Editor’s Note: This month, that is February 2021, FII and The Minor Project are looking for article submissions on the topic of Narrating Violence and Trauma from Childhood to highlight the ways we in our childhoods, experience various forms of brutality from our adults, mentors, peers and even their institutions that may lead to a sustained memory of difficult experiences and mental health issues. The Minor Project is a digital platform for public dialogue to promote discourse on ending violence, abuse and exploitation of children by Leher, a child rights organisation, whose focus is on building communities that care and act for the safety and protection of children. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
Posted by Aditi Behl
Trigger Warning: online sexual violence
I got my first rape threat in 2011 when I was in class 7, anonymously on Facebook. Facebook was a fairly new thing back then and we were still stepping into this new gigantic social media world that we see today. I vividly remember sitting on my sofa checking my Facebook feed from my dad’s phone in the evening and I had received a new message. I clicked on it and the words that popped on my screen were graphic and detailed, almost pornographic.
Someone had written in full detail what they wanted to ‘do’ with me, describing parts of my body that I was yet to discover. I was twelve. I was unable to comprehend why I would receive such a message. What had ‘I’ done to receive such a message? That was the first instance of sexual harassment that I remember, and it was on social media.
Now that I think about it, if someone had spoken out that message to me in person, there would have been legal repercussions, but since it was online it was not that much of an ‘issue’. But it has impacted me. It was as if someone had spoken this out to me. As if someone had touched me inappropriately. I was traumatised for days to come, for years blaming myself for that incident.
Had I projected myself sexually?
Did I ‘deserve’ something to get that message?
I might have, otherwise, why would someone even send me such a message?
These were the kinds of questions that continuously bothered me.
Months later, I found out someone from my school had sent that message to me. Someone who saw me every day. I became obsessed with the idea that I was being watched continuously and eventually I reduced conversing with many people. Meanwhile, I refused to share this information with anyone, not even with my best friends or my family. There was, for some reason, a deep shame and guilt in me. Soon after, I developed body issues, covering and hiding from people, expecting them to agree with that one message that was sent to me as if that one message was enough to define me.
Now that I think about it, it was just a message on social media which should have been discarded from my inbox and my thoughts immediately. But for a twelve-year-old girl, it was difficult to discard it. It was a violation of my body. I was forced to look at my own body through a violent and obscene eye and it led to hate and contempt for me. Now that I think about it, this instance for me was a form of sexual harassment which created body issues and guilt.
The threats, inappropriate pictures and messages that we receive over the internet are unsolicited and forced upon us and can have the same impact, if done physically. And most of the time these messages are sent anonymously, which protects the identity of the perpetrator. Over the course of talking with different people, I found that receiving unsolicited messages from anonymous users on the internet is a pretty common thing. Almost everyone I know, despite their age, sexual preferences or gender had received such messages at one point in their lives. Yet we ‘ignore’ them because that is ‘what is best to do’. We are conditioned to ignore them right from our childhood and in this process, we somehow normalise this behaviour unconsciously.
The only way to break free of this behaviour is by discussing it on public platforms. This will not only lead to acknowledgement of a problem but it will also lead to getting rid of the feeling of guilt. Maybe when the effects of online sexual harassment on individuals are discussed publically, then people will also introspect before sending violent and sexual messages to others.
Further, it is important to know one’s right to protect oneself from online harassment. The National Commission for Women in its legal module on Gender Sensitisation and Legal Awareness Programme has defined cyber stalking as an offence, which does include sending threatening or obscene messages, posts or emails as a punishable crime.
Further, Section 354A and 354D of the IPC provides punishment for cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking against women. Section 354A states that the act of making physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures, or demanding/requesting for sexual favours, or showing pornography, or making sexually coloured remarks amounts to the offence of sexual harassment, shall be punishable with 3 years of rigorous imprisonment and/or a fine.
In an age when more and more young people are joining social media, I think it becomes imperative that we talk about online sexual harassment in detail because it does shape us in many ways right from our childhood. There is a need to educate ourselves about these issues and analyse basic ideas of sexual harassment, in the ever-expanding generation of social media.
Keeping all this in mind, last December I started a project on Instagram called Library of Unsolicited Trauma (@unsolicited.lib) where I collect and archive unsolicited sexual messages, threats or requests for sexual favours. Over a period of a month, I realised how common this phenomenon was. Everyone I talked to, told me that the first time they received such messages was when they were very young and were deeply traumatised by the whole incident.
What baffles me the most is that we continue to receive such messages and somehow we are forced to ignore it or laugh about it. I think it is necessary to archive these experiences because that tells a lot about the commonality of this problem and it also reduces the shame which I experienced as a child. We have to realise that online harassment is just a reflection of what we face in real life.
The most important realisation I am taking away as an adult is that people who are sending such messages anonymously are somewhere among us, conditioned by a deeply sexist society. Maybe if we start a dialogue about online sexual harassment and how teenagers and young children are more vulnerable than ever, we can make the internet a much safer place.
For understanding cyberbullying in detail click here.
For additional resources and child helplines, please see here.
Aditi Behl (she/her) is a masters student of English Literature at St. Stephen’s College. She is passionately interested in the intersection of literature, popular culture and politics. She can be found on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India