Open Letter to Mayor Rob Ford

Yesterday on his radio show, Mayor Rob Ford lamented the dearth of women in politics, and offered to make himself available to the women of Toronto to explain to us how politics work. It was an offer Women in Toronto Politics couldn’t refuse, so we issued an open invitation for Mayor Ford to speak at an upcoming WiTOpoli event at his convenience.

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How we can stop revenge porn

Today I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible to discuss how to wipe the heinous phenomenon of “revenge porn” off the face of this green earth. Revenge porn is the colloquial term for when people share nude or sexually explicit photos/video of another person without their consent. I’ve written about revenge porn here, here, here, and here. I encourage you to check out my Storify of our amazing discussion at today’s event.

The event generated a few ideas that are worth exploring, and fast. Why fast? Nova Scotia has assembled a Cybercrime Working Group to put together legislative options by June, for projected implementation in fall 2013. The Nova Scotia Justice Minister wants to implement legislation that could “make circulating an intimate image for a malicious or sexual purpose a crime” or “create a new section of the Criminal Code for distributing intimate images without consent” (two very different outlines, IMHO). We want to have a say in how they put this together.

In terms of influencing legislation, we wanted to ensure consequences for youth offenders are rooted in education and development of healthier social norms regarding sex, consent and accountability. We discussed conducting a series of formal and informal discussions with youth. Discussions would focus on their views on/experiences with revenge porn, the social consequences currently meted out and their feelings about those, what kinds of formal consequences they think are appropriate and why, and what kinds of knowledge would help them navigate these situations. The results of these discussions can be consolidated into a whitepaper and could be shared with the media (with confidentiality of participants protected, of course).

In terms of public education, we want to ensure the Ontario curriculum has opportunities built in for students to explore sexuality in a positive way through the lenses of consent, social media, and the law. If these opportunities don’t currently exist (or are not being implemented in practice), we want to form a coalition of organizations advocating for change.

In terms of public awareness, we want to further discuss the possibility of an ad campaign (e.g. posters, videos, etc.) focused on sharing explicit images without consent. This campaign may be in the spirit of the “Don’t be that guy” campaign to combat sexual violence. The next step for such a thing could be a one-hour brainstorming session wherein we free-associate words and ideas connected to the word “consent.” We’ll also be exploring potential media partners/sponsors.

Wanna get involved in any of that? Head over to “Contact” and get in touch so I can put you on the circulation list for updates and collaborative docs!

Child porn isn’t a “community issue,” RCMP

TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault, victim-blaming, revenge porn.

rehtaeh parsons

On Sunday, rape culture and revenge porn claimed another teenage girl: 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A year and a half ago, 15-year-old Rehtaeh was allegedly gang-raped by four boys in a friend’s home, one of whom took a picture of her rape on his mobile phone and distributed it to the school and community at large.

You can probably predict what happened next. The community rallied around her in disgust that someone would take and share such a photo? Oh, haha, you must be new here, Decent Human Being. Nope, she received a barrage of text messages and social media posts calling her a slut, begging her for sex, and generally shaming her for having been caught with her clothes off, despite the fact that it was allegedly not her choice.

She tried to escape the misery by switching schools and later checking into a hospital, but ultimately the trauma of the alleged assault and ensuing barrage of harassment proved too much. On Thursday, April 4th, Rehtaeh hung herself. On Sunday, April 7th, her parents took her off life support and the world said goodbye to a bright young woman with a promising future.

To add insult to injury, the RCMP did not seem to invest much effort into investigating either the assault or the photograph’s distribution (though they are apparently now investigating the “sudden death of a minor” – useful, thanks). I won’t get into their failure on her rape case, as Anne Thériault has already done a good job of that. I want to ask why the fuck Rehtaeh’s mother was told by the RCMP that the distribution of the photo was “not really a criminal issue, more of a community issue.”

I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure distributing nude photos of a 15-year-old constitutes a criminal issue: child pornography. The RCMP admitted they were able to trace the photo to one of the boys’ mobile phones, but apparently couldn’t determine who had snapped the picture. What about who distributed the photo, RCMP? The photo was allegedly sent to the entire school and surrounding community – surely a path to the sender exists. And surely our federal police force has access to the latest and greatest technologies to investigate these things.

It’s especially fishy because I seem to remember our Public Safety Minister making a widely lambasted pronouncement that anyone who opposed his draconian internet surveillance legislation “stood with the child pornographers.” (Remember that, Canada? LOL.) So yeah, I kinda figured distributors of child pornography would be a favourite target for the internet-savvy members of our law enforcement community. How foolish of me.

