While I would just like to blow up Twitter and Facebook because of the harm they do, that apparently is neither possible nor responsible. Also, I can't wrest mobiles from the hands of boys and men. Neither will fix the problem we have, which is that (not all) men think they can do whatever they like to women and girls.
A new report from ANROWS, the national organisation which researches women's safety, gives us a small glimpse into abuse of women and girls. The term it uses is "technology-faciliated abuse", or TFA, and it is terrifying.
It is not just dick pics (unwanted images of male genitals) or other sexual pictures, videos or other explicit material. Nor is it just the unwanted and improper or offensive sexual text, email or online chat. It's not just posting offensive or unwanted messages, images or personal information on the internet about the victim. And it's not just threatening to sexually assault the victim or threatening to publish personal details. It is not just inappropriate comments about the victim's body or sex life made by phone, email, text messages, social media or dating apps. It can be the constant surveillance, what amounts to stalking digitally.
It is all of those things and more.
This report, from academics Asher Flynn of Monash University, Anastasia Powell of RMIT and Sophie Hindes at Melbourne University, reveals what people on the front line of abuse, working in the support services sectors, see. These are people who deal directly with victims of technology-faciliated abuse. They work in domestic and family violence services; in sexual assault, health, legal services and specialist diversity services.
The report tells the story of those who are trying to support and help women, and what they see as the barriers and challenges for those responding to, or preventing, this kind of abuse. The next report will have detailed accounts from both victims and perpetrators of this abuse, as well as a representative national survey of TFA victimisation and perpetration. I am not sure I will be able to bring myself to read it. This one is hard enough.
It is the very first report to be launched by ANROWS under its new leadership, with Padma Raman at the helm. She's new to the job, but not new to the experiences of abuse and harassment, after 11 years as chief executive officer of the Australian Human Rights Commission. She was shocked but not surprised by the extent of what service providers saw - the substantially gendered nature of the abuse. But the one finding of the research which really concerned her was that during the pandemic, women's access to technology was diminished. They couldn't seek help because their abuser was watching, always watching. ANROWS is calling for better training and support for those who work in the sector so they may fully understand the range of abuse, leveraged by technology.
There is a direct need for resources, says Raman. She also has some hope the new Online Safety Bill will give the eSafety Commissioner enough power to make a difference.
Digital Rights Watch executive director Lucie Krahulcova is not confident the Online Safety Bill, yet to receive royal assent, will help women at risk. She says while the federal government seeks to use the breaking of encryption to protect women, it is more likely to be used by abusers. She sees a direct threat to women who might be communicating with shelters.
"Encryption generally protects us from identity fraud, from people gathering our data," she says.
"There is no way of creating backdoors just for the good guys."
But she says there are other risks in the Online Safety Bill. She predicts that the section which deals with cyber abuse of adults will be turned against women and used to silence them.
Anastasia Powell and Asher Flynn are lead authors of the report, and have completed decades of work on these troubles. As Powell puts it, technology is just one of the tools people use when they want to abuse.
"But this is all part of a much bigger problem. Men's violence against women is so deeply embedded in our society that it will take a long time to undo all of these institutionalised ways. But we have to stay the course and keep this on the agenda, make sure it doesn't slip from government's view."
Powell is right. We need leadership at every level to challenge gender inequality, disrespect, mistreatment and violence against women, and we must see deep cultural and societal change.
"We need to see equal treatment of women and equal valuing of women and that includes by our government. We are not seeing that at the moment, and not with the urgency that this problem requires," she says.
Powell is not wrong. We've had years in this country where the serious abuse of women has been exposed. We have heard the utterly traumatising experiences of Rosie Batty and Grace Tame. We have heard the early Australian #metoo revelations and the depressing confessions in Annabel Crabb's powerful ABC documentary on women in politics, Ms Represented. Along the way, we have also met the very young, Dhanya Mani, Chelsey Potter and Brittany Higgins; and the just slightly older Kate Ellis and Julia Banks.
But there are a million stories we haven't heard, the women and girls who will never get to tell their stories in public. Maybe they don't want to, maybe they can't. And not every story of technology-facilitated abuse is as compelling as stories of rape and sexual assault, but those stories detail the danger.
It is the girls who get constantly harassed by the boy in their class who doesn't understand "no", and the women whose phones have tracking apps secretly installed on them by a former partner. It is the endless threatening messages.
Which is why we must continue to put pressure on governments to pay attention and to make change. As Powell says, we need to treat this problem with urgency, as an emergency. And there is no sign that the federal government understands that.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.