VAW & ICTs: Harmful representations of women in ICTs

  on January 21, 2014

This is summary of the discussion from the VAW (violence against women)& ICT (information communications technologies) mailing listfor the first week. The theme for Week 1 (23 May - 29 May 2005) was:“Harmful representations of women in ICTs, censorship and internetgovernance.” Most of the discussion was focused more on howrepresentation and dissemination of images through new ICTs couldconstitute as a dimension of VAW.

1) Images, Internet, VAW & Trafficking

Do new technologies like the internet create a newdimension to VAW, particularly in relation to representation or images?For example, where technologies like webcams and DVDs are used todisseminate and market exploitative images of women, especially inmale-orientated pornography, does that mean that the definition oftrafficking has shifted from trafficking in persons to trafficking inimages?

New ICTs are merely a tool, but a powerful one:

  • ICTs gives additional tools to perpetator of VAW as well asactivists working against VAW. It is unique because of its relativecheapness and ease of use, and of its ability to bypass local laws andsometimes international conventions. The use of these tools inevitablyreflects and has the potency to reinforce existing power relations. Assuch they can replicate VAW in more convenient forms.
  • Consolidation of media ownership can effectively reinforce genderrelations since they are guided by principles of marketability.Repetition of ‘appropriate’ gender performance depends highly oncommunications technologies to solidify as reality, and as such, theseconsolidations have great power to reinforce gender relations throughparticular imageries.
  • New ICTs cannot create new dimensions to VAW because those who areviolent by nature will not be satisfied by mere spectatorship ofimages.
  • Since it is less accessible generally indeveloping/under-developed, it has not been a widely used tool forperpetrators of VAW (easier to hang around schools and community watertaps).

New ICTs are not just a tool, but have the potency to create new dimensions to VAW:

  • New technologies by creating a diversification of tools toperpetrate sexual violence also have the potency to transform certainacts into a form of VAW although it was not initially so. This isthrough its changing the context in which images was intended, and inthe process, creating harm to the persons involved.
  • In reality, women have little control of the images taken of her,even though she could be a consenting party to the contract. In theprocess of gaining control, she may have to bear further attacks on hersexuality, rights and personhood.
  • Easy access to images could create a sense of impunity on the partof the audience, that could be a close approximation to effecting VAWin itself
  • VAW will acquire new dimensions in terms of information or data initself. For example, ICTs are used to establish internationalpornography networks and have greater, safer and easier distributionchannels

Shift from trafficking in persons to images? Some material differences:

- Overall, there is consensus that there is NO shift (in terms ofreplacement or reduction) from trafficking in persons to images.However, there is a noticable dimension to trafficking of images invarious forms as facilitated by new ICTs that impacts upon traffickingin persons.

- The intended audience and market for pornographyand various forms of sexually exploitative images of women through newICTs are materially different from that of trafficking in persons.

- Dissemination and proliferation of sexually exploitative imagesthrough new ICTs means a widening of the sex industry since it canreach a greater number of potential consumers at lesser personal ‘cost’(cheaper than engaging sex workers and less danger to ‘socialreputation’)

- Trafficking in women and children for sexualpurposes or forced labour has been facilitated through networking onthe internet.

- Pornography through the internet has a higherchance of consent from the women or parents of the children involved asopposed to trafficking which is completely based on force and coercion.The former could mean greater income to the persons involved withoutactually transacting their body for the greater amount of penetration

- Sexualised images through new ICTs can promote trafficking in personssince it disseminates the discourse of passive and exploitable (?)female sexual agency and increases the demand for women’s sexualservices.

- Virtual sex can avoid national legislations, and is something that requires serious consideration.

- In many cases, the women are criminalised along with pimps andoperators of web-cam pornography. This creates a disparity in impactsince the operators usually have resources to bail themselves out andrelocate elesewhere.

2) Forming relationships through new ICTs

The issue of mail order brides, where men can surfthe internet for prospective wives, especially when it is generally ina North-South paradigm, is this a new form of VAW that we should beconcerned about, or is it simply an existing practice that is takingadvantage of newer technologies? What about cyber dating and cyber sex?Is there something that women’s rights activists should be concernedabout? E.g. when adult men/women pose as youths to engage young peoplein sexual relations?

The economic position of the persons involved is a very material factor in this issue.

Relationships formed are not harmful in itself, but has a potential to cause harm:

- Mail-order-brides (men in the economic ‘North’seeking wives in the economic ‘South’) are existing practices. However,new ICTs help to facilitate this practice through its ease and breathin dissemination.

- Many women explore mail-order-bride websites because it offers them away out of poverty. The question is, how to transform the context toprotect the rights of women who engage in this practice.

- Cyber sex might be a form of safer practice as compared to physicalsexual relations. However, this is limited to the extent of whererelationships formed through this space reflects and augments powerrelations in the ‘external’ world.

- When relationships formed through new ICTs aretransposed or furthered outside of chatrooms, especially for women whoare not based in urban centres, there would be difficulty in gettingsupport once violence arises.

- There may be deceit involved in forming these relationships since the internet affords anonymity to an extent

Relationships formed through the internet have a unique dimension of its own:

- What are the visions of relationship that they promote?

- Although relationships formed through this space is quite ‘safe’, italienates human feelings. There is an uncertainty of who is on theother side, and can create unrealistic expectations (since therelationships formed are primarily through text alone)

- However, cyber space also affords participantsto speak freely with less self-censorship, and arguably could presentan avenue for greater exploration of the self and other.

- The practice of cyber-dating should be examinedas an offshoot of colonial relationships. For example, through codes ofdesire or mechanisms of representation through the relationship ofpost-coloniality (who is considered desirable and what stereotypedimages or discourse do they depend on that relates to a previouscolonial relationship – whether actual or through popular culture)

3) Development of Technology and Gender Relations

Is there a relationship between the dominantcontrol of technological developments in the hands of men, and the useof technology for perpetrating VAW? For example, the development ofvideo technology was heavily influenced by the pornographic industry.Is there a similar thing happening with spy software, digital trackingdevices and webcams?

- Overall, there is consensus that there is arelationship between the development of technology in terms of content,use, and development, with the needs, abilities, preferences and valuesof the powerful.

- In general, ICTs is a male dominated industry, as decision makers in the production process and as consumers.

- As long as this is the case, and men aresocialised for violence, then there will be a very close relationshipbetween ICTs and VAW.

- However, it is important to take into accountthe whole production process of ICTs (not just its usage) in analysis.This includes women’s role as producers in the factories and softwaredevelopment etc.

- It is also important to recognise women’s potential and existingpractices in appropriating technologies to make them work for ourcauses.

Looking forward to your comments, responses and insights.


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January 21, 2014
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