Future leaders standing up to online abuse

Warrane College speech 

As tomorrow marks White Ribbon Day, and after attending a breakfast for Male Champions of Change yesterday, I’ve reflected upon some of my talks with young men across Australia on the importance of demonstrating respect, online and offline, and what they can do to stand up against all forms of online abuse. Here’s an abridged version of a speech I gave earlier this year at Warrane College—an independent residential college for young men affiliated with the University of New South Wales. Ostensibly some of the future leaders of Australia and positive role models of change.

Many of you are likely to become future leaders with the power to shape our society. And helping to shape society for the better has never been more important than in this rapidly changing digital world, where opportunities and threats are often intertwined.

The change we need to enable begins with you. Each of you can have the resolve to challenge the status quo in some way. And from my vantage point, the status quo needs challenging.

And that’s exactly what I am doing today. In my role as eSafety Commissioner, I work closely with the social media companies – sometimes wielding a carrot, and other times wielding the stick. I believe in the promise of technology and want Australians to maximise these benefits.

But mostly, I focus on helping Australians minimise their risks of various forms of online abuse – whether it is cyberbullying, or child sexual exploitation or the practice commonly called “revenge porn” – the posting of intimate pictures of people online without consent.

At the Office we prefer to use the term “image-based abuse”, because there are many reasons that people do this besides the desire to humiliate a former partner.  What is really concerning is how quickly this most callous act of betrayal has proliferated over the past few years. Research findings released just this month reveal that 1 in 5 Australians have experienced image-based abuse. This is up from 1 in 10 Australians just two years ago.

Behind these statistics is an individual. Feeling betrayed, violated. Powerless. And usually, quite devastated. Many victims who have been exposed in this way experience long-term anxiety, fear and depression. The constant fear that their compromising photos will be shown to their friends, family, work colleagues or current partner. This is a fear that never goes away.  In the most drastic of cases, this practice has led to suicide.

The online forum sites where images are sought and traded like football cards, and there are an untold number of these, predominantly run by men, for men – “hunting”, collecting and trading images of women.

The culture on display here is intimately related to the fact that our society still holds gendered double standards about acceptable behaviour for men vs women. A young man can be praised for showing off his glistening six-pack in a selfie, but a woman showing a moderate amount of cleavage can be labelled a “woman of ill-repute.”  Like the cyber version of the “Scarlett Letter.”

I suspect some of you have probably been witness to some kind of sexting issue gone awry throughout your secondary school years. The simple fact of the matter is that teenagers are growing up in a world where sexting has become a normalised courtship ritual. And all too often now, teens are operating in a world where they are conditioned to observe the opposite sex as “other” or as conquests rather than as human beings.

So how do we get young people to understand and appreciate the potentially devastating consequences of their actions—or inaction – around the sharing of intimate images of others without consent?

You can stand up and stop this behaviour when you see it, refrain from pressuring a partner to send you an image, or stop the malicious distribution of an intimate image.  Whether you realise it or not, you are already role models – whether to your younger peers, your friends, your siblings, your teammates. That’s an incredible amount of power you possess, and a responsibility you have to those looking up to you. So, what are you going to challenge the status quo and be that leader in this fraught new online world?

The question I keep asking myself, even as I think about raising my 5 year old boy into the compassionate and principled young man I hope he will become is this:  How do we inspire a generation of young men to respect women, their friends AND themselves? How do we teach the Old Boys new thinking?

I think we teach Old Boys new thinking by promoting greater awareness of the issues and wrapping that in courage. All too often young men – and women – get wrapped into a culture of bullying and harassment – and become a part of it. They run with the pack. 

But when it is exposed, when a victim or upstander finally says, “Stop. Enough!” – the bullying culture dissolves.

Your society needs men of character and courage to stand up rather than be a bystander. This is not about being a dobber or a snitch, it is about standing up for the rights of others.

If you see something happening to a woman, or another vulnerable individual, in real life or online, and it is something you would not want to happen to your mother, your sister, your partner, or to your brother – it is time to say, “Enough!”

You can be leaders who help to make our society a place where respect and empathy are the norm; where the Internet inspires and enriches us, and is not used as a tool of debasement.

The cause of fighting image-based abuse is gaining momentum across government, the community and industry. I believe that together, we can turn the tide.

This is an abridged version of Julie Inman Grant’s speech at Warrane College, 17 May 2017


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