Virtual Sexual Violence Is Everywhere, From Chat Rooms To Webinars
There is little conversation around violence against women and other marginalised groups on the internet
This story was supported by the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation
BANGALORE: As a pre-teen, Shivani*, a non-binary person, spent a lot of time on Gaia Online, an anime-themed virtual hangout space that gained popularity in 2008-10. All members of the platform, known as Gaians, had personal avatars that could be part of various virtual forums and interact with other Gaians while remaining completely anonymous.
Shivani often hung around in a virtual parking lot that the platform offered. In it, avatars could have customised cars and drive them around. They enjoyed conversations with other people, played racing games, and made new friends. One day, a male avatar began following them around. To begin with it seemed like a random, weird incident, but soon he began doing this to others in this space as well – persistently following people, randomly interrupting conversations, making explicit remarks, and even sharing sexual content without any warning.
In October last year, I spoke to Shivani, now in their mid-20s and a trained game-designer. Their voice was both uneasy and angry as they narrated this experience. In retrospect, they are deeply bothered by how unregulated the space was: tons of sexual content was shared, generally without consent. No one really knew how old any of the avatars were – a man well into his 30s could be speaking to pre-teens and minors. You got information about the other person only if it was shared with you. And since all of this sharing happened through conversations in a chat box, there was no way to verify any information about the other person.
What was it like to deal with virtual stalking as a 12-year-old? “A random person is just following you around in a space — it doesn’t matter if it’s virtual or real, you do feel uncomfortable,” Shivani said. Too young to understand the predatory nature of the conversations, they felt just a recurring sense of discomfort. Eventually Shivani left the platform.
While virtual stalking is disturbing, it does not fit into society’s conventional understanding of violence or even harassment. Shivani feels that people tend to disregard emotional trauma with lines like “Oh, but nothing actually happened to you”.
A few years later, when they were 15, they decided to break off a sexual relationship because it was not working out. In response, the boy sent a string of unsolicited phallic images. It was horrible, and they felt deeply violated. There was an added layer of distress with this incident – he was a known person.
In the 2011 book, Why Loiter, authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade argue that public spaces belong to everyone, and access to them should not come with any barriers. The internet too is a virtual public space, and the same questions – of freedom and equal access – should be asked of it.
The women and queer persons I interviewed were all in their 20s. The internet continues to be an integral part of their lives – it is where they date, work, make friends, seek pleasure, and express themselves. They grew up surrounded by Reddit threads, dating apps and chat-rooms. While their stories become cautionary tales of the digital space, as witnesses of the space’s evolution, they are also its biggest defenders. After being subjected to violence, most of them became slightly cautious of what they shared online, or decided to leave specific platforms — but leaving the internet was out of the question. They all choose to continue occupying space on the web, fully aware of its pitfalls.
Towards the end of March 2020, when India entered the first lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday social interactions increasingly shifted online. Young people were already spending considerable amounts of time hanging out on social media — in discord rooms, Zoom calls, and chat boxes — and the pandemic heightened this tendency. During both the lockdowns, many women and queer youth found themselves stuck at home with families they could not communicate with. Digital gatherings were spaces where they accessed emotional support.
It was around this time that Pahel* made a new friend online. Conversations with him were initially harmless, but they abruptly turned into unwanted sexual advances. Pahel doesn’t remember how exactly this switch happened, only that this person would bring up their sexual preferences and kinks, making her instantly uncomfortable. “I didn’t want to be subjected to someone else’s fantasies,” Pahel told me. “But I didn’t know how to say no.” Changing the topic of discussion did not help, the friend would invariably bring sex back into the conversation.
On one occasion, he casually steered the conversation towards sexting and Pahel’s inbox had unsolicited naked pictures from him. This went on for weeks though Pahel forbade him from contacting her. It finally ended with her blocking the person on all platforms including email and call.
When we sat down to speak last year, Pahel was close to the end of a law degree. Throughout the conversation, she remained composed and self-assured, it was evident that she was aware of her rights, and that she should not have been put through this experience at all. Considering Pahel was a law student; I wanted to know whether she considered legal action. Her response was direct and telling. “I have studied enough law to know that it wasn’t going to play out in my favour. Even though I did not consent to it, I did participate. So, because I sent him messages as well, on the face of it, it would look consensual,” Pahel said.
Months later, Pahel had an upcoming job interview and noticed that one of the interviewers had the same name as the “friend” and the thought of running into him was petrifying. “A huge part of me was freaking out — I knew it was irrational and I was overthinking. But I was so distressed that even the mention of his name puts me off,” she said.
