When Movements Backfire: Violence Against Women and Online Harassment

The anti-online harassment movement is already replicating many of the shortcomings, failures, erroneous assumptions and faulty strategies of the larger violence against women movement.

by Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear & Shanley Kane on May 27th, 2016

The internet has become a powerful tool in igniting new movements from generations-long conversations and political activity. Online hashtags and teach-ins, tweets, blog posts and inventive use of new media have forced attention on interpersonal violence issues including campus sexual assault, untested rape-kits, street harassment, and domestic violence. But these discussions, educational efforts, and organizing sites have themselves witnessed a new phenomenon of violence in the rise of online harassment.

Disproportionately impacting marginalized women, online harassment encompasses and intersects with many other other forms of violence against women: Perpetrators of domestic violence increasingly leverage social media and other tech to surveil, stalk and harass their victims. Images of girls, teens and women are non-consensually captured, stolen, and/or hacked and distributed online. Personal information, including home addresses, phone numbers, credit card information and workplaces of women are distributed in doxxing attacks, profoundly compromising their safety and subjecting them to identity theft, physical assault, SWATing and other threats. Women experience a multitude of threats: graphic rape and death threats, threats to their children and families, and threats to their careers and communities. In incidents of mass online terrorism, women may receive thousands or even tens of thousands of abusive and harassing messages. Over the past decade, online harassment has grown into a significant threat to women’s’ physical safety, career and economic stability, and mental health, as well as their ability to access support, build community and participate in public life.

In response to this growing threat, the movement against online harassment has begun to gain traction in recent years, moving from largely individual activists and grassroots movements into a more mainstream articulation of threat and response. Though still nascent, it has over recent years grown to encompass significant mainstream media coverage, coordinated awareness campaigns, corporate intervention, new legislation, police and governmental involvement, and the establishment of new non-profit entities.

While the increased recognition of online harassment has been encouraging, the anti-online harassment movement is already replicating many of the shortcomings, failures, erroneous assumptions and faulty strategies of the larger violence against women movement. In this article, we describe how the anti-violence against women movement — and its structural failings — have provided a context, precedent and ultimately model for the anti-online harassment movement. We explore in detail how the failures of the anti-violence movement are being replicated in the response to online harassment; specifically, we explore how the shared focus on the carceral state, policing, legislation, reporting, awareness-based campaigning, mainstream media, corporate intervention, and the growth of the non-profit industrial complex has complicated, far-reaching and sometimes devastating consequences for women.

The failure to recognize and correct these structural failures, has and will continue to result in anti-online harassment strategies that not only fail to reduce the incidence or impact of online harassment, but that actually re-inscribe harm and uphold many of the dangerous ideologies and structures that underpin systemic violence against women.

A History of VAWA

1994 represented a legendary moment and turning point in the fight to stop violence against women: the year the Violence Against Women Act was signed into federal law. After decades of feminist organizing — encompassing the battered women and anti-rape movements, among others — VAWA legislation was hailed as a monumental victory for women across the United States, a major step in the effort to end sexual and domestic violence.

While the narrative surrounding VAWA is overwhelmingly celebratory and positive, it is important to recognize that many of the state and non-profit orchestrated strategies emerging out of VAWA have not only failed, but backfired in immeasurable ways. Infrequently understood is that VAWA was not standalone legislation: it was attached to the larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, more notoriously referred to as the Crime Bill. This was the largest anti-crime body of law in the history of the United States, authorizing billions of dollars to build more prisons and bigger police forces, and enact harsher sentences as an authoritarian strategy to reduce crime. The Crime Bill is often cited as foundational to modern mass incarceration, as well as the epidemic of police brutality in America. VAWA itself has directly resulted in the co-opting and institutionalizing of grassroots work, and uncritically prioritized the carceral state and the non-profit industrial complex in ending gender-based violence.

Today, the focus on non-profits, policing, legislation, and the carceral state that we find in the larger violence against women movement — epitomized in VAWA legislation — is itself being echoed in the movement against online harassment. Specifically, these shared approaches:

  • Encourage (coerce/force) women to engage with institutions (local and state police, the prison industrial complex, corporations, the non-profit industrial complex, federal intelligence and surveillance agencies) that are oppressive, ineffective and harmful, and which fail to protect victims, remediate harm, or to effectively stop, “punish” and/or reform perpetrators;
  • Subject women to institutions and structures that victimize, endanger and marginalize them anew, in the same, related or different ways;
  • Result in increased funding and support for those institutions;
  • Erase the ways that those institutions and their officers (cops, federal agents, etc.) are themselves perpetrators of systemic and specific violence against women (including online harassment);
  • Deny and/or fail to address structural differences in WHO is able to actually receive care and support from those institutions;
  • Leave out and/or disregard many forms of violence and abuse that women experience, but which fall outside of state/legislation-defined conceptions of criminal violence.

In this article, we explore these outcomes in detail.

Cops Aren’t An Anti-Violence Strategy

Due to the emphasis on policing, legal and carceral solutions we see in VAWA legislation and the wider gender violence movement, victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and other violences against women are overwhelming encouraged to report to the police. In fact, reporting to cops has become our principal solution in addressing violence against women.

This emphasis is echoed faithfully in online harassment: Twitter’s official Help Center article on abuse specifically advocates reporting to law enforcement as a primary response, while a related article on “helping a friend or family member with online abuse” encourages similar. Reporting is, of course, core to anti-online harassment materials provided by the government and law enforcement itself; i.e. the Department of Homeland Security’s guide to social media [PDF] advocates that victims “immediately notify your local authorities.” The focus on reporting and policing is echoed by third-party organizations and collectives which have emerged to address online violence, including in guides to talking/reporting to police and FBI and pursuing restraining orders, reporting to tech corporations, as well as leveraging the legal system. While some of these third-party sources also acknowledge the complicated nature of reporting, it still stands that reporting remains overwhelming central in how we frame online harassment response.

