Notes from the Field: Canada

Rape Culture Talk

According to Dr Anastasia Powell a Senior Research Fellow in Justice and Legal Studies at RMIT University and visiting scholar at the University Of Alberta (Canada)

“Communications technologies are increasingly being used by perpetrators to stalk, harass and coerce women.”

Dr Powell gave a public lecture at the University of Alberta last week in which she discussed the ways that technologies, such as smartphones, online sites and social media, are more than mere tools in violence against women but also extend the harms of violence in various ways.

“Too often people dismiss and minimise online communications as less serious forms of abuse. Police have been known to tell women, ‘just turn off your cell phone, deactivate your Facebook account, don’t go online’. Its something I have heard frequently from women’s and legal services both in Australia, and during my interviews with services here in Canada.” But Dr Powell argues that “such advice significantly underestimates both the nature of these violences, and the fact that online communications are embedded not only in our social lives, but also our professional lives. You can deactivate Facebook, but if your abusive ex-partner is posting nude images of you online, that will still come up if an employer Googles your name. It will still be used by others as a basis for harassing you. Turning women away from technology is not the answer.”

Over the last five years Dr Powell’s research, including with her collaborator Dr Nicola Henry, has uncovered a wide range of technology-facilitated sexual violence.

“We’ve found that perpetrators are using the threat of distributing nude images as a way to control and coerce women. In some cases, the threat is made to prevent women taking out a protection order or leaving an abusive relationship. In other cases, the threat is made in order to coerce a sexual relationship. That’s not just an ‘online’ harm – that’s a sexual assault.” 

In addressing such technology-facilitated violence, Dr Powell says we need a combination of legal reform, training for police and courts, as well as prevention and education that challenges a ‘rape culture’: 

“There is still some controversy around the concept of a ‘rape culture’. But I think it is a very useful concept for thinking about the various ways societies minimise sexual violence and harassment, blames victims, while making excuses for the perpetrators. We have to challenge those attitudes in our communities, as well as in the practices of our legal and educational institutions, if we are going to achieve real and sustainable change to prevent sexual violence in all its forms.” 

Dr Powell is now writing a case study of Canadian legal and other responses to technology-facilitated sexual violence, drawing on interviews conducted during her recent visit.