While the Zoom interview was a false alarm, Pahel has run into her friend-turned abuser more than once. She left the dating app Hinge when she came across his profile, only to spot him on Bumble, another dating app. She decided to block and report him on Bumble, but stayed on the app.
“How many places was I going to leave?”
A study conducted by the website Feminism in India reports that 36% of respondents who experienced online harassment did not take any official action. The study also observes that while online violence is a serious, deeply upsetting issue for survivors, they lack the support or resources to respond effectively to it. Most people are likely to block abusers instead of reporting them – legally or to the platform. A deeper problem is the limiting cultural narrative around sexual violence, which is focussed on the physical.
The media gaze on the violence that cis-gender women experience at the hands of men is often fetishised. Consider the reporting on the gruesome killing of Shradha Wadkar by her live-in partner. She was attacked for using a dating app and then for choosing a partner from a different religion, unleashing a stream of Islamophobic content. We watched as cameras zoomed in on fake skulls, and reporters went hunting for body parts in Delhi’s Chattarpur forest.
In this kind of narrative-building focused on physical brutalities, there seems to be no room to account for digital violence. Reporting on digital violence is usually about verbal abuse and trolling. We rarely speak about the new concerns and questions that have surfaced in women’s lives owing to digital technology.
In his essay, A Rape in Cyberspace, tech journalist Julian Dibbell talks about an aggressive rape inside a multi-player virtual reality room. The incident was deeply scarring for the survivors, and those forced to witness it. Echoing Shivani’s experience, a woman revealed that she left a VR video game after being groped by another avatar. Virtual stalking, virtual sexual assault, unsolicited pictures, non-consensual sexting – these are all widespread issues that women and queer youth tussle with on a regular basis.
Their experiences raise questions about how we perceive violence in the context of a disembodied self. Can we really dismiss assault and harassment, or the trauma it causes, just because the incident took place in a virtual space?
Beyond The Internet
Sanjana*, 24, a lifestyle journalist based in Mumbai, was taken aback when she began receiving endless calls and messages from random men. They would call – sometimes in the middle of the night – make lewd remarks, ask her to share photographs of herself, and pester her to video call. Sanjana had no clue why or how this was happening.
In a moment of frustration, she asked one of the callers where he got the number from. He gave in and sent her the link to an Instagram page. It was a foreign page – an erotic tattoo studio of sorts based in the Dominican Republic whose bio had her number. It was a genuine mistake, she says. With a Dominican Republic code, the number would lead you to someone else. But with an Indian country code, the number was hers.
Sanjana filed an online complaint with the cybercrime cell, but got no response. “All they sent was one email saying that the complaint was registered. Nothing else, I don’t even know what happened to the complaint,” she says. The calls continued. We were speaking a couple of months after the harassment began. The number of calls had tapered off, but even then she would still get a few explicit messages and phone calls.
When she angrily asked one of the callers what he wanted, he said: “Nahin, kaam toh kuchh nahin hai par ab call kar hi liya hai toh baat kar lijiye na (I don’t need anything from you but since I called you let us talk anyway)”. She cut the line, only to find that he had sent her a message on WhatsApp too. After a point, her response became autopilot. “I told him this conversation is being monitored by the cybercrime cell. That’s just what I do now,” she says.
Sanjana does not actually know if the cybercrime cell is monitoring any of the harassment, she has not received any communication from it.
Harassment via persistent calling is not a one-off instance. While we tend to focus on social media violence in urban pockets, the internet is not the only catalyst for digital violence.
In 2015, Kavita, a journalist working in the women-run newsroom of Khabar Lahariya went on record to speak about a man who would persistently call her and her team of journalists. He called from different numbers, played porn clips on call, whispered sexually charged comments, made rape threats and traumatised the entire team.
A year later, Al Jazeera uncovered how in certain parts of Uttar Pradesh, local shops were selling what are called ‘WhatsApp sex videos’ or ‘local films’, euphemisms for videos of young women and girls being raped. Sold for anywhere between 2-20 rupees, the perpetrators film these videos to use as blackmail. The women’s faces are visible, their assault is filmed and circulated, men in their neighbourhoods buy these tapes, and consume them like pornography. For these women, technology becomes a medium through which the violence and trauma they have been subject to is sustained and kept alive.
In college, Payal* had a tough time choosing between journalism and advertising. They were keen on journalism, but as a young queer person, found themselves at odds with “neutral” reporting – an idea their college vehemently preached. But their college experience and subsequent internships were so demotivating they gave up on the idea of working at an ad agency. Amidst all this chaos, to their pleasant surprise, they landed a job at a social enterprise centred on menstrual health.