Across both the anti-online harassment movement and the wider movement against gender violence, we must interrogate WHY there continues to be an over-riding focus on reporting to cops, law enforcement and federal agencies, when these strategies have proven OVERWHELMINGLY useless time and time again. As we’ve seen with rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, reporting to police almost never results in arrest, prosecution or conviction. As just one example, RAINN reports that 97 out of every 100 rapists face no legal or criminal consequences for their actions. In both hashtags #IDidNotReport and #WhyIDidntReport, thousands of sexual assault victims took to Twitter to describe their experiences and the myriad reasons they avoided police and the legal system. As Miri writes in “Stop Telling Harassment and Assault Survivors To Go To the Police”,

“So, let’s talk about when someone gets harassed or assaulted and they make it public (whether to friends and family or, like, public-public) and everybody always comes out with the same line: “Oh my god! You need to go to the police right now!”…

…going to the police is not effective. It’s just not. So you’re giving me advice that is not helpful. The stories of what happens to women who report harassment or assault to the police are plentiful and really sad.”

We see that reporting violence that occurs online has been similarly ineffective: Provisions for online harassment have existed in anti-violence policy since the 2006 reauthorization of VAWA; yet according to Representative Katherine Clark, “federal prosecutors pursued only 10 of the estimated 2.5 million cases of cyber-stalking between 2010 and 2013.” (Bafflingly, she has nonetheless continued to push for these strategies). To date, there have been no known arrests, convictions or other successful legal or state interventions associated with even such organized, long-running, and harmful hate campaigns as GamerGate.

As the Crash Override Network guide cautions, cops often don’t act on reports of online harassment and/or are unable, unwilling or incapable of helping. In a post titled “Why I Don’t Just Go to the Cops”, Rebecca Watson reports long, frustrating and ultimately fruitless experiences trying to report online threats and violence to police and the FBI, stating: “I don’t go to the cops because the cops don’t care.” Anna Merlan has also written about frustrating and ultimately ineffective experiences trying to report, citing other high-profile victims who have repeatedly reported attacks without success. As the EFF writes: “laws aimed at combating harassment are rarely enforced at all, or are enforced unfairly and ineffectively. All around the world, law enforcement officers frequently fail to take seriously complaints about online threats…” Even alerting local law enforcement to the probability of getting a hoax emergency SWAT call to your house is ineffective, as they will still show up in full force at your residence.

Despite the proven ineffectiveness of reporting to cops, there is a prevalent attitude among advocates that law enforcement is simply unaware of, or doesn’t understand online harassment and its impact. Thus, many advocate for better “education” of police, as if this “education” will magically lead to more effective response, despite the reality that decades of police education on violence against women — on everything from rape, stalking, sexual assault and/or domestic violence — has utterly failed to secure better results. Such arguments also (erroneously) assumes that members of law enforcement are completely out of touch with digital spaces, despite many local police department accounts and even government intel agencies (such as the CIA and FBI) being active on social media, and frequently using social media as a source of information and evidence in investigations and court cases.

The idea that police and other justice entities simply have no understanding of, or ability to access, online spaces also ignores how these entities collaborate closely with the tech industry itself on cutting-edge technological resources. For example, note Silicon Valley’s close relationship to law enforcement and policing: tech companies have donated equipment to SFPD, funded cadet training, helped develop apps that assist in filing reports, provided computers to increased police presence, and partnered with private prison companies for surveillance tools. With police forces around the country having funding and resources to leverage cutting-edge technologies, it’s pandering to pretend that cops are ineffective in online harassment due to ignorance; rather, it’s completely consistent with an overall, systemic refusal to recognize and address violence against women.

Cops Are Perpetrators of Violence

Situating law enforcement as the answer to violence against women also ignores their own complicity and perpetrations of violence, while further bringing into question the claim that “education” will yield different results. In designating the state and police as the primary problem solvers in violence against women, VAWA and other policing-focused anti-violence strategies contravene many women’s experiences and beliefs about the criminal legal system. As has been expressed for generations by marginal women (as opposed to the white, middle class majority of mainstream feminism), violence against women cannot be eradicated within our patriarchal, capitalist, racist, sexist, and overall violent societal structure; the movement to end gender violence must acknowledge and position the state as a perpetrator.  

Police officers are more than 2x more likely to commit domestic violence, and sexual assault is the second most common form of police brutality. In regards to online harassment, officers have notoriously used technologies and social media against women. They have used Facebook to stalk and threaten their victims, committed cyber sexual assault and stolen and exploited women’s nude photos, used Instagram to humiliate their former girlfriends, and even stolen and distributed nude photos of their fellow women officers. It is improbable that policing can solve this violence when its members are predators themselves.

The way that cops are positioned as change agents in violence against women, despite being perpetrators, echoes the way that tech companies are positioned as change agents in online harassment, despite being some of the largest systemic enablers of online harassment on multiple fronts. Specific platforms including Reddit, Twitter and Facebook have become huge locations of online harassment and abuse without taking steps to curb harassment through better reporting systems, better tooling, more effective abuse detection and banning of serial abusers. As Imani Gandy writes: “First, Twitter often takes days, weeks, or even months to respond to a report of abuse. Second, reporting an individual user for harassment is useless in cases where the abusive user’s account has already been suspended—and a new account created—by the time you complete the reporting process. In such cases, Twitter just shrugs its shoulders: Sorry. That account has been suspended. Nothing we can do.” Shay Stewart-Bouley, who writes at Black Girl in Maine, spoke to Alternet about why she doesn’t report online harassment: “It feels like you don’t get taken seriously. I’ll be honest, I don’t feel that when I share these concerns people really get them. It is a big concern, especially when you’re somebody who has merged your social media presence with your professional persona. It’s not like you can go into hiding.”

For decades, tech companies have failed to make progress in online harassment, which has only worsened over time — more prevalent, more dangerous, and more organized than ever before. Meanwhile, tech companies are in many ways benefitting from online harassment as this behavior drives a great deal of usage, engagement and new account signups, all needed to prove to executive teams, boards and investors that a platform is “growing” (even if it is in fact growing due to stalking, sea-lioning, hypervisibility of harassment, multiple account creation, “raids” by hate groups and other abusive behavior.) Beyond that, tech companies contribute to a climate of online harassment in more insidious and subtle ways. In a particularly alarming case, Google has gone so far as to bring on people who have directly contributed the current climate of online hate with the hiring of 4chan founder Christopher “Moot” Poole. More fundamentally, these companies are overwhelmingly homogenous, with tech teams that are vast majority white and male, and particularly lack women of color employees, especially Black women (the demographic most often and severely targeted by online harassment.) As a result, these companies are themselves sites of oppression against people of color and white women — as multiple lawsuits, personal stories and the attrition rates indicate, marginalized people in these spaces are harassed, aggressed, raped and sexually abused, and systematically kept from wealth and power. The ecosystem of tech — which ensures that control over social platforms remains in the hands of white men — denies access and resources to marginalized people to change the way platforms are structured, how they prevent and address online harassment, and to build alternatives. Despite all of this, tech companies continue to be positioned as problem solvers in online harassment.

