SOCL491 II

Cybervictims and Cyberharrassment and Cyberstalking, oh my!

  • This is a part of the following series: SOCL491.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

But do we go too far in our focus on the fictive? Do we pay too little attention to the so-called real world? We think not.

Lois Presser & Sveindung Sandberg, Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime

For the second day of the course, we spent half of the day covering the topic of Cybervictims — Online Facilitated Child Sexual Exploitation with Prof. May-Chahal and half covering Cyberharrassment, Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying with Dr Moore. For the pre-reading we were given three articles, a report and a book chapter for the first topic and three articles and a book chapter for the second. I think the best (and not necessarily negative) example of sociology being sociology is the former topic: presented with the potential problem of widespread underground sexual exploitation of children online, the more predictable critiques that, for example, it’s not necessarily that widespread of a problem coexist with papers that argue that children are a social construct.

Safeguarding Cyborg Childhoods: Incorporating the On/Offline Behaviour of Children into Everyday Social Work Practices

This paper, of which Prof. May-Chahal is a co-author, addresses the ways in which child protection and social work can be transformed in order to better protect children online. Central to the paper is a study in which school children were told to communicate through an instant messenger with what were purported to be children of a similar age, but who were in fact children of various ages, as well as their teachers. The ability of the children to determine factors such as the age and gender of their conversational partner. The children managed to correctly guess the ages of their partners only 26 % of the time, whilst a software program achieved a 94 % rate. The authors consider whether …these findings could be simplistically read as evidence of children’s lack of ability to accurately identify the age of gender of people they talk to online…, but find this explanation to be unsatisfying. Instead, they propose that children must be considered not along the lines of an online/offline binary, but along a more fluid ontology—the cybord childhoods of the article title.

Reconstructing the sexual abuse of children: cyber-paeds, panic and power

Jewkes & Wykes here criticise the discourse around the threat of the cyber-paed and the risks of children online. This discourse, they argue, supplants that which is revealed by analysis of actual statistics, which show that the biggest sexual abuse threat towards a child tends to live in the same house and likely serves in a father figure role. [O]rdinary abuse does not resonate with media audiences: it grates, it transgresses cultural ideals. They contrast the much-covered case of Josef Fritzl with the under-reported case of a similar crime (which, quantitatively, involved more victims and produced more children) in Sheffield as demonstrating that when a case of familial abuse does achieve mass reportage, it is generally through the addition of other factors; in this case, [t]he fact that the crimes took place in Austria permitted the British press to present Fritzl in terms of his otherness as Incest Monster with Nazi associations.

They go on to address the hypocrisy of a society that whips itself up into such a frenzy over the belief that …paedophiles are a separate species, a breed apart, but which at the same time …fetishizes youthful bodies, in which …not only are young girls encouraged to act like mature, sexually active women, but adult women are objectified, reconstructed and commoditized via fashion, dieting and cosmetics to appear as little girls. According to Jewkes & Wykes, the paedophilia of everyday life…is everywhere. They make some interesting points, but the part that most stunned me was this: …in Holland pornographic imagery of children was commercially produced until the death of a 6-year-old from cocaine during a photography session in 1984 promoted legislative change….

Sexual Rights and Sexual Risks Among Youth Online

In their 2015 report for the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online (shortened, inexplicably, to eNACSO) Livingstone & Mason set out to …examine the risks and opportunities that 10- to 17-year-olds face when seeking or encountering sexual information or experiences online. Their key findings include that [m]uch more research focuses on online risk rather than opportunities, that [t]here is a tension…between those who argue that young people have rights to sexual expression and those who argue that children need to be protected from potentially harmful online behaviours and [a]t-risk youth offline are also at risk online (which was also addressed by Jewkes & Wykes). They recommend recognising [the] rights of children (as laid out in the the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), recognising voices, provide better education on sexual matters, supporting parents and that old favourite: evidence-based policy.

Technology and Sexual Abuse: A Critical Review of an Internet Grooming Case

In this paper, the authors give an account of the Swedish Alexandra man case, in which (what was purported to be) a woman named Alexandra groomed children online into having sex for money with her clients, who appear to have been the same man. The man was arrested for child sex offences, and the Swedes passed a law to criminalise grooming in the wake of the case. The excerpts from the chats presented within the article make unpleasant reading, as do the four pages of in-depth critical theory waffle that follow them. The final verdict on the grooming laws is that they are a reactionary response that will, in reality, prove almost impossible to enforce.

Introduction (Ch. 1), Sexual Violence in a Digital Age

Powell & Henry introduce their book with the case of the Werribee DVD incident, along with cases of abusive tweets and the Roast Busters. They claim that gender-specific sexual violence proliferates with technology, but as an introductory chapter, has little else of note to say.

From geek masculinity to Gamergate: the technological rationality of online abuse

Slater’s excuse for an article is divided into two halves. The first half covers the Gamergate movement, and I have addressed my concerns with it in a separate post. The second describes the technological rationality of online abuse—that is, the ways in which the design of social media platforms such as Twitter supposedly serve to enable and encourage abuse. Slater argues that the culture of …geek masculinity…draws together specific configurations of masculine identification and technological practice that reproduce themselves through exclusionary and sexist tendencies. Slater criticises the social media companies who make a small profit from every post on their site, including those considered abusive, and who thus have a financial incentive to turn a blind eye. These companies …treat their users as free-floating, atomized and largely interchangeable agents to whom the platforms do not owe any particular duty of care. Finally, he suggests that Twitter et al.‘s espoused …libertarian ethos… is in fact a cover-up for their …strong commercial interests…in insisting on user self-regulation since it exculpates them from the costly responsibility of paying for moderation and content regulation.

