A number of reports in this year’s GISWatch focused on the everyday realities of sexuality that are faced by many teenagers when using the internet. Mariana Giorgetti Valente from InternetLab – Law and Technology Research Center in Brazil, Lin McDevittPugh from Netsheila in The Netherlands and Nieke Jahja from the Center for Civic Engagement and Studies in Indonesia approached this topic from different angles.
They were interviewed by Florencia Roveri, who has a degree in social communication from the National University of Rosario, Argentina. As a member of Nodo TAU, she is part of the team who publishes the enREDando newsletter and is co-author of the GISWatch reports on Argentina.
Florencia Roveri (FR) To start with I want to ask you: Why did you choose your topics? Why did you feel it was important to write about them?
Lin McDevittPugh (LMP): I noticed there was a free magazine given to all students at secondary schools, with a big warning around giving your image to people who could abuse it. It occurred to me that this is a very new area that mostly young people have experienced and older people don’t have much advice to give on it. In The Netherlands we are starting to have a conversation with various authorities about it. And as I dug deeper I realised this is a very important issue for girls rights. One of the things I am concerned about is that if you share a pornographic image of somebody you could be tried under the child pornography laws and found to be a child pornographer. So schools are trying to protect the boys sharing these images of being registered as a sexual offenders, something that will stay on the books for the rest of their lives. I can understand that they are trying to save the boys from their youthful silliness but what they are not sufficiently aware of is that they are again, as so many times in the past, putting boys in front of girls and the boys interests in front of the girls interests. That is why I chose the topic.
Mariana Giorgetti Valente (MGV): The so-called “Top 10” is a phenomenon going on between teenagers, specially in the peripheries and outskirts of large cities in Brazil. It is a sort of ranking that teenage boys develop for teenage girls in schools or neighbourhoods to rank the horniest girls. They are developed in the form of lists, in which girls profile pictures from Facebook are put together with phrases related to their sexuality and intimate information. These girls keep going up and down in the ranking each week, so this sort of violence is prolonged in time. We heard about the Top 10 a few months before the media found out about it, when they reported the suicide of two girls connected with that practice in neighbourhoods of Sao Paulo. We were already researching revenge porn and trying to understand if there is a legal background to work with these cases.
Until 2013 the media was very interested in trying to find cases of revenge porn, but the cases were told in a sensationalist manner, not corresponding with their full reality. When we heard about the Top 10 we reached out to activists who had been working in Sao Paulo. In the course of the interviews we found things that were specific in those cases and very different from the cases we were following, even in the media or in the judiciary, especially because of the variables of age and class. We found there is a large part of that reality that may be left out of public debate.
There are many incidents of sexual violence in this city because many teenagers are living here, some of them without their parents. At the same time we found that local government, police officers and even civil society cannot handle the victims of sexual violence in a good way.
Nieke Jahja (NJ): I live in one of the so called “university cities” in Indonesia, where young people come from all over the country to study because in these cities there are several schools and universities. There are many incidents of sexual violence in this city because many teenagers are living here, some of them without their parents. At the same time we found that local government, police officers and even civil society cannot handle the victims of sexual violence in a good way. My organisation tried to check the problem and we found that perspectives about sexuality are wrong. For that reason we decided to check the curriculum in schools. Indonesia is a very religious country and on some issues, like the LGBT and sexual identities agenda, it becomes very conservative. At the same time, many young people involved in LGBT organisations are so happy with the internet as a way to organise their groups – they have increased their members and have easily networked even with non-LGBT groups. The use of internet is a global phenomenon but it is interesting to find this in the context of my country, where people think about sexuality conservatively.
LMP: Nieke, what is the link that you are making to sexual violence?
NJ: LGBT groups in Indonesia are not open. They rely on the internet to make a campaign happen. When I turned to the curriculum in schools, I found sexuality is described only biologically, in terms of female and male. They never open the discussion up to include sexuality and identity. In contrast, LGBTs are educating their internet groups in a very interesting way. So there is no direct relation between the bad curriculum of sex education at schools with the work LGBTs do, but the LGBT methods in struggling to educate their internet groups and in organising their groups inspire me. I think we may have to adapt their methods to sex education of young people.
FR: What are the main challenges you faced in the writing of the reports?