I guess this isn’t the easy, popular kind of child pornography to prosecute – the kind where the distributor is a sweaty 55-year-old man living alone in a basement. I guess when the distributors are close in age to the child, law enforcement decides it’s too much of a “he said/she said” situation for them to get involved. “A community issue.” This sounds suspiciously like how law enforcement tends to treat other forms of sexual violence.

That revenge pornographers with teenage victims are not treated as the child pornographers they are says a whole hell of a lot about bias and failure in our justice system. But really, while minors are the most vulnerable and deserve the most protection, restricting legal recourse for revenge porn survivors to those under 18 would be a failure too. People of all ages have been subject to the malicious distribution of nude and sexually explicit photos intended for private use (I’ve written about it before). Why do we place a higher premium on the photographer’s intellectual property rights than on the subject’s right to privacy?

I’m going to spitball an extremely obvious solution: why do we not have a law requiring the distributor of a sexually explicit photograph to provide written consent from the photo’s subject? Why do we place the burden of proof on the subject to show that she did not consent to the photo’s distribution, rather than on the distributor to show that she did consent?

I think the answer might lie in the commonly held, subconscious perception that women’s bodies exist for public consumption. It’s a problem with deep social roots, but that doesn’t mean our legal system can’t begin to address it. Let’s get cracking, cops and prosecutors. This isn’t a community issue.

What Sam James and I have in common

Emotions ran high in Toronto last night when news broke that police had charged popular coffee shop proprietor Sam James with mischief and assault following a confrontation with anti-choice protesters outside a high school near his shop. Sam, who has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights in the past, allegedly threw coffee on the group’s signs, spat at one protester, and assaulted another when he realized he was being videotaped.

The nature and severity of the assault has not yet been disclosed. The Canadian Criminal Code’s definition of assault is fairly broad, and while it covers the application of force, it also covers instances when a person “attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person.” This type of assault could manifest in raising one’s fist or perhaps in what is commonly referred to as “getting in someone’s face.” One can’t really speculate on the nature of the alleged assault, but as there is video evidence of the confrontation, I expect the truth will come out eventually.

It’d be tough for me to abide Sam James punching someone (if that turns out to be what happened), as I’m not a fan of violence. But regardless of the nature of the alleged assault, I unapologetically appreciate the sentiment behind it: visceral anger about a social movement attempting to enact systemic violence upon women’s bodies. Last night I expressed this appreciation on Twitter, much to the chagrin of some of my (almost entirely male) friends. These friends suggested that appreciation of the sentiment was logically inseparable from support for the allegedly violent action. I vehemently disagree on this point. The feeling and the action are two different things, and I’m allowed to feel differently about each.

Here’s the thing: abortion is an issue about which many women feel strongly on not just a moral but a visceral level. The anti-choice movement is a literal attempt to violate and control women’s bodies. Look south of the border at mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds, at laws that limit a woman’s personhood in favour of that of a potential child who hasn’t even been conceived yet. Or just look to Prince Edward Island where the province’s practitioners are not permitted to perform surgical abortions, forcing women who seek them to travel out-of-province. Such policies disproportionately infringe on the bodily autonomy of certain groups of women, including undocumented women and low-income women.

And while many of my (again, almost entirely male) friends are fond of condescendingly proclaiming that women have no reason to worry about it, backbencher after backbencher in our majority Conservative federal government keeps raising the foetal personhood issue. No matter that a full third of the House of Commons voted in favour of M-312. No matter that a terrifying wave of anti-choice policies have been written into law in the United States, a nation our current government seems determined to emulate.

It is in this political climate that the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform has been mounting protests with gruesome imagery outside Canadian high schools and offering “pro-life” lesson plans to high school teachers. Talk about low-hanging fruit. Make no mistake: this is systemic violence, and it is to this systemic violence that Sam James may have responded with an individual act of violence, the severity of which we don’t yet know.

Few cis men seem to understand and feel the abortion issue in a visceral way, even if they are pro-choice. As a pro-choice woman, I feel a physical twinge that’s probably like a much morally weightier version of what a cis dude might feel when he hears about another dude getting kicked in the balls. What I appreciate about Sam’s sentiment is that it was visceral. It burst out of him. It’s an anger with which I’m familiar through my own encounters with anti-choice groups (and I’ve never encountered one outside a high school).

It’s an anger I must constantly regulate, not only for moral reasons, but because I am in very real physical danger. Those who identify as women, or have done so in the past, typically have to regulate the viscerality of their anger in ways most men don’t. We may have laws against physical violence, but our culture sure does have an intricately woven patchwork of cultural cues that encourage men (and not women) to express their anger through physical violence.

