Sexual violence and the court of Twitter

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In the Philippines, the condemnation of abusers and harassers have yet to be fully translated offline. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Last week, a case of alleged sexual misconduct was brought to the court of Twitter.

The prosecutor: a student from Ateneo de Manila University who alleged his friend was assaulted by a schoolmate. Within the next couple of days, about 60 girls responded, citing problematic encounters with the same boy. Their accusations ranged from uncomfortable, inappropriate conversations to outright assault. They posted screen caps of conversations with him.

The jury: All of Twitter. The allegations prompted even more noise, as users — notably, mostly male — raised concerns for the data privacy and mental health of the accused. Some called it a witch hunt, a trial by publicity, and cried for “due process.” Others clarified they were listening, but they also asked: Is it appropriate to course allegations of sexual misconduct and violence online?

Women coming forward on social media with these experiences is hardly new — and neither are the rebuttals against it. Globally, the callout was most prominently articulated in the #MeToo movement, which unseated Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein after dozens of women came forward with allegations of assault and harassment from him.

The movement made a ripple, although some countries have been more resistant than others. In the Philippines, the Weinstein effect has yet to truly trickle down — but it has allowed for pockets of resistance: one of which is the millennial Twittersphere.

In January last year, a University of Sto. Tomas student was allegedly groped on a UV express by an upperclassman. Her brother wrote a Facebook post, that has since went viral, accusing the school of punishing her and forcing her to take down a warning she made on social media.

Before the year ended, a Filipino digital artist was taken to task on Twitter for sending explicit messages to young girls; local bands were booted from gigs following online allegations of misconduct; and a co-ed from Ateneo Senior High School alleged her classmates spread fake nude photos and tried to spike her drink.

Let's take a look at why people keep returning to the court of social media, chaotic though it may be — and what we can do to balance level-headed discourse and a space for rage.

The court of last resort

The Philippines lives a double life when it comes to gender equality. On one hand, it boasts a sterling record of women in government service and the 10th narrowest gender gap in the world.

On the other hand: The Center for Women's Resources reported a person is raped every hour. The Philippine National Police listed over 32,000 cases of violence against women last year. Government statistics show one in four women between 15 to 49 has experienced physical, emotional, or sexual violence from their husband or partner.

“While there are some who criticize these confessions as unnecessary ‘airing of one’s dirty laundry in public,’ we need to acknowledge the fact that for most of these survivors, [those who] chose to open up through social media are those who feel that their complaints would have been received by deaf ears otherwise.” — Lynn Pinugu

Women would not feel the urgency of online vilification if there was an accessible, effective, just and safe way to report their grievances offline. As it is, for some, Twitter is the court of last resort.

“The fact that the #MeToo movement did not take off in the country shows that there is a lack of faith in how we, as a community and a nation, handle and respond to allegations relating to rape and sexual assault,” says Lynn Pinugu, co-founder of She Talks Asia. The initiative organizes conferences to educate and empower women.

However, some online users wondered: Did the victims really try, before taking their grievances online? A counter-question would be: Do they have to?

A victim only needs to have heard and seen examples of men getting away with such deeds — whether at home, school, work, or the media — to instantly feel the system is against her. The Philippines is rife with all sorts of examples of this misogyny, from the smallest unit of society to the highest position of power: it could be an inappropriate uncle, an act in school that goes unpunished, the President not apologizing for a rape joke, or a convicted child rapist seeking pardon so he can run for public office.

“While there are some who criticize these confessions as unnecessary ‘airing of one’s dirty laundry in public,’ we need to acknowledge the fact that most of these survivors, [who] chose to open up through social media are those who feel that their complaints would have been received by deaf ears otherwise,” says Pinugu.

She adds that the pressure is on institutions like schools and workplaces to ensure the claims are properly investigated and acted on.

For Sharmila Parmanand, a Gender Studies PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, survivors of such encounters should still try their luck offline before publicly name dropping — except in cases of clear power imbalance (such as if the perpetrator is a prominent figure). If that doesn’t work, then they can turn to the internet.

Parmanand errs on the side of caution, noting that an accused person must still be accorded a fair hearing as much as possible. This not out of disbelief for victims’ stories — but because the court of public opinion is not likely to rule effectively.

“Public shaming is sometimes necessary, but it cannot be our only tool and it is unlikely to be a sustainable tool,” she says. “If we rely on the court of public opinion ... it can very easily turn against us. Victims can easily be discredited and counter-shamed, which is starting to happen.”

“We need to be willing to have difficult cultural conversations about sexual behaviour that is technically consensual but still problematic.” — Sharmila Parmanand

However, she acknowledges that public outrage is “sometimes ... the best and only option,” deterring potential abusers and forcing corporations and universities to take allegations seriously.

There are things the online callout can achieve which offline action cannot: a speedy warning to other women; gathering people with similar experiences, possibly with the same alleged perpetrator, to build a stronger case; and pressuring institutions.

However, there are also things that online action cannot replace A fair trial or investigation would hold the accused accountable through a systematic authority. It would result in intervention for the accused, whether through disciplinary sanctions or corrective justice, and rehabilitation for the survivor. There is also no replacing structural changes that should empower the victim, such as laws that prioritize consent and recognize different types of sexual misconduct and violence.

Guidelines for social media discourse

Why has there been a pushback against victims going online? Parmanand says the worst case scenario is a malicious attempt to silence victims; the best case is valid concerns about how public outrage could affect a fair hearing.

It's worth noting that some things said on social media would never be said to a victim's face. (If you're having trouble figuring out how to respond to such confessions both online or offline, Trisha O'Bannon gives some pointers here.)