LMP: The lack of statistics. As it is such a new area, organisations in The Netherlands are freshly looking at it. My approach was very much dealing with the International Human Rights Convention approach, and how these conventions trickle down into the school environment. The value of any international human rights convention has to be experienced by an individual living his or her own life. We questioned how this really works at schools. It is a negative thing if you have some young people in the school spreading pornograhic images of a girl against her will – mostly the images are of gay boys and young girls – but the school authorities don’t want people and especially the law, to know about it.
I found that the biggest challenge is actually the fact that people are trying to keep this problem out of the public domain so that the children and young people involved don’t get into trouble with the law.
So it is very difficult to measure the incidents. I had to do a sort of guess what the incident is by taking the numbers in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam the police force is trying to get a grip on the issue but in schools their main job is to sweep the incidents under the table. I found that the biggest challenge is actually the fact that people are trying to keep this problem out of the public domain so that the children and young people involved don’t get into trouble with the law.
MGV: We have two different challenges. The first one was methodological. When we proposed the article we intended to talk to victims. We would go for the teenagers who had been involved, find out what they did and how they felt when they experienced this phenomena. When we first came into contact with the activists we understood that the approach would be unethical. One of the main problems was the media; they were trying to get access to the victims while the activists were trying to protect them because many of these teenagers had not even told their parents what had happened to them, and they didn’t want to expose them more on television. The activists themselves started being threatened and blackmailed by some journalists.
We started to realise that we didn’t have a good structure to talk to the teenagers either; they didn’t have adequate protection and we weren’t the right people to approach them and try to talk to them about the subject again. It wasn’t a situation like the others that we had been following in the media in which the girls had been exposed but they went to the media and spoke about the cases, because they wanted to use the publicity that the case gave them, talking about it. In contrast, these girls weren’t trying to get publicity for the situation. So we decided not to try speak to the victims; all the information we gathered was indirect, through activists and through people in the communities that had things to tell us. It was a decision, but it was also a challenge.
It became very clear to us that legal solutions are solutions through the state, and in the way that we were imagining them they could be very oppressive for the victims.
The other challenge we had was that as lawyers, we work in an institution that aims to study internet policy and we were thinking mainly with a legal framework in mind, like the Marco Civil. We were thinking of legal solutions. But when we asked the activists of one of the neighbourhoods called Grajaú what they thought about available legal solutions or possible criminal sanctions, they answered almost in fear that they don’t want the police to be involved, telling us about problems their communities had with the police, and so on. It became very clear to us that legal solutions are solutions through the state, and in the way that we were imagining them they could be very oppressive for the victims. So we realised that the framework we started with didn’t work in those cases. We also had to change on that, and we started listening to these people and to the solutions they came up with which felt more appropriate for that situation.
LMP: That sounds very much like the situation that I landed up in. The schools were wanting to figure out what to do themselves, rather than have law involved. But the solution activists came up with, are they really good solutions for the women involved?
MGV: Let me give you one example. The activists contacted deputies of the Sao Paulo state´s legislature assembly to organise a public hearing about the subject and to think of solutions. The activists asked for the participation of health and education agents. The deputies didn’t call any. The activists really wanted to address the problem in terms of education and health. Education, because it was happening in schools and they were reporting that professors and teachers weren’t prepared to deal with it. Teachers were saying things like “well, if that happened to the girl she probably did something for that to happen. So I am not going to get involved”. Health, because the main state presence in these neighbourhoods are the health agents.
The public health service established basic health units in all neighbourhoods and the agents are also community agents who are seen by inhabitants as people who solve all sorts of problems. So activists were suggesting that teachers and health agents should be trained to know what to do with this problem, in a solution more linked to their reality. Of course, you could think beyond this and there could be other solutions, but the link to their reality is probably the best support that these girls could actually find.
NJ: The challenges goes around the definition of sex education, sexuality and information itself. There is no literature in Indonesia that can explain as clear as literature found in the United States about these issues. There is no parallel position in giving explanations when I try to get these explanations in Indonesian terms or written by Indonesians. And secondly, there are no statistics on violence. Media report every day about sexual violence, but when I tried to search for formal statistics or institutions releasing statistics, none of them have them.
So it means that when the incidents are reported to police they count them; but many cases are not reported to police because police make the situation worse, in our country. They don’t know how to handle the victims, especially teenage girls.
I got the picture and the numbers from media content and the media got the numbers from the police. So it means that when the incidents are reported to police they count them; but many cases are not reported to police because police make the situation worse, in our country. They don’t know how to handle the victims, especially teenage girls. There are no numbers about cyberbullying either. We know from social media like Facebook that social media become the first step for girls or boys to experience violence in offline contexts. But we still don’t have exact numbers to talk about this. When I am trying to discuss sexual education with parents, teachers or even teenagers themselves there are big barriers.