I may not support an act of violence itself, but I am deeply comforted by the fact that a cis guy whose own bodily autonomy is not directly impacted by the anti-choice movement feels the same instinctive anger that I feel when I see such a group preying on high school students. A lot of women tweeted or DM’d me last night to say that, at some point in their lives, they had fantasized about doing exactly what Sam did. That doesn’t mean these women or I condone the action (after all, we haven’t followed through on those fantasies), but it does suggest a parallel to our feelings about the issue. For me, that parallel is heartening.

The future prospects of investigative journalism

Last night, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the fruits of an explosive, multi-year worldwide investigation into offshore tax havens. It’s not the first such investigation of theirs, and shows just what can happen when outlets collaborate to dissect matters of public interest.

Journalists from a variety of countries and outlets (including Canada’s own CBC/Radio-Canada) sifted through 2.5 million leaked documents to expose the wealthy people who stash their earnings in covert companies and trusts in places like the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands. Many of these people are politically connected, like class-action attorney Tony Merchant, whose wife is Canadian Senator Pana Merchant.

This kind of investigation is likely the reason many young journalists go into the business – the promise of serving as an important check/balance on an increasingly unchecked oligarchy of corporate wealth and political corruption. But it’s also the kind of investigation that is less and less common these days. Not only are such projects expensive, they require long-term commitment (and by extension, long-term employees). We’re talking hours upon hours upon hours of paid labour that, for a long time, does not yield content to populate a homepage. It’s an investment in which many publications and outlets seem to have dwindling (if any) interest.

Not to get all York University grad student here, but let’s not forget that many of the media’s powerful people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of wealth distribution. It’s worth noting that the only Canadian outlet ICIJ listed as a participant in the investigation is a public broadcaster. What is the best way to ensure this type of work gets funded and produced?

British investigative journalist David Leigh has a few ideas, including a small monthly levy on broadband connections, and collaboration among outlets in the style we saw with the ICIJ investigation. The former is likely to draw considerable ire from people who read the news (much as paywalls have done and perhaps moreso). The latter has worked well in some cases but still requires outlets that have an interest in investing, to some extent or another, in stories with long-term payoff. Other possibilities include crowd-funded stories and investigations sponsored by non-profit or educational organizations.

Where do you go for good investigative journalism? What are your thoughts and feelings on the options above? What other ideas have you come across? Tell me in the comments or better yet, discuss it with industry peers at the MediaTech Commons, a private community for digital media workers to vent, plot, and share their experiences.

The false solidarity of progressive communities

CantWeAllJustGetAlongI’ve been thinking a lot lately about progressive communities, and how they handle criticism of their within-group power dynamics. Maybe it’d be more appropriate to say “groups that consider their collective cause or objective to be a progressive one.” Groups that see themselves as challenging the mainstream or status quo.

Some such communities that come to mind are atheists and skeptics, anarchists, and the free-speech libertarians that populate many corners of the Internet. So central to these groups’ collective identities is the sense of being an underdog in the David & Goliath tradition, whose skill and intellectual superiority will ultimately lead to triumph for themselves and for the greater good. Their own identity is held up in contrast with an unenlightened, perhaps even brutish or primitive status quo or cultural mainstream.

As in most social realms in the western world, white men in these communities tend to have the most power and loudest voices. And, like in most western communities, women and people of colour are rarely treated without skepticism, aggression and hostility when they point this out. But I find there’s something unique (and uniquely frustrating) about challenging sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of bigotry in self-identified progressive communities.

Not only do challengers face the same vitriol, insults and threats of violence they would in any community (sigh), but also other, more insidious manifestations of resistance. Perhaps because these communities valourize rational argument (not a bad thing on its face), dissenters within the ranks must present scientific, peer-reviewed evidence that verifies their lived experiences. When the example of bigotry or power imbalance is too glaring for community members to ignore, challengers face accusations of “derailing” the community from their “core objectives” – as if any group claiming to pursue the greater good can do so while alienating marginalized groups.

There’s this sentiment of “we’re on the same side here, let’s tackle the real problems.” But who gets to define what our collective “side” is, and what problems we aim to tackle? While solidarity is important, dismissing or resisting community members’ good-faith concerns about inclusivity is pretty antithetical to solidarity.

It may be that the notion of not just moral but intellectual rightness as a core element of group identity serves as a barrier to progressive communities’ acceptance of the ways in which they still need to progress. It may be that the closer groups are to one another on the ideological spectrum, the more fraught these challenges become (I think I read something about that in first-year psych). It may be that I just feel more disappointed when my challenges are rebuffed by a group that I do feel should be “on my side” about representation and treatment of marginalized groups. (Personally, the stakes in my disagreements always seem higher when I feel I actually stand a chance of changing the person’s mind or broadening their perspective.) It may be all of these things, it may be none of them. I’m just thinking out loud here.

Have you noticed the same phenomenon or wondered about any of the same things? Are my musings totally off-base? Tell me in the comments!