his friends around him. I heard laughter and felt them looking at me. One of the guys stood in front of me with his head down, laughing at something on his phone. I looked behind his back and saw he was on WhatsApp looking at a picture of my crotch. I was standing in the middle of a crowd of tens of thousands of people, but somehow I managed to snatch the phone from his hands and run through the crowd of people until Security.
The man on the phone had been chasing me, punching me for the phone, but with the help of security I was eventually able to hand it and the phone over to the officers. The officer told me that I was unlikely to hear much from the police: since I was wearing panties, he said, the image would not be considered graphic. I left the festival discouraged. After researching, I found that upskirting was not a sexual offense in England and Wales, but had been in Scotland for a decade. The next two years of my life consisted of constant media interviews, crafting political strategy, campaigning on social media, meeting survivors and victims, and collecting thousands of stories – ultimately leading when the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 comes into force.
I hadn’t been surprised to become the target of online hate. Online misogynistic abuse is everywhere. If you’re a woman, or someone who presents herself as feminine, with a platform of any size, you’ve probably received this. If you criticize rape culture and misogyny itself, like I was, you tend to upset exactly the type of people who would be happy to send a message like that.
When abuse fills your DMs and your inbox, there’s no escaping it. I knew that if I logged out and deleted the apps, he would still be there waiting for me. I knew I would have to get used to receiving it: something that I just don’t believe. In a way, I felt more in control after reading it, because if someone threatened me, I would surely be safer and more prepared knowing what might happen. In our culture, we are discouraged – apathetic, even – about the scale of the problem, not just in Britain but around the world; 46% of female and non-binary respondents to a 2020 survey said they had experienced online abuse. We know that underage girls are “cyber-flashed” by grown men on Snapchat. We know that the racist and misogynistic abuse that pours into the inboxes of black feminists never ends. And yet, we treat this culture as an unintended consequence of the digital world, instead of a problem of our own making. Instead of something we can take apart.
The people in charge of fighting these abuses are usually men. They don’t really understand the impact this has on victims and survivors. They weren’t in our place. They didn’t stay in bed at night wondering how they would run away if one of the men who hate them showed up. They didn’t have to run home because their nervous systems are on fire and they’re convinced that the men they just saw leering and talking on the mobile are plotting their kidnapping. As women, they did not grow up in a society plagued by sexual violence.
Online abuse did not come out of nowhere, it is the new form of a historical problem: the control of women and genders marginalized by fear. The difference is that it now happens on devices with serial numbers, browsers with IP addresses, and platforms with digital breadcrumbs, so we have the ability to hunt down and crack down. The question is where do our priorities lie?
So while lawmakers who don’t even run their own social media accounts and CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg refuse to make accountability a priority, those of us who fight for a fairer society will remain exhausted. No bill of parliament will fix this problem, and no software update will either. A holistic and collaborative effort from platforms, legislators, and independent initiatives that know the reality of the problem, not just the theory, would be a good start.
Until then, we’ll share our locations with friends, add another dick pic to our screenshots folder, and delete messages with shaking hands, hoping that one day our safety will finally become a priority.
Gina Martin is an activist and writer. She will be part of a Guardian Live panel to discuss tackling online abuse against women on Wednesday February 9 at 8pm GMT. Book your tickets here