Ultimately, whether we are looking at cops, tech companies, or the places where they meet, we need to consider how our responses to violence against women — including online harassment — continues to uphold violent institutions as solution centers, rather than locating our activism in opposition to, and as an alternative, to those institutions.  

Institutional Definitions of Actionable Violence Consistently Fail Women

Fundamental to discussions of the efficacy of institutions in addressing violence against women is the subject of HOW they define such violence, and when/where that violence is able to garner support and response. With regards to how these issues manifest in online harassment, the classic case study is Twitter: Twitter almost never follows up on consequences for abusive accounts; hundreds of people reporting explicit threats of violence to Twitter are told that it doesn’t represent a terms of service violation. Many forms of abuse that women experience constantly on the platform are not technically recognized under the Terms of Service; this includes mob-style harassment, indirect threats, creepy messages, repeated unwanted contact and much more.

If even social platforms don’t consider most reports of online harassment against women to be actionable, why would we expect the far more stringent guidelines required by law to work any better? Predictably, we run into problems with how online harassment is (or rather, is not) recognized by law enforcement. In fact, the vast majority of online harassment falls outside of what is considered criminal activity by cops and other arms of the state. Case in point, a recent Supreme Court case established an extraordinarily high bar for online speech to be recognized as a “true threat” and thus outside the protections of the First Amendment; even threats “causing a ‘reasonable person’ to fear for their life isn’t a high enough standard to support a criminal conviction.” Under this legal requirement, much of the online terrorism that women are constantly told to report, is considered neither illegal nor prosecutable by those institutions.

A high bar for determining what constitutes a real threat is on par with how domestic violence and sexual assault are criminally defined and treated. Often, interpersonal violence is flattened into miscommunications, disagreements, and fights where there is equal responsibility. Self-defense is frequently positioned as an attack, and women are the ones who are punished. Online abuse is similarly diminished into heated arguments and disagreements, or referred to as satire, free speech, and generally less real because “it’s just the internet.” Obsessive behavior, like stalking, is often minimized and romanticized. The logics of rape culture permeate online spaces where social media is labeled a public space, therefore anything that you post or say means you’re open to vicious treatment and deserve it — much like how women in public spaces are victim-blamed if they drink alcohol, wear certain clothing, are out in specific places and specific locations, at specific times, etc.

As a result, women are overwhelming told to “just ignore” or “log off” by the very institutions they are encouraged to report into; even Twitter’s official guidelines for online abuse state that “Abusive users often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond.” In both scenarios of online harassment and other forms of violence against women, this advice ignores key safety issues, puts responsibility and blame on victims, and minimizes the role of structural factors keeping women in abusive environments (including socioeconomic factors and community/family ties). In cases of domestic violence intersecting with online harassment, “logging off” does nothing to address the ongoing interpersonal violence. Even outside of these interactions, in cases of mass online harassment, hate groups will often continue to terrorize victims for days, months or years, even if they choose to leave social media. Stalkers for whom the original point of contact was the internet will sometimes or often stalk victims in other spaces, including at professional events, social appearances, workplaces and homes. Advice to “just log off” consistently ignores the way that online violence intersects, spills into, and escalates in offline spaces. “Logging off” also does nothing to undo or address the long-lasting impact of online violence such as cyber sexual assault, harassing blog posts and wiki pages, and Google search results filled with violent and false content: these “artifacts” of online harassment continue to affect victims in their job searches, interpersonal relationships, and other spheres for years after “new” harassment has stopped, or after they have chosen to not be active in those spaces themselves.

Further, “ignoring” abuse can not only be ineffective, but also dangerous. In cases of online harassment, not paying attention to online harassment could mean not knowing when it is escalating into attacks on family members, doxxing, hacking and releasing of personal information. Many victims of online harassment HAVE to stay online in order to make informed decisions about their safety. Even more, ignoring abusers in any space — digital or physical — can sometimes or often enrage them and cause an escalation in violence, rather than attaining the desired goal of stopping violence.

Reporting to Institutions Can Endanger Victims

Something oft-left out in the conversation about reporting is how these strategies often backfire on victims. Reporting can be re-traumatizing and cost victims an incredible amount of time, energy and privacy; often requiring tens of hours collecting and collating information, taking trips to police stations or enduring home visits from police, as well as lengthy processes of follow-up. When victims report sexual and domestic abuse they are subjected to invasive forensic exams [also known as rape-kits] which end up in what has be falsely called a “backlog.” They are disbelieved, victim-blamed, and are sometimes arrested themselves.

This and other realities of reporting take a huge toll on victims’ time, energy and mental health. As Wagatwe Wanjuki writes: “The view that all survivors must report to the police is problematic for two reasons. Both are rooted in misogyny, even though the impact is felt survivors of all gender identities. Firstly, the argument is rooted in the belief that it is a woman’s responsibility to stop rape. Rape is an act done overwhelmingly by men, yet society still insists on women to keep it from happening to them, whether by telling them to never drink again or to stop wearing short skirts. And second, it is a manifestation a patriarchal norm that women need to put themselves last and not take care of themselves emotionally or mentally.”

Further, as we see countless times in domestic violence scenarios, reporting abusers and attempts to secure protection can escalate violence and even result in death. Reporting can also actively re-endanger the victim to the aggressor/perpetrator as cops carry out various stages of bureaucracy and investigation. Ashe Dryden shares her experiences reporting: “4 months ago I filed a police report against a man who had been stalking me for months and had threatened to rape and murder me. This man lives in the same small city that I reside in. The stalker erroneously received the police report I filed against him and chose to further harm me by posting it online – in doing so, sharing my home address and phone number.” (This pattern is not dissimilar from how handling of reports by tech corporations often further endangers victims, and has resulted in stalkers gaining the home addresses and other personal information of their targets).