I am a researcher, but I am also a human right activist and I try to influence their perspectives. I don’t know if it is good or not as a researcher to do that. For this reason this work is more challenging than previous research I’ve done. Local government never think that there are problems about sexual education in this country. They never think the root of the problem is the lack of information and education we provide to teenagers. They never think that the more they close access to information, the more things go wrong among teenagers. So it is difficult to open up the dialogue on the situation. These are the big challenges in this area.
FR: The three of you, in different ways, are talking about the relation between your role as researchers and as activists. What role do you hope your research will play when it comes to sex education for teenagers in a digital age?
LMP: I am thinking about the great format that GISWatch set up. The research, the sections wanting to have specific suggestions for how to get forward, gave the organisation that I work with, the largest in The Netherlands that works in this area around sexuality and sexuality research, the opportunity to name very specific proposals related to the issue, and relating it to the human rights of the girls. I think the report will help schools recognise the natural desire of the school’s administration to protect the rights of the boys, without fully understanding that they are actually putting one group ahead of another. I think this article has helped to clarify some of the issues.
The biggest debate was around the issue of gender. Government wanted gender to be part of the plan but conservative deputies didn’t want to include it. They even came up with the term “gender ideology” that’s being repeated over and over again in Brazil.
MGV: When we started to write we didn’t expect to come to our conclusions. If you see the action steps of the article we are mainly talking about education. At the same time, when we were writing, Brazil was –and still is– facing a moment in which the issues of gender and education are in a big conflict. We have a new government this year, and the most conservative parliament since 1964, when our dictatorship started in Brazil. So we have a very large number of conservative politicians and several bills being discussed that are a huge setback for women’s rights. Congress has been discussing the National Plan of Education for the next ten years. The biggest debate was around the issue of gender. Government wanted gender to be part of the plan but conservative deputies didn’t want to include it. They even came up with the term “gender ideology” that’s being repeated over and over again in Brazil.
So they took out gender from the National Plan of Education. Municipalities and the states should also discuss their own plans for education. The municipality of Sao Paulo, for example, also decided not to include gender in education. So it’s hard to say that from the article that we wrote and the recommendations we made, if these issues would be discussed in schools. But at the same time we are also going through a huge feminist movement in Brazil. So these are two sides of the same coin. The national test for entering the university included discussions on feminism, themes on violence against women, and a question that refers to Simone de Beauvoir. So I think all articles describing the situation and pointing to education on sexual rights as a solution adds to that. That would be the impact of the report, not as something that works alone, but adding to this big movement against the conservative political movement that is going on in Brazil right now.
NJ: The research is following up with a focus on proposing good and more engaging discussions, including local stakeholders and local governments. We can invite them to develop modules or piloting in one school for example, and implementing one curriculum that talks about sexuality in a unbiological way, more about psychology. We are at the very beginning, but if I have the opportunity to follow up, what I really want to do is have discussions with certain groups that are already trying to pilot modules or curriculums at schools. And I propose in this research to optimise the information and education on the internet, because it is a good chance to give opportunities to teenagers to get information without feeling ashamed or getting social sanctions.
They can learn by themselves as long as we can try to promote dialogue with good information on online media – very difficult to find in Indonesia. That is why I propose to learn the way of LGBT groups, that may apply to youths in Indonesia. LGBTs are very small groups. They survive and organise themselves in a very good way. They even gathered routinely offline and they became proud being LGBTs. I think we have to replicate the methods for teenagers.
FR: According to the findings in your research, what are the best ways to increase the sexual empowerment and empowerment in relationships of young people, and to prevent sexual violence online?
LMP: The main thing that I noticed is the number of initiatives that are taking place that are joint efforts between high school students and teachers, to publicly talk about this particular issue. To take it out of silence, from the area of “I don’t want to talk about this” to the area of “yes, I want to talk about this”. The more dialogue there is on the issue, the easier is for girls to stand up and say “I am not happy with images of me that have disseminated”. Basically just having a broad and more open conversation about what is acceptable and what not. Discussions around this issue of sexting is taking place in an open space and that is very powerful. I think it will have repercussions for how boys and girls experience their sexuality into future.
FR: Lin, in your report you talk about the “gentle art of being adolescence”. How could you describe adolescence in the digital context?
