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When Were You Sexually Harassed for the First Time? Brazilian Women React to Online Violence

Imagén: Victor Teixeira/Facebook

Image by Victor Teixeira/Facebook. Used with permission.

On average, a woman in Brazil has her first experience of sexual harassment at the age of nine. This startling finding came out of the work of a group of communicators called ThinkOlga, who gathered over 80,000 mini-stories on this topic using Twitter.

It all started with MasterChef Junior, a version of the popular reality/cooking show in the West but featuring contestants between the ages of nine and 13. With up-and-coming super-cooks competing with their recipes live on TV, a captivated audience turned to creative memes to interact with the show. While some were encouraging, other comments mocked the contestants. In a media ecosystem where violence, sexism, and pedophilia all has a place, MasterChef Junior spawned consequences its producers could hardly have foreseen.

Valentina, 12, one of the contestants, emerged as a particularly skilled chef and a favourite of viewers. But she also had to endure  stream of sexist and pedophilic comments while on the show. “She has straight, blond hair and blue eyes. If I had consent, would I be a pedophile?” read one Twitter comment. “That Valentina will become one of those secretaries in porn movies by age 14,” read another.

Social networks are increasingly acting as a sounding board for hate speech. This alarming phenomenon, however, is being countered by creative, irreverent, and organized women's groups also active online.

Spurred on by the stream of misogynistic commentary related to MasterChef junior, a network of female bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users gathered around the ThinkOlga communication collective to organize under the hashtag #PrimerAsedio (first harassment).

One of ThinkOlga's authors, Juliana, shared her experience on the website:

We created the #primeiroassedio hashtag on Twitter. There, I, Juliana, shared my first experience with harassment at age 11 and other cases that occurred repeatedly during my childhood, preadolescence, and adolescence.

We invited our readers to do the same. It is not a simple, painless, or easy mission. Empowering yourself from your own story is important, so that the victim is recognized as a victim. It is not victimhood. It is the first and most important step towards change.

More than 82,000 responses (both tweets and retweets) emerged on Twitter on October 25. The activists discussed a fraction of the 3,111 stories shared on Twitter and found that on average, a poster's first experience of harassment occurred at 9.7 years old.

Below is a small sample:

At the age of 15, my history professor followed me in his car and “invited” me to get inside. After ignoring him, I failed the class.

@moharamv: The first time I was harassed, I was 7. My great-uncle decided to slide his hand inside my blouse. For a long time, I thought that was how elderly people said good bye.

@amandassfair 9 years old. A man tried to forcefully grab me in front of my cousin's old house. To this day, I don't walk down the street where it happened.

While the stories emerged and were shared on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, trolls also made their appearance once again. They justified a woman being raped because of how she looked, used women's appearances to attack them (“fat”, “ugly”, “dressed like a whore”), and dismissed the testimonies as lies.

Beyond the attacks, Louise Bello of ThinkOlga spoke about the counter-discourse that they managed to spread:

Fue increíble, poderoso e inspirador observar la fuerza que tenemos, juntas, de denunciar esse tipo de violencia y como eso da el coraje de simplemente compartir nuestras historias. Nuestra intención es solamente empoderar a las mujeres. Son ellas las que merecen atención, espacio y voz en todo ese movimiento. La campaña sufrió ataques, si, como era de esperar cuando mujeres denuncian machismo en internet. Pero eso no nos desenfocó ni disminuyó la fuerza de la campaña.

It was incredible, powerful, and inspiring to see the strength that we have, together, to denounce this type of violence and how this gives us the courage to simply share our stories. Our intention is solely to empower women. It is they who deserve attention, space, and a voice in this entire movement. The campaign suffered attacks, yes, which was to be expected when women denounce machismo on the Internet. But this did not remove the focus nor diminish the campaign's strength.

Online violence is also real violence

Analysing patterns of Internet use in combination with the content produced by more traditional mediums such as TV and radio, can help users reflect on the nature of violence both on virtual platforms and in the streets.

Social networks in particular have unleashed many unfriendly voices. More than ever before, it is time to think about how online attacks and aggression cause real damage.

In Brazil, the punishment for rape is outlined in Article 213 of the Brazilian Penal Code. As Article 241-D of the Statute of the Child and Adolescent states, attracting, harassing, instigating, or constraining children, by any means of communication, with the goal of practicing a lewd act with them, results in an imprisonment of one to three years and a fine.

While several of the attackers deleted their Twitter accounts, screenshots with the messages went viral and stand as evidence.

According to the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, also known as the “Marco Civil da Internet”, intermediaries are not responsible or required to have prior knowledge of what users publish. But if and when they have been notified of some kind of abuse, they must remove that content, or else share responsibility for the damage it incurs.

If Twitter were notified of abuse by the Public Prosecutor, it would be required to disclose the identity information of the perpetrator. In Brazil, this would then go on public record.

“With this information, parents can also open a civil lawsuit against them for damages and losses,” Ricardo de Moraes Cabezon, a specialist in child and adolescent law, told the news website Uol.

The campaign has helped to elevate conversations about online violence as being directly linked with aggression in physical spaces. This is essential to tracking the consequences of online violence against women and other vulnerable groups like LGBTIQ collectives, minors, and people with disabilities.

On new media outlets, name-calling and other forms of cruelty can be amplified to an unbearable degree for the victims on the receiving end of such abuses. If we can commit to using these online spaces ethically and respectfully, we will have an opportunity to create less violent, more tolerant communities in the end.

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