Further, for many marginalized women, women living in existing dangerous or abusive environments, and particularly women of color (especially Black women) who are disproportionately targeted and re-victimized by the cops and the justice system, addressing violence through these reporting processes and institutions is simply not an option. As Lisa M. Calderón writes for The Black Commentator: “The legal process has its own inherent risks of victimization and limitations of access, particularly for women of color and poor women, and therefore is simply not a practical option of protection for many women.”

This points to how VAWA strategies have not only failed, but backfired on the victims they’re supposed to be helping. A major theme of VAWA was the introduction of “Victim Empowerment” laws, which ushered in a series of pro-arrest approaches including mandatory/dual arrest, No-Drop, Failure to Protect, and other carceral mechanisms. In the provision, federal funding was included for the implementation of mandatory and dual arrest by local law enforcement. In theory this meant that every time the police are called, the aggressor in the situation of domestic violence would be apprehended. In actuality, this lead to an increase in victims [and eventually] both parties being arrested. More women have since been detained, incarcerated, deported, and placed as the assailant in these situations. As a result from fear of mandatory arrest, more women have died from intimate partner homicide.

Because courts heavily rely on victim’s testimony, the state became authorized to proceed with the criminal process on cases with or without the victim’s participation or agreement. This also has meant arresting victims who refused to testify in order to secure convictions. Rather than actually empowering and centering victim’s needs, these laws have been in diametric opposition to their best interests. As Angela Davis stated at the first Color of Violence conference, How then can one expect the state to solve the problem of violence against women, when it constantly recapitulates its own history of colonialism, racism, and war?”

The State is Invested in Crushing Social Movements

An uncritical emphasis on police, legislation and the carceral state as problem-solvers further ignores their role in crushing the same social and political movements/activists that are targeted by online harassment. Large volumes of online violence are a reaction to the social justice community — often labeled “Social Justice Warriors”. The term is used as a pejorative against the activists, advocates, organizers, and community members pushing for cultural and societal changes. Importantly, many of the strains of activism that have been the targets of the most coordinated, damaging and widespread attacks has been critical of individuals and institutions including government policy and elected officials, policing, the prison and tech industries, academia, and media.

For example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement (founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi) has used social platforms to highlight police brutality and accountability, and has come front and center in our discussion about criminal justice… while being massively targeted, online and off. As Malkia Cyril, who manages online communities for #BlackLivesMatter, told The Guardian: “It’s hate speech in droves. The number of horrific, threatening and just awful statements that are being made about black people is out of control. I spend hours every day deleting, banning and blocking the hate from our pages.”

Over the past decade, we’ve also seen a resurgence — ignited by feminists leveraging social platforms — in the movement against sexual assault, centering on how the legal system and schools fail, ignore, and criminalize victims; these are only some of the many feminist and anti-racist disruptions that have bloomed online in recent years. The momentum within all of this has lead to social and political victories, but has also resulted in backlash in the form of online harassment at its most violent, destructive and organized. This backlash has particularly targeted Black women; as Tanisha C. Ford told Alternet: “Black feminists have always been the bold voices to speak truth to power. So when we talk about issues of intimate partner violence, critiques of violence perpetrated by the state, those are the things that attack and seek to dismantle systems of patriarchy, systems of white supremacy, and these are issues that a lot of Americans, even those in the black community, don’t want to have to confront because it makes them culpable in those systems. It’s much easier for them to condemn and silence the voices of black women as an attempt to not address those issues.”

As anti-online harassment initiatives have begun to forge closer ties with law enforcement and advocate for reporting-based solutions, it’s important to acknowledge the state’s own investment in stopping these movements. Many activists and organizers have been surveilled, profiled, sexually assaulted and jailed. Meanwhile, the state itself maneuvers in various and untold ways to silence dissent. Sabotaging of hashtags and organizing by Twitter bots has been reported by people from political uprisings all over the world. It was outed that the United States military developed software to manipulate conversations and spread more patriotic views of the state among and against protesters. The Department of Defense in partnerships with academia and other intel agencies even created tools to target unrest and determine what is a threat to national security, labeling activists as “social contagions”: “Twitter posts and conversations will be examined ‘to identify individuals mobilised in a social contagion and when they become mobilised.’” The reality that the interests of the state often converge with the interests with online harassers, hate groups and terrorists cannot be neglected in how we envision and execute counter-movements.

Moving Beyond Policing

In anti-online harassment, as in the larger gender violence movement, we remain stuck on the idea that the criminal justice system is our only means of addressing societal ills… so stuck that we continually fail to acknowledge its inadequacy and harm.

Mobilizing against online harassment is necessary work, and this is an opportune time to reconceptualize violence against women and how we respond to it. Turning constantly to the police, the carceral state and the justice system to remedy online harassment — particularly that stemming from social justice activism — is at best ineffective; at worst, it subjects the victim to more violence. Beyond that, continuously turning to these harmful institutions and centering them in our efforts, results in their strengthening; as we saw with gender violence efforts, VAWA resulted in billions being poured into the white supremacist, misogynist police and carceral state, while untold victims of gender violence were left behind.   

Non-Profit Industrial Complex

The positioning and buttressing of the carceral state as the central remediating force in gender violence wasn’t the only output of VAWA; another was the significant funding of victim services in the forms of rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, hotlines, and legal advocacy. Certainly, countless women have been helped and received support from these initiatives, but it’s important that uncritical applause is not given as a blanket overview to what these interventions are; the growth of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC) flowing from VAWA has also come with consequences.

Specifically, the bulk of anti-gender violence efforts are now irrevocably tied to the state, as the state is their primary facilitator and funding source. While invoking the constellation of violences and inequities already discussed, the NPIC has also been used to co-opt, water-down, white-wash and restrict revolutionary grassroots activism. Appointing the NPIC as gatekeepers to victim services and needed resources has had unequal results at best: direct services have remained inaccessible to the most marginal women and are typically tied to police and state-based interventions. Critically, despite the billions of dollars allocated to the NPIC around gender violence, desperately needed direct financial support for victims of violence remains almost non-existent. Further, the NPIC’s uncritical embrace of mainstream and media, and on awareness-based campaigning as a central strategy, has re-inscribed framings, beliefs, attitudes, and practices that uphold systemic violence against women.