LMP: It is the same as adolescence was for anyone born before 1990, except that now adolescence has an extra. In The Netherlands almost 100% of adolescents have a telephone with a camera. We used to kiss behind the shelter shed and now kids are online all the time and it’s a much more vulnerable place. So it is still very possible for the gentle art of being adolescents to be searching, to be looking, to be discovering sexuality – whatever flavour that might have — and discovering that there is also a social responsibility attached to that now that we all have this technology.
MGV: Having access to cellphones, video cameras and the internet all the time is also changing very much the way teenagers have access to information about empowerment too. So one thing that impresses me is to see girls talking about feminism. This huge feminist movement in the Brazilian blogosphere has now increased in the past two weeks in relation to teenagers. We have this programme Masterchef Children on TV. In the first episode a few men started to express on Twitter that they felt one of the girls was very attractive and they wanted to date her and things like that. She was only 12.
People that are supposed to be more vulnerable find the internet a very powerful instrument to fight this vulnerability, to organise and to promote discussions to change that situation.
Some time ago a feminist group called “Think ever” that was born on the internet, started a campaign they call “First harassment”. It had almost one-hundred thousand users reading and writing, girls starting to report on the first harassment they suffered when they were 8, 9 or 10. Last week people were talking about the campaign, and it has a lot of effect on teenagers. I read a piece of news yesterday about how girls, influenced by feminists on the internet, are organising discussions about these issues.
People that are supposed to be more vulnerable find the internet a very powerful instrument to fight this vulnerability, to organise and to promote discussions to change that situation.There is one thing I would like to put to this group that is actually bothering me. More than an answer, it is probably more a question. There have been a few groups that are addressing the theme of sexting among teenagers. Lin spoke a little bit of these at the beginning.
They have been trying to promote that teenagers do that safely so that, for example, when they send their pictures they don’t show their faces. They try to avoid the source of bullying that the spread of their images can provoke. And that is very controversial to me because in one way it could be empowering but it could also victimise more if you create extra rules for girls, because we know that the consequences of spreading intimate images are mostly for girls or for other vulnerable groups like LGBTs. I would like to know if you have had these discussions, about sending you picture but protecting yourself, encrypting your message or not showing your face. Is this empowering or is more oppressive because of victimising?
LMP: We have not had exactly that same discussion. It’s more that one group says “don’t send any picture of yourself” and another group says “oh come on! This is part of the new repertoire of being adolescent”. So you cannot deny it but you can learn about being safe. So on the one side one group says of the other group that that is stopping the girls from being fully self-expressed. Which is what I tend to agree with. And the other group says “if they put their images out there, then you are just asking for trouble”. That’s a very old discussion, that’s the mini-skirt discussion, the don’t walk in the park at night discussion. The organisation that I worked with doing this research has the approach that we need to ensure girls are empowered, and the more ways we find to do this, the safer they are.
MGV: The very thin line that I am trying to draw or understand is whether they are creating a natural obligation for girls, in the sense that if they are victimised by revenge porn or something, you have something else to say like ”oh, you should have covered your face”.
LMP: It is the same old discussion. To say that is their fault, somehow. Sexuality and being an adolescent is not ever anybody’s fault. It is just a fact and the tools that you have for expressing your sexual development are increasing. I could never accept that one of the tools would be the equivalent of encouraging girls wearing longer skirts. That is just not acceptable in my view of the movement of having tools towards the possibility of women to be free as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says we are. We were all born in freedom and we have to maintain that freedom. And that doesn’t mean that we have then to put locks on our chastity belts.
We have been needing to have this conversation in an international fora of internet policy. And I think that an initiative that brings together the idea that all these countries have issues with this matter, brings it to the front and they cannot be ignored any more.
FR: My last question. How do you feel this GISWatch will contribute to the global push for more sexual rights discourse in internet governance?
MGV: I am very anxious to see the results. I think that any initiative that brings together so many reports from so many countries with different cultures and realities is very powerful. We have been needing to have this conversation in an international fora of internet policy. And I think that an initiative that brings together the idea that all these countries have issues with this matter, brings it to the front and they cannot be ignored any more. So I hope that it has its impact. I think it will add to the other discussions that will happen at the IGF about feminism and will mobilise more people about this issue.
LMP: What occurs to me is that the fabulous thing that we have all collectively done with this GISWatch is that we provided case studies, and case studies really give people who are working at the high level of thinking about internet governance the sense of “these are the actual things that happen on the ground”. This is what we really are talking about. The issues become very clear, very specific.
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