It was a job Payal deeply aligned with and took pride in — managing projects and operations, and conducting training and awareness workshops and leading campaigns. In a way, this deep involvement in feminist and queer spaces is also why the digital violence they experienced came as a complete shock.
Payal had been asked to attend a webinar conducted by another feminist group. There were about 200 people on the Zoom call; the invitation had been shared with menstrual educators across the country via Signal and WhatsApp groups. Suddenly, in the midst of the presentation, a couple of “participants” – with bot-like gibberish usernames – shared their screen without prior warning and began playing clips from porn websites. The access to share screen was open to all – an oversight the predators were exploiting. This lasted a few minutes, but it left participants shocked and confused.
A while later, the interruption began again. This time, it was phallic images on the screen and audio porn. “I don’t know if the harassers screenshotted the presentation to give us the illusion that it was all fine for a while,” Payal recalls, “[…] It was very destabilising, and unexpected. Because this was a space about something that is so gender oriented, something that you would associate with people who are genuinely interested in understanding this phenomenon [menstruation].”
The organising team froze; and the webinar had to be shut down. Payal had a long panic attack after the call. Colleagues were supportive, allowing them time off and support. But the shock was long lasting. “We know that DM’s are unsafe, spam accounts and emails are unsafe,” they say. “But a ghost account in a Zoom webinar at 2 PM in the afternoon is not exactly the first idea you would have for a place where harassment occurs.”
The pandemic turned a number of workspaces virtual. Even today, work routines regularly involve the use of many digital tools. While the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) law’s definition of a ‘workplace’ is broad and allows for the inclusion of virtual workspaces, lawyer Masooma Ranalvi writes that companies still have a lot of work to do: they must take up the task of redrafting their policies and clearly defining what a ‘hostile working environment’ means in the context of a virtual workspace.
Blurring of Spaces
There is a broad view that suggests it is easier to disengage from digital violence by closing the tab, being cautious about what is shared, or simply leaving platforms. But this argument does not understand how deeply intertwined the internet is in young people’s lives. A large number of young people find themselves in jobs that require them to be on the internet. Social media is a swiftly growing, lucrative career option, companies often post hiring calls online, young freelancers find new gigs by sharing their work on online platforms. Not being online can lead to significant professional setbacks.
Moreover, Payal’s experience also reveals how online and offline are interconnected. Digital spaces are as ‘real’ as physical spaces, and they hold crucial pieces of our lives within their algorithms. To a great extent, they also mirror the hierarchies and oppression that exists in the real world. The now widely-reported story of Qandeel Baloch’s honour killing is testament to this.
A young Pakistani woman who rose to fame on the internet, she was strangled by her own brother in 2017 for bringing “dishonour” to the family. Even when she was alive, Qandeel was viciously attacked online for being brazen, the comments section of her videos filled with men discussing how she deserved to die, or be raped. The western media crowned her as ‘Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian’ but in a documentary by The Guardian, journalist Madiha Tahir challenges this comparison by pointing to Qandeel’s identity as a working-class woman.
In the Indian context specifically, the response to rising anti-caste activism online has met with aggressive counters from the privileged classes. Savitha Suresh, a scholar who has worked around Dalit women’s struggles in higher education, spoke about how systems such as reservations and scholarships to empower marginalised youth are stigmatised and become a reason for abuse.
This sentiment is clearly reflected in digital spaces. A report by Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) notes that Dalits attract abuse for merely existing on the internet. And in addition to abuse, Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi individuals are often subjected to hate speech for availing reservations – a constitutionally mandated right. The CIS report also observes that most of the big social media platforms lack the cultural context to be able to regulate caste-based hate speech.
The violence women from marginalised communities face is visceral, and targeted towards their caste identity, community, skin-colour and profession. In 2021, more than eighty Muslim women found their photographs up for “auction” and “sale” on an app hosted by GitHub called Sulli Deals. Sulli is a derogatory term used for Muslim women by the Hindu right-wing. It took public outrage for GitHub to recognise how violent this app was and take it down.
We are constantly told that the algorithms are designed for neutral users, but the lived experiences of people say otherwise. Consistent diversity reports from Silicon Valley tell us that some of the biggest companies are still largely white and male. It is not surprising then that women, queer people, and marginalised groups find themselves vulnerable to violence on the platforms they create and build.
In spite of this violence, young people continue to stake their claim on the web. One woman who spoke to me summed it up perfectly, “I grew up on the internet so I feel like it’s a world I have access to that I’ll never leave — I understand its language, and I belong there.”
[*Names of all interviewees have been changed to protect their identity.]
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