The development of non-profit organizations in the anti-online harassment space is still nascent. Most non-profits in this movement are still extremely small, lacking the financial, social and lobbying klout of more established non-profits. Thus, the connections we make in this section should not be read as a condemnation of organizations in the anti-online harassment space per se; rather, a call to pay attention to how, even in its infancy, troubling similarities already emerge. With pending legislation promising to pour tens of millions into the anti-online harassment space in the coming years, this is an opportunity to reflect, and learn the lessons of the NPIC’s failures so we can develop alternative models.

The NPIC Links Activism to the State and Threatens Grassroots Movements

The non-profit system is generally thought of as a socially-good network of organizations, located outside of the government, that serve the needs of communities with support, services and resources. With regards to violence against women, numerous rape-crisis centers, shelters, national and local hotlines, legal advocacy, and educational programs operate with missions to both stop and respond to gender violence. As a result, innumerable victims have received life-saving assistance and aid, and prevention efforts have expanded across schools and health systems. While money from the Department of Justice and philanthropic entities has aided in incalculable support to victims, accepting grants means agreeing to and abiding by the conditions set forth by the institutions awarding them. In this case, it has meant an end to a movement that once identified violence against women as symptomatic of societal structure, and instead manipulated activism into relying on and supporting the state as its primary objective.

It’s undeniable that advocates doing necessary and charitable work have been instrumental in resolving violence. At the same time, it’s necessary to understand the true function of the non-profit/NGO system. Non-profits were created to serve a structural purpose as well as communal one. Government and corporations, with the intention of stifling and co-opting social movements, control messages and funding by providing grants to organizations. As Paul Kivel states, “When temporary shelter becomes a substitute for permanent housing, emergency food a substitute for a decent job…we have shifted our attention from the redistribution of wealth to the temporary provision of social services to keep people alive.” This helps categorize problems as singular and positions bureaucracy as the fix so that we are no longer looking at the full composition of an oppressive society; it negatively shapes our understanding of how and why inequality exists. For example, instead of looking at violence against women as a symptom of male-dominated culture and authority, the message and strategy has been minimized into arresting, prosecuting, and jailing a few “bad” individuals. As Nancy A. Matthews describes in Confronting Rape: The Feminist Anti-Rape Movement and the State, “Because of the focus on after-the-fact treatment, I call the kind of responses made by state agencies ‘managing rape.’ In Los Angeles the anti-rape movement’s central orientation was transformed from a political agenda of changing consciousness to a social agenda of helping victims manage the trauma they experience.”

After all, it is through the non-profit system that the state effectively squashes social movements and co-opts the rhetoric of political change to support repressive agendas and laws. While compensation for labor and funding movements are vital, non-profits function as P.R. arms of the state and ultimately hurt grassroots action. The state, corporations acting through foundations, and academia have effectively engulfed activists and de-radicalized original objectives. While the origins of the Battered Women’s Movement were grounded in direct opposition to male-dominated institutions and structures, feminists soon began working with the state to call for more police, more prisons, and harsher sentences as the movement became an instrument to build up the Prison Industrial Complex.

The NPIC also continues to operate and maintain dominate control of movement messaging and action by stealing and plagiarizing (and in turn, white-washing and de-radicalizing) unaffiliated, independent work, largely created by marginal women of color. As Shaadi Devereaux writes for The New Inquiry: “Non-profits and big names with large followings present at conferences and lead anti-violence campaigns using our digital framework—and in many cases, stolen work. What does this appropriation by professional activists of anti-violence work mean for poor women of color and their relationship to labor?”

This pattern of co-optation and grandstanding of activism, and centering of non-profits and corporations, is something we’re already seeing in the movement against online harassment. Take the creation of Safer Internet Day, a government and non-profit-backed annual event that has been used to position complicit institutions as problem-solvers in the space; this year, Twitter used the occasion to create a media frenzy with literally hundreds of articles announcing its “Trust & Safety Council” (comprised, of course, of dozens of non-profit organizations). Reminiscent of how Microsoft and Facebook worked to center themselves in this year’s Equal Pay Day, this is an example of how tech companies use their institutional power, ties to non-profits, gigantic platforms and media access to center themselves in discussions and movements that should be ABOUT victims and inspire critical thinking and resistance… after all, it is victims, independent activists and communities who originally conceived of and developed the anti-online harassment movement, NOT non-profits, governments or tech corporations. Yet, that work continues to be effectively stolen and co-opted, used to platform institutions rather than dismantle violence.  

The NPIC has also developed the sphere of professionalized activism, a mechanism wherein victims become “clients,” and community activism and movement-building is transformed into an institutionalized career path; victims must appeal to this mechanism to seek formal services. As responses to gender violence have become more institutionalized, criminalized and medicalized, communities become disempowered; the narrative is that certain occupations are the only ones equipped to deal with it, and that communities shouldn’t, or don’t need to, organize against gender violence because advocates, centers, and the legal system are “solving it.” Where they do exist, non-profits have caused incalculable harm to alternative organizing models by amassing and hoarding resources, stealing and plagiarizing work, profiteering from unpaid labor, and leveraging respectability politics, organizational power/influence and other tactics against community leaders and organizers. As Devereaux asks, “How do we create anti-violence frameworks that acknowledge existing models of community support among the most vulnerable women?”

As anti-online harassment organizations and individuals fuse into the same structure as other anti-violence services, and directly work with tech companies and law enforcement, necessary criticism and activism against both institutions are lost. The anti-online harassment movement, even without much direct funding to date, has already begun to align itself with policing, the state and tech companies, putting it at profound risk of the same patterns that we see in the NPIC around violence against women. The 2016 Online Harassment Summit at SXSW perhaps represents the most clear example of this. The event overwhelmingly featured institutional, non-profit, state and corporate speakers as experts, including from large tech/media companies Vox, Cisco, Facebook, Google and IBM, as well as large and well-funded non-profits including the ACLU, Pew Research and The Anti-Defamation league. The event also platformed cops, politicians and attorneys as well as multiple representatives from law schools; many of the panels positioned non-profits, legislation, tech companies and policing as solutions and problem-solvers, while a commensurate platforming of indie activists, grassroots movements and alternative frameworks was utterly absent.  