Slater’s various arguments appear to me specious at best. Let us accept, for sake of argument, that something about the design of sites like Twitter does reinforce some form of patriarchal or capitalistic value systems. At no point does Slater address the blindingly obvious solution to such a problem: one inconvenienced by such design is free to stop using Twitter et al. at any time. Even better, there is a wealth of information online that can allow one to get into programming. Surely a group of, say, women programmers could produce a Twitter alternative that encodes whatever superior matriarchal or socialistic values that they presumably embody? Other women, seeing a choice between the scary and abusive man Twitter and the friendly and inviting woman Twitter, should surely be expected to flock to the new site. Interoperability could even be worked on, allowing the userbase of woman Twitter to remain in (safe, mediated) contact with the denizens of man Twitter. Alas, perhaps not—in the real world, Bumble claims around half the number of users as Tinder.

Introduction: What Is the Story? (Ch. 1), Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime

Presser & Sandberg’s book introduces the field of narrative criminology, a field which …views texts as foundational objects of inquiry and the study of those texts as a useful corrective to the reductive tendencies that other analyses, rooted in individual disciplines, can manifest. The authors stress that the approach is constructionist, and does not …view offenders’ narratives as accurately—or inaccurately—describing events. Instead, they believe narrative to be …a type of discourse that follows events or experiences over time and makes some point.

To do narrative criminology is to study narrative reality…by mapping narratives or elements thereof onto patterns of crime. A narrative criminologist is given a range of ways in which to do this: [t]hey can study the role of metaphors, nominalization, nodal points, symbolic boundary drawing, and floating signifiers in constructing the excusable harm and the blameworthy victim. It’s hard to tell, wading through all of the postmodern waffle, but it seems as though the authors have spent 17 pages explaining that they think we should examine what a criminal’s story says about them and their situation, whether we believe it to be true or not. As per this post’s epigrammatic quote, I suspect that the authors may have thrown themselves wholeheartedly out of the …so-called real world and into the deepest depths of po-mo wankery.

Much ado about nothing? Representations and realities of online soliciting of children

Jewkes returns to her previous arguments about the overrepresentation of the threat to children online in the media, and the hypocrisy of such panics coming from a culture that so sexualises children. Jewkes starts by highlighting that such crimes …have come to occupy a unique place in the collective psyche because sex, risk and children are three of the 12 cardinal news values that shape news production in the 21st century. For example children constitute a kind of cultural barometer with which the health of a society is measured…. She moves on to argue that hildhood…is a social construction, as evidenced by the difference in the perceptions (erotic and otherwise) of childhood in both contemporary society and that of the Victorians. In short, however, Victorian ideas about children and sexuality were as confused and as polarized as our own.

Jewkes goes on to ask if …our fears of crime and concerns for personal safety—especially the safety of our children—been exaggerated and exacerbated by media hyperbole? And are the consequences of society’s fears detrimental to the late-modern experience of childhood? Yes, is her answer to both. In evidence of the latter, she touches first on the idea that the …privatization of leisure of the childhood and adolescent experience. Adventure is, for many children, a virtual pleasure; competitiveness is honed at the games console rather than on the sports field. Leading into the more pertinent harm, she continues that now …sexual development occurs in chatrooms, on social networking sites and via mobile phones. She cites, also, examples of the utilisation by children of new technologies in order to bully or abuse others, in some cases even sexually: apparently, …Devon and Cornwall police report that children as young as 10 are posing as predatory paedophiles on internet[sic] networking sites to frighten other children with whom they have fallen out…, amongst other examples that demonstrate to Jewkes that …children can be selfish, promiscuous and unconstrained. This is not necessarily any different now, simply because such experimentation takes place via new mediums (not to mention mediums less familiar to many of their parental figures).

Failure to Launch: Why Do Some Social Issues Fail to Detonate Moral Panics?

Jenkins questions what circumstances are productive or inhibitory of moral panics, and why online child sexual abuse never managed to reach such a height of hysteria. He begins by criticising the term moral panic itself, writing that [t]here is something suspect about any form of analysis that begins by applying such a pejorative label and stating that …one is not likely to see concern over progressive issues analysed in terms of moral panic. He then goes on to discuss his 2001 book Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet, produced through …observation of the bulletin board traffic of sites used by major manufacturers and dealers of child pornography. Jenkins found the reality of online child abusers to be quite different from that represented in official crime figures. He suggests that this difficulty of establishing the scale of the problem has led, in part, to the failure of a related moral panic to launch. However, he does date himself somewhat by stating that [n]o genre of films depicts heroic investigators hunting down child-porn rings or criminal overlords while rescuing pathetic victims, as evidenced by the success of Taken in 2008 and the subsequent development of that precise subgenre, most recently represented in You Were Never Really Here.

I thought his later analysis of the attitude of online paedophiles to the abilities of law enforcement agencies precisely mirrored that of online drug market users, even down to the language used. Jenkins suggests that any war on online child porn is better understood as …a war of the flea, or a guerrilla war undertaken by a vast and decentralized phantom enemy totally lacking an command structure, and likens the cell-based structure of online paedophile communities to the ideal of any terrorist network. After discussing the …endemic terrorist violence the US experienced between 1973 and 1977, but which never led to the same reactions as are seen in post-9/11 America, Jenkins considers why some things that seem ripe for it fail to explode into moral panics. A particular sensational episode might make the headlines for a few days but, in order to achieve the status of fully fledged moral panic, it must gain the kind of traction that is only possible when mass media collaborate with agencies or political interests. And, even then, the panic can only move forward if it meets certain criteria. Jenkins identifies these criteria to include: a diversity of involved agencies and interest groups, each making rival claims; heroes and villains with …identifiable faces; and a story that …lend[s] itself to visual portrayal. Jenkins summarises that …small villains are much more fertile sources of moral panics than large or well connected ones.

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