23 Feb 2018 Violence against women in media and digital content
Photo: Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash
Defined by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”, violence against women (VAW) constitutes the main obstacle for women’s human rights.
Based on the theoretical framework of feminism, nowadays legal definitions on VAW have adopted a holistic perspective which recognizes both types – physical, sexual, psychological, economic and femicide – and modalities – institutional, community, work, school – of violence against women and girls.
Most recently, the Sustainable Development Goal 5 Target 5.2 calls to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
The CEDAW recognizes the centrality of media to the elimination of VAW. Actions promoted by the Commission include member States to adopt mechanisms to eliminate sexist stereotypes in media and advertising, to encourage media to establish codes of production and to stimulate a public debate on this issue.
The Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), called in 1995 explicitly on governments to “take effective measures, including appropriate legislation against pornography and the project of violence against women and children in the media” (UN, 1995, p.102). The BPfA recommended media industries to establish guidelines to address violent, degrading or pornographic materials concerning women, including advertising and to disseminate information aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against women.
However, instead of decreasing, sexism and misogyny in media have increased dramatically during recent decades. The original issues around the responsibility of media to end violence against women are still at the core of international debates. In addition, the new media environment has exacerbated some existing problems and raises new challenges that need to be addressed –such as sex trafficking and pornography.
Reviewing feminist research during the last 50 years, the prevalence of violence against women in media contents becomes evident. The complexity of theoretical and methodological frameworks has increased to the extent that types and modalities of representing VAW have changed.
First studies focused on the representation of sexual violence to demonstrate how through the commodification of women’s bodies, media content contributed to the normalisation of sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence, and how they reinforced gender inequalities. These studies were identified by their interdisciplinary nature. Influenced by psychoanalysis, Laura’s Mulvey male gaze and sexual objectification categories evidenced the patriarchal order existing in film industry and how these discriminated women in society. Guided by the questions How do media portray women? and How do these portrayals limit women lives?, sociologist Gaye Tuchman called attention to the symbolic annihilation of women in media discourse, through omission, trivialisation and condemnation.
The next phase was linked to social intervention. Content analysis served to produce quantitative statistical data about gender portrayals. These data supported campaigns against stereotyped representations in both media content and advertising which evidenced the presence of different forms and modalities of VAM in content – i.e. domestic violence.
Current research promotes holistic analysis in order to look at different forms and modalities of gender-based violence in media discourse (Vega Montiel, 2014).
Findings have demonstrated how media content reproduces sexist stereotypes that associate male identity to violence, domination, independence, aggression and power, while women are linked to emotions, vulnerability, dependency and sensitivity (Elasmar, Hasegawa and Brain, 1999; McGhee and Frueh, 1980; Thompson and Zerbinos, 1995).
In particular, news reports of violence against women tend to represent women as victims and as responsible for the violence of which they are victims. Usually, aggressors are not part of news reports. VAW is not shown as a structural problem which is the consequence of inequality between women and men in society, but as a mere individual experience which uses to happen in domestic spaces (Diez, 2002; Vega Montiel, 2007).
With the development of ICT, cyber-VAWG is emerging as a global problem. Almost three quarters of women have been exposed to some form of violence online. Types of cyber-violence include: hacking, surveillance, harassment, death threat, recruitment and malicious distribution (Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 2015).
Violence online and offline “feed into each other. Abuse may be confined to networked technologies or may be supplemented by offline harassment including vandalism, phone calls and physical assault. Similarly, the viral character of distribution is now explosive. What was once a private affair can now be instantly broadcast to billions of people across the digital world” (Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 2015: 7).
In countries such as Mexico, cyberviolence has been at the core of public debates in recent years. In 2016, at least ten young women denounced through social networks that they had been harassed by men in public spaces. These women publicised the aggressors and, in response, they became victims of both sexual violence and death threats from Facebook and Twitter users. A very powerful response came from young women in the country. Through the hashtagh #MyFirstHarassment (#MiPrimerAcoso, in Spanish), 100,000 women told of their experiences as victims of sexual violence.
A similar movement emerged in October 2017, in USA. The hashtag #MeToo was used to denounce the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as a sexual aggressor. The hashtag was promptly popularized worldwide for millions of women to publicize personal experiences of sexual harassment or assault.
Online and social media have become new and powerful vehicles for misogynistic threats and harassment which can result in the silencing of women. While fewer women than men access the Internet today – there are currently 200 million fewer women online than men – new sexist media and new sexist discourses can exacerbate violence against women and girls.