O’Bannon notes that given the statistics of sexual violence, “it’s very likely that there are people in your social circles who are survivors, whether or not you know it.” When typing out comments, it helps to ask yourself: If I had a friend, sister, or mother who was a victim of sexual misconduct or violence and she read what I am about to post, would she feel like her voice is important? If the answer is no, it might be better not to comment; it is not your turn to talk.

All parties could benefit from a more civil discussion. Suggesting a moral standard on the mess that is Twitter may be futile, but here are some guidelines for considerate and productive discourse.

1.  Listen. The knee-jerk reaction to these concerns should be to listen, and not to interrupt. Parmanand says structural sexism “makes it hard for victims to disclose what happened to them, an we don't want to reproduce this norm.”

She advises a steady balance for third party observers. “Offer support and don't disbelieve the person,” she said. “At the same time, remember that there are two sides to a story and the accused also deserves a hearing.”

2.  Acquaint yourself with the spectrum of sexual violence. Equip yourself with the vocabulary for discourse. Learn the differences between sexual assault, harassment, misconduct, and violence. While everything from sexist jokes to rape may fall under the same tent of entitlement to women's bodies, Parmanand cautions against lumping them all together. Each action merits different interventions.

“Forcing a legal bar on all unpleasant sexual experiences is counterproductive and also dishonest,” said Parmanand. “We need to be willing to have difficult cultural conversations about sexual behaviour that is technically consensual but still problematic.”

For example, consider the viral accusations against actor Aziz Ansari and producer Harvey Weinstein: Ansari was accused of not catching on to verbal and non-verbal cues from a date, who felt pressured to engage with him in sexual activity. Weinstein, on the other hand, has assaulted dozens of women in show business, using his power in Hollywood to keep them mum. In the same vein, an uncle who makes an off-handed comment about a short dress deserves a different response to an uncle who may repeatedly molest a niece or nephew.

Parmanand maintains that smaller acts indicating misogyny should still be corrected, but without equating them to the graver crimes that calculated sexual predators make.

“These acts are not morally equivalent and we should be more nuanced in how we approach them. Some acts may be technically consensual, even if they are not equitable, and they are more likely a result of ignorance rather than malice,” Parmanand explains.

“Conflating them will make victims less credible. They ... do not deserve the same level of public opprobrium.”

3.  Treat different types of criticism differently. Parmanand stresses: “Not all criticism of victims is equal.”

Bullying and personal attacks merit a defense of the victim and a call to stop. However, more complicated responses should be tackled differently.

“If it is a respectful criticism of the victim's strategy but doesn't trivialize the victim's experience, and if it is phrased in a non-threatening way, you may want to consider engaging,” said Parmanand.

She noted that some questions on whether the victim has acted outside of social media “may be [done] in good faith.”

“Perhaps they truly do not appreciate the inaccessibility of [formal] mechanisms,” she said.

In these cases, it's best to let them know, but not group them into the same picture as those who actively try to stifle women's voices.

Taking #MeToo offline

A week after the allegations against the Ateneo student went viral, the tweets have since been deleted and the internet conversation once reverts to other matters: "Infinity War," gatekeeping in art and design, the supposed gentrification of ukay-ukay. With social media constantly in flux, how do we keep sexual misconduct and violence top of mind, and how do we ensure that it is acted upon sustainably? Here are some ideas.

1.  Personal intervention. While you cannot force victims to rush forward with their stories, you can offer them support in your own capacity as a friend, relative, or professional. This could range from accompanying them as they report their case to maintaining sensitivity when you handle their cases as a medical professional, a media personnel, lawyer, and so on.

If you are mulling legal action, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines just launched Find Justice PH, an app that makes legal service inquiries accessible.

2.  Intervention at work, school, and the community. Support (or start) initiatives that endeavor to create policies addressing sexual misconduct or violence. This could be a new policy or process, or even seminars or forums on gender and sex education.

Pinugu advises support for projects with a curriculum that is evidence-based, which effectively tackles the definition of consent, implications of assault and rape, training individuals to intervene, and how to properly respond when someone speaks up.

“Support organizations that implement school-based and community-based rape prevention programs, specifically focused on educating young people and adults on nurturing healthy relationships and creating safe environments,” says Pinugu.

Parmanand likewise advises the public to “invest in efforts that allow people to tell their stories.”

When organizing talks, for example: “Make sure that any course of action is driven largely by the primary stakeholders,” says Parmanand. “Do not instrumentalise people’s pain and suffering for your own agenda, even if it is a liberal agenda, because that would be re-exploiting victims.”

Apart from non-government initiatives like She Talks Asia, you can throw your support behind government-linked efforts like the Safe Cities Metro Manila Programme or legislation that seeks to address sexual misconduct and violence.

3.  Intervention for the accused. Victims or survivors of sexual misconduct or violence are not obligated to give their perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. However, after justice is served or as the perpetrator heads to rehabilitation, the community must ensure the perpetrator stays corrected.

“If an accused person seems genuinely remorseful and is willing to take steps to improve their behavior in the future, I don't think victims have an obligation to forgive them,” says Parmanand, “but the rest of society should try to give the accused party a chance to reform.”


Features like Twitter’s anonymity and the ease of tagging anyone are a double-edged sword: they allow for democratic conversation and a space for people to come forward, but they are also what allows trolls — and simply downright mean people — to thrive.

Is there healing on social media? Probably not. Twitter is for messy conversation — but it is also where the conversation is. It is not, however, the only space for action. If we are to make a safe space for women, we have to truly buckle down to work.