A staggering 85% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed in public places. At universities across the UK, 31% of female students and 12.5% of male students have been victim to ‘inappropriate touching or groping’. The scale of sexual assault is evidently unacceptable, but what of the more slippery phenomenon of sexual harassment by a technological extension? What happens when your harasser hides behind machines? How do you cope if your assault is bound in the digital ether, undeletable and out of your reach?
Anoushka Kohli shares with us her reflections on the interactions between technology and sexual harassment, alongside a moving but empowering account of her own experience.
I believe, in a world full of smartphones, social media, and the widespread distribution of multimedia, there exists a new sense of danger to sexual harassment. Obviously it has, and I suspect, always will be, a wholly unpleasant and somewhat terrifying experience – but there is an additional invasive element when images and videos can be shared immediately, anonymously and everywhere. This is exacerbated when people don’t need to be held accountable for what they say and do on social media. This is further heightened when literally anyone can take a photo and put it on the internet. There are laws in place, but the legal infrastructure is still trying to catch up with the ever-growing 21st Century internet culture; whilst people can now be convicted for sharing images of other people without their permission and hate-speech is not acceptable on social media, these issues remain.
This thought has been on my radar a lot in the last few years, as I have become more acutely aware of the environment in which I grew up – I was a teenager at a time when ‘to instagram’ was a verb, and the power of the internet has always somewhat baffled and scared me. This started with sites like formspring and ask.fm – which allowed people to ask questions anonymously. At the tender age of 13, my friends and I were being asked questions about how many people we had ‘got with’, who the prettiest/bitchiest/ugliest girl was in our year, and if we would date so and so. It didn’t seem right back then and it certainly doesn’t seem right now. There is, I think, a certain sense of omnipotence awarded to us by smartphones and social media…
I don’t need to reveal my identity. I can send this hateful message right now and however many times I want. I can film you without you knowing and do whatever I want with the video.
It was about 9:15, at the beginning of January, and I was on a Central Line train heading out of the city. For those who don’t know the Central Line, what you must understand is that it is usually packed with pissed-off business men or rowdy tourists (or, more often than not, business men pissed off with rowdy tourists). But it was a little too late to be catching commuters and too much of a Tuesday afternoon in holiday season for tourists. So, it was just me and another woman on the carriage. At half an hour into my journey, I was too bored to be paying attention. A man got on the train and chose not to sit down, which for some reason I found unsettling; in a carriage full of empty seats, except for two, why would someone choose not to sit? But then, I rationalised and thought, each to their own, maybe he’s only on for a stop. As usual, I was aimlessly refreshing my Instagram feed until I noticed out of the corner of my eye that I was being watched: not stared at, not glanced at, but watched. I, for some reason, decided that it would be better to not make eye contact, and so I continued to look to my right, away from him.
It took me about two and a half minutes to notice I was being filmed.
It took me another thirty seconds to realise that his hands were down his trousers.
I realise now that what happened to me next would be described as a panic attack. My breathing quickened and my heart rate rose. I froze and felt helpless. There I was, unable to move or speak, hyperventilating, and it was all on film.
I knew I had to do something. Surely I couldn’t just sit there and let this happen to me? I began to assess my options. As I have found speaking to many of my friends, you always end up with two, either, you do something to stop the action, or you sit still and pretend it isn’t happening because the threat of putting your safety on the line is too high.
These are the decisions we have to make.
I was in too much shock to actually do anything. So there I sat, whilst someone filmed me and pleasured themselves.
He then proceeded to get off the train, coolly and casually removing his hands from his trousers and putting his phone in his bag as if nothing had happened.
Before I knew it, I began to cry.
In the days after this incident happened, the thing that upset me the most – that made me feel the most violated – was the idea that someone I didn’t know now had a video of me on their phone without my permission…and they could do with it whatever they pleased. This is the power of technology. Talking about this with some of my other friends, I heard their stories of similar occurrences – selfie-sticks being used to film under people’s skirts and dresses during the summer months, images being taken from people’s Facebook profiles and being used by other people, as well as a host of other truly heartbreaking stories. Growing up as a young woman I am, and have been from a very young age, acutely aware that I am more at risk. This is due to some perceived liberties people feel they have the right to take, solely due to certain biological attributes that I possess. Essentially, people think they can shout things at me in the street, touch my body without my permission and film me on a train all because I have a vagina. But this new dimension of sexual harassment has become something altogether more difficult to battle, for it is a dimension which is hard to police and even harder to come to terms with emotionally.
When consulting the advice of my best friend for this article, I explained that whilst I was pointing out the negative aspect of the technological development in the 21st century, I didn’t want to highlight just that – I know it’s not all bad and that there are some beautiful movements coming from social media in direct opposition to this kind of thing. She very astutely pointed out, however, that I shouldn’t feel the need to conciliate anyone with a happy ending. I am still very much affected by what happened to me, more so with this than anything else – because it felt far more invasive. Technology is frightening; the advancements, whilst incredible, also have a darker and far more dangerous side to them. I suppose then, we must just take heed, because I fear that the next few generations, the younger siblings of my friends and my younger cousins, will all have to deal with a swath of problems that we did not have when we grew up, but that are starting to bleed through now. Technology is powerful, and that must not be forgotten.
 YouGov. for EVAW Coalition, March 2016. http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2016/03/uknationshstudy/