Another dimension of the sexist nature of online discourse is the widespread circulation of pornography. Some statistics suggest that there are more than 4 million websites that offer pornography – 12% of the total number of websites in the world – 100,000 of which offer child pornography. The online pornography industry has a turnover of 97.06 billion dollars per year, more than Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix and Apple combined (Feminist Peace Network, 2006).
Linked to pornography is the sex trafficking of women, girls and boys that has been enhanced by new media. Sex trafficking used to happen mainly in countries which there is a lack of Internet regulation and policy, particularly in countries where there is a high percentage of poor women.
What can we conclude about violence against women offline and online? That the initial feminist research questions – originating in the 1960s – are still at the core of theory and research on media content. “This still revolves around the most basic questions of power, values, access and exclusion” (Gallager, 2002: 5).
In addition, the new media environment has exacerbated some existing problems and puts new challenges that need to be addressed:
“Media sexism and male-dominated power structures are continually shifting and finding new forms of representation and practice… [then] our critique can be never be static or one-dimensional, but we must act collectively… Across disciplines and sectors and across countries and regions” (Gallagher, 2015).
In view of the evidence, we further call on the UN and the international community to bring into global focus the responsibility of media and ICT industries in eliminating violence against women and girls. This is crucial to promoting discussion and to enhancing public visibility and awareness.
Key recommended actions include:
- To commission and produce global comparative reports on VAW in traditional and digital media contents, with a cross-national and cross-regional perspective, emphasising advances and challenges. These reports must include the analysis of the dimensions involved in this problem: existing legislation, policy and regulation, self-regulation and co-regulation forms, content of media and ICT, media and information literacy programs.
- To call on member States to introduce or strengthen regulation and policy aimed at preventing the spread of gender-based violence through the media and ICT.
- To encourage media and ICT organisations to: adopt gender mainstreaming mechanisms for monitoring, evaluation and action; adhere to national and international legislation to end VAW; improve gender mainstreaming training programs for content producers.
- To encourage media unions and journalists groups to adopt basic principles for the production of news on VAW free of sexist stereotypes.
- To promote the exchange of best practices to end VAW in media and online contents and link with the research community.
Broadband Commission for Digital Development (2015) Cyber-Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-wide Wake-up Call [online] Available at: http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/images/wsis/GenderReport2015FINAL.pdf [Accessed 2 May 2017]
Díez, P. (2002) Representación de género en los informativos de radio y television. Madrid: Instituto de la Mujer.
Elasmar, M., Hasegawa, K. and Brain, M. (1999) The portrayal of women in U.S. prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 44(1), pp.20-34.
Feminist Peace Network (2006), Pornography Revenue Statistics [online] Available at: <http://www.feministpeacenetwork.org/2010/10/20/pornography-the-obscene-statistics/> [Accessed 13 April 2011].
Gallagher, M. (2015), Gender, Media, ICTs and Journalism: 20 Years After the BPfA Forum [online] Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/1_2_keynote_lecture_margaret_gallagher.pdf [Accessed 12 May 2016]
(2002), Women, Media And Democratic Society: In Pursuit Of Rights And Freedoms [online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.535.4478&rep=rep1&type=pdf [Accessed 12 May 2016].
McGhee, P. and Frueh, T. (1980) Television viewing and the learning of sex-role stereotypes. Sex Roles, 6(2), pp.179-188.
Meyers, M. (1997) News coverage of violence against women. London: Sage Publications.
United Nations (1995) Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action [pdf] Beijing, China: United Nations. Available at: <http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf> [Accessed 2 October 2005].
Thompson, T. and Zerbinos, E. (1995) Gender roles in animated cartoons: Has the picture changed in 20 years?. Sex Roles, 32(9/10), pp.651-673.
Vega Montiel, A. (2014) “Violence against women and media: advancements and challenges of a research and political agenda”, in Vega Montiel, A. Gender and Media: A Scholarly Agenda for the Global Alliance on Media and Gender. Paris: UNESCO / IAMCR. pp. 17-21.
Aimée Vega Montiel. Researcher and Chair of the Feminist Research Program of the National Autonomous University of México – Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities. Interim Chair of the GAMAG. Vice-President of the IAMCR and Chair of its Task Force for Gamag. Co-Chair of the UNESCO Unitwin University Network on Gender Media and ICT.