In this, and other events and initiatives focused on anti-online harassment, we’re already seeing the same patterns as in VAWA: ties to the state, non-profits and legal systems means that these systems are prioritized, platformed and upheld; they are un-critiqued, while grassroots activists and victims themselves are sidelined in the creation of media and PR opportunities. The uncritical feeding of the institutional machine takes precedence over the movement, even as it uses the movement to accrue support, resources and funding.

NPIC-Developed Direct Services Fail Victims

With those who have been helped by the NPIC, come those who have been abandoned. Due to the restriction and underfunding of victim services, providers are unable to help many victims in their unique circumstance and needs. Small staffs and volunteers are physically unable to assist the immense number of people who are experiencing hardship. Moreover, because non-profit organizations ultimately work with and for the state, they habitually deny support to certain victims in adherence to their grant stipulations. Specifically, if a situation is too conflicting with policing or prosecution, advocates will err on the side of the legal system as to not disrupt their cash streams and allegiances. Madonna Thunder Hawk points to this departure from independent anti-violence work organized by Indigenous women: “We did not worry if our work would upset funders; we just worried about whether the work would help our communities.”

As noted earlier in the article, services which are tied to the carceral state and policing remain by default not only inaccessible to marginal women, but are an ongoing source of violence themselves. The overwhelmingly focus on NPIC-based solutions means that funding, support and resources have been denied to alternate structures.

Between local and national organizations, billions of dollars flow through 501c(3) doors on a daily basis. For the 2015 fiscal year, the Office of Violence Against Women alone awarded 400 million dollars to services and programs. While across the board, significant amounts of money are pumped into the non-profit machine, little if any of it goes directly into the hands of victims. In fact, many grant solicitations boldly state that awards are not intended to be financial help to individuals, and doing so is a violation of the rules and conditions. This is in spite of the fact that direct financial support remains one of the most effective anti-violence strategies (see #GiveYourMoneyToWomen, created by Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear, Yeoshin Lourdes and Bardot Smith), providing the necessary resources for victims to gain more control over their lives, secure their safety, obtain needed health care, and take other steps to escape, address, reduce and/or heal from violence and its attendant traumas.

One thing that all violence against women — including online harassment — has in common is a huge economic impact on victims. To escape from an immediately threatening situation, there is a potential need for emergency transportation, shelter, security assessments, leaving/quitting work, school and other commitments, and acquiring food and basic necessities. If license plate and car information becomes public through doxxing, or is being tracked by a stalker, victims may need to use a different car, or figure out public transportation, car services or assistance from friends and family (if available – it isn’t always). Victims with care-taking responsibilities may rack up expenses for boarding pets, child-care, nursing and other care for parents/grandparents, and/or other alternate and emergency caregiving strategies. Victims often need new cell phones, phone numbers, and complete changes to their communication and security infrastructure which carries both a high, immediate cost and requires longer-term financial investments. Additionally, victims often need money to obtain things for their well-being and healing, such as medical care, therapy and medications to address physical and/or emotional trauma. Particularly in online violence, friends and families of primary victims are also regularly targeted, multiplying these expenses. And online harassment joins other forms of violence against women in carrying the possibility of a huge loss of income, both in an immediate context and over a long-term: victims of online harassment may be fired, lose clients and projects and other paid work, and/or have Google search results comprised by harassing and abusive content, which threatens continued/future employment.

For these reasons, direct financial support to victims remains one of the most effective strategies, giving victims both the resources they need and presenting a vision of victim-centric justice: providing financial resources gives victims more autonomy to make their own decisions about what strategies to invoke in their own lives and situations. As stands, these desirable outcomes are only available to the most privileged victims, with existing access to financial privilege, while leaving infinitely more-targeted and more marginalized victims behind. Look to how white women victims of online harassment have been able to access significantly more community and financial support and even paid opportunities as anti-online harassment activists, speakers and organizers, while little or none of this support flows to the many women of color who are more frequently and disastrously targeted. Considering how many billions flow into a NPIC that fails to provide financial support as a basic mechanism, we must question its fundamental effectiveness, as well as the patriarchal paternalism inherent in systems which determine and gate-keep resources and strategies, rather than putting those resources and strategies to the self-determination of victims.

As the number of non-profits in the anti-online harassment movement grows in the coming years, we must question the already-emerging, exclusive focus on secondary resources like education, awareness, events and toolkits, while almost no direct financial support remains available to victims. Where these non-profits have or seek funding from the state and tech companies, we must ask how aligning our response to online harassment with institutions that are complicit in violence against women (and specifically, online harassment itself) perverts, de-radicalizes and subverts our movement. While it’s early, developing legislation designed to combat online harassment is already proposing the allocation of millions to beef up policing, the state and the creation/extension of the NPIC. The Prioritizing Online Threat Enforcement Act of 2015 would allocate $4,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2016 through 2020 to support the FBI and United States Attorney’s Office in investigating cybercrimes, including “cy­ber­stalk­ing, criminal harassment carried out over the Internet, or threats communicated over the Internet;” meanwhile, the Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act of 2016 would allocate $20,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2017 through 2021 for “grants to States and units of local government for the prevention, enforcement, and prosecution of cybercrimes against individuals, and for other purposes.” The Act also specifies the establishment of a “National Resource Center on Cybercrimes Against Individuals,” to be led by a “nonprofit private organization that focuses on cybercrimes;” this would be funded by allocations of $4,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2017 through 2021.

Yet, in this hundreds of millions already being recommended for allocation to online harassment, none would go to direct financial support of victims, instead flowing to cops, feds and non-profits. As an alternative structure, we must look to community-focused, victim-centric structures that are willing and able to provide anti-violence strategies untethered to harmful institutions, that are able to critique and combat those institutions, and that center victim autonomy and self-determination with the provision of direct financial support that isn’t intermediated by an expensive and ultimately ineffective bureaucracy that leaves victims behind.  

The NPIC invests uncritically in harmful awareness-based strategies

If most NPIC resources and efforts aren’t going to direct services and direct financial support of victims, where ARE they going? One of the primary outputs of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex with regard to violence against women is awareness-based strategies; most domestic violence organizations have “raising awareness” as part of their core tenants. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has it as one of its three strategic prongs: “increasing understanding of the impact of domestic violence.” No More aims to present “a unifying symbol and campaign to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault,” and an extensive list of PSA campaigns all focused on creating awareness around domestic violence. This continues across the gender violence NPIC.

In fact, much of the work done in violence against women defaults to or prioritizes the strategy of “raising awareness” as a solution. In the sphere of domestic violence, tens of millions of dollars are expended each year on commercial campaigns, video clips, public service announcements, billboard and signage, all aimed at “building awareness” of domestic violence. Often, these campaigns prominently feature painful, triggering and violent content; for example, graphic depictions of battered women (injuries are usually simulated through makeup or image editing software.) This year, global non-profit Equality Now partnered with a dating app to display “special profiles of bruised women who survived violence, alongside regular profiles of other users in the app” to highlight the stat that one in three women experiences physical or sexual abuse in their lives. Last year, the Salvation Army used photos of bruised and battered women in a similar campaign. This trend has extended to other sectors, such as the art and entertainment world: as part of a International Day for Elimination of Violence campaign in November 2015, an art project featured (without consent) images of Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Madonna, Angelina Jolie and other celebrities. In bleak photographs, extremely graphic images envisioned the stars as domestic assault victims, with bruises, scratches, bloodied faces, black eyes and busted lips; the year previously, another project depicted Disney princesses as assault victims in extremely graphic illustrations.

Such campaigns should be familiar to most of us; these are only some of hundreds of similar campaigns — many funded or affiliated with the NPIC, government, state and corporations — that have relied on triggering images, depictions of violence, re-creations of verbal abuse (silencing/derailing tactics), and other graphic visual, audio and text strategies. As Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear and Lucia Lorenzi have written on the limitations and hazards of awareness campaigns in their post critiquing the 2015 Lady Gaga PSA on campus rape: “For those who have not yet seen the video, it is essentially five+ minutes of graphic re-enactments of different sexual assault situations. We are failing to see what this type of ‘advocacy’ achieves other than shock and the remaking of violence as consumptive; a spectacle. Sexual assault becomes entertainment. It reminds us of domestic violence awareness posters that feature bloodied and bruised women to ‘make a point’. These scenes and images never have a point. Like other forms of media that are designed to ‘raise awareness’ (including popular shows such as Law and Order: SVU), there is a strong element of voyeurism about this, much like psychological horror film.”

In fact, the way anti-DV campaigns manipulate photos of women to make them appear battered, strongly resembles the way online terrorists themselves manipulate images of women to harass targets. This is documented by Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency in Image Based Harassment and Visual Misogyny: “Image based harassment includes everything from vulgar photo manipulation to creating pornographic or degrading drawings of rape and sexual assault with the target’s likeness.” As victims of online harassment themselves, the authors of this piece have also experienced photo manipulation and drawn imagery depicting them as injured, battered, hanged, murdered and in other graphically violent scenarios — images specifically designed to threaten, frighten and harm. The disconcerting similarity of awareness-raising strategies to the actual tactics of online harassment bears examination.

Even outside of these extremely graphic campaigns, thousands of personal stories of abuse, massive news coverage of visible abuse victims, etc. are some of the primary artifacts we see from the movement; the institutional focus on awareness, executed primarily through mainstream media, permeates the anti-gender violence space.

Similarly, we see a focus on awareness in the many nascent organizations, initiatives and collectives forming in the anti-online harassment movement. WMC Speech Project dedicates itself to “raising public and media awareness about online harassment;” the Hack Harassment initiative – launched by Intel in partnership with Vox Media – prominently features language about increasing community awareness. We’ve even seen professional PSAs emerge, with clear parallels: a recent video for the #MoreThanMean campaign featured men reading graphic, violent, cruel, threatening and explicit tweets that had been sent to women sports reporters. Meanwhile, the focus on awareness has resulted in literally thousands of articles on online harassment across mainstream and tech media; online harassment has been covered extensively in everything from the New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, the Associated Press, and Forbes, to more tech-specific outlets including TechCrunch and Re/Code. There have also been hundreds of talks and panels at professional conferences across tech and gaming on the topic over the last several years. These all generally focus, and often overwhelmingly, on sharing (often, graphically) personal stories of victims of online harassment as the primary vehicle.

In the way these form factors are institutionalized and contextualized in mainstream media, non-profits and corporate events, there’s a constant theme that consumption of violence — via consumption of awareness efforts — is itself part and parcel of remedying that violence. One has to wonder if the glut of institutional awareness campaigns in fact contribute to a holistic pattern of normalization of violence against women, an environment so drenched in violence against women that our response to violence is an infinite replication of that violence. After all, online harassment is HIGHLY VISIBLE on online platforms, just as violence against women is pervasively observable in literally every space. It is very evident on social feeds across platforms that harassment, misogyny and abuse of women is constant in digital space; yet, this evidence is somehow deemed “insufficient” to be legible. The process of removing that harassment and abuse from one setting, and framing it instead as “awareness” and “activism” or “art” — as mediated by mainstream media, non-profits and other institutions — purports to make plainly observable facts “visible”. This entire framework makes the suspect claim that merely relocating violence into a site of curated consumption, controlled by institutions, transforms it from violence to activism.

This should NOT be used to criticize survivors; survivors sharing stories performs necessary personal and community functions including catharsis, healing, obtaining support, building connections/community with other survivors, warning others in a particular space or community, and/or any other reason; all reasons and methods by which survivors speak out are 100% valid and should be supported. This SHOULD be used to critique and question the development and deployment of awareness campaigns and strategies as they intersect with the goals and outcomes of mainstream media, the NPIC, the criminal justice system and other institutions; as well as how these institutional campaigns reproduce and uphold harmful ideology, and are sometimes or often contextualized, framed, disseminated and/or consumed in problematic ways. As Shanley wrote in Women In Tech and the Awareness Problem:

“The reality is that social structures of inequity create a demand for, fetishification of, and mass consumption of suffering that does not lead to material changes in lived reality, but instead reinforces the violence itself. Just as we must ask ourselves if seeing thousands and thousands of graphic depictions of rape in mass media stops rape, we must similarly ask ourselves if viewing the dramatizations of horrifying abuse of women in tech [and online harassment victims in and out of tech] – in whatever medium – is actually reducing that abuse, or in fact simply satisfying the same violent impulse and demand for women’s pain. What truly are we as an industry getting from these stories, if consuming them is — empirically — not driving us to create actual change?”

Indeed, the structural messages sent by awareness campaigns across online harassment (and violence against women overall) often includes the underlying or explicit suggestion that if only people “knew” about violence, it would stop — even though this violence is visible in the environment and is typically made hypervisible by media coverage, to the point that it becomes hard to argue that there IS a lack of awareness at all (although a surplus of willful ignorance…) Occasionally, it suggests that perpetrators just don’t understand that their behavior is harmful, or how harmful it is — that if they saw victim’s pain, they would cease the behavior — even though the behavior has the specific intent to harm. It also assumes that simply telling our stories in ways that are mediated (and often monetized) by institutions, itself results in change. This is a questionable premise; specifically, in the case of domestic violence, where untold millions have been spent on institutional awareness campaigns, *reported* cases have dropped in the past decade, but trail overall drop in crime over the same period; further, these stats don’t reflect how criminalization (such as mandatory arrest laws) result in decreased reporting; what is often cited as a decrease in violence in reality points to an environment where, again, women simply aren’t safe going to the cops.

In fact, the uncritical belief that “all awareness is good; awareness is the silver bullet” actually obscures discussions around hypervisibility of violence, and consumption of violence and pain as a monetization strategy for entertainment and media sites. It also ignores how “awareness” strategies tend to focus on primarily white women victims while erasing the compound and intersectional violences faced by other groups. The emphasis on awareness additionally side-steps the often negative consequences of awareness-based campaigns on victims themselves. Specifically, the same media that is leveraged as the apparatus, framing mechanism, and monetary engine for awareness campaigns is itself harmful to victims, particularly in regards to ignoring consent and well-being of victims in order to “tell the story.” High-profile victims are often swept up into a profitable news cycle where they are mis-quoted, mis-represented, and find their stories, content, words and other artifacts used without consent. For example, in tech, angel investor Jason Calacanis put up $10,000 to obtain the security tape of a woman who was domestically assaulted by a tech CEO, without obtaining her consent. Recently, a journalist for Buzzfeed covered the story of a woman who, heroically, killed a serial killer in self-defense; follow-up statements from the story’s subject state that she had not consented to the story, and was exploited by the journalist.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media’s invasive, salacious coverage of domestic violence in the celebrity world, NFL and other high-profile industries often uses victims as tools in a media cycle. In September 2014, a full video of Ray Rice assaulting his wife (then girlfriend) in a hotel elevator spread across the internet. This was following a partial release of footage earlier in the year which resulted in the NFL having Janay apologize. TMZ had leaked the footage without Janay’s knowledge, and after the full video was released, she told Jemele Hill in an interview: “When he got off the phone, he told me the whole video had been released. I just went into a shell. I started crying. We knew it was going to be another media storm. We didn’t know what to do.”

The justification for this epidemic of media violence against victims of gender violence is, of course, is that it’s important for the public to be “aware” of what is happening. The focus is on getting the story out at all costs — but not on protecting the victim, allowing them to seek justice or healing, or attacking larger systems of violence. Stories are often covered in ways that are victim-blaming, centered on the abuser/perpetrator, and have questionable motivations when editors, reporters and platforms see violence against women as an opportunity for page views, rather than a strategic response aimed at alleviating systemic and individual violence.

Despite the murky goals, problematic patterns and uncertain outcomes of institutionalized awareness as a strategy, we find it is cemented through the formal non-profit structures that grow to address gender violence. In the online harassment movement as it currently stands, raising awareness is the major, almost sole focus and tangible product. Further, these efforts almost always receive more funding, support, priority and attention than alternatives, including direct services, direct financial support to victims, or holding social platforms accountable for the lack of tools and response. (In fact, non-profits often act TOGETHER with tech companies on superficial, PR stunt “coalitions” while nothing on those platforms actually changes – see Twitter’s Trust and Safety board).  

Awareness is absolutely part of the equation in solving online harassment; unfortunately, as in the domestic violence and rape movements, awareness-based strategies as implemented by the NPIC, mainstream media and other institutions have been problematic as best, violent at worst. We must use the opportunity of the developing anti-online harassment movement to interrogate and critique these strategies, and ultimately, to mobilize in a different direction.

Moving Beyond the NPIC

The NPIC has joined policing as a primary beneficiary of the gender violence movement, able to amass huge amounts of funding, power and influence, primarily bestowed — and thus controlled — by the carceral state. While these resources have in many cases resulted in help, support and safety for many women, we can’t afford to ignore the ways the NPIC has resulted in harm, the places where it has failed victims, its impact on the development of community and grassroots-based organization, and structural problems in its central strategies. Particularly as pending legislation promises to provide significant funding to the growth of non-profits in the online harassment space, these are vital and urgent conversations.


This article has aimed to present a framework for understanding how and why movements against gender violence backfire. As we develop our response to online harassment, it’s important for us to look at the results of these strategies in the domestic violence, sexual assault and anti-rape movements, and learn the lessons they offer. As difficult, painful and unsettling as it can be to engage in this thought-process, we call sincerely on advocates in the online harassment space to move beyond defensiveness, and towards the recognition of opportunity.

As stands, the anti-online harassment movement seems destined to follow in the path of VAWA; we should take this moment to carve out new approaches. We must re-shift our focus to recognize violence against women as a result of the oppressive institutions we’re told to rely on, instead of turning to them for help…and in turn, increasing their power. If we could arrest our way out of interpersonal violence we would have already done it. If we could use police and the legal system to deter people from engaging in this violence, that would have already happened. In the development of the anti-online harassment movement, we have a golden opportunity to not continue down a failed path, and instead truly reorganize what safety and justice look like.

Specifically, we should look to establish and maintain grassroots movements; support and fund individual activists; focus on direct financial support of victims to provide immediate and long-term relief of violence; center activism that critiques and disrupts institutions (non-profits, the carceral state and tech corporations, etc.); and divest from state and corporate funding and the inextricable ethical conflicts that accompany it.

Here, we have the opportunity to develop and practice new models of anti-violence organization; the result of learning from past movements in this instance should be the development of alternatives, rather than the re-creation of failures.