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Cyberviolence: When abuse continues online

Social Change

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

I grew up reciting this nursery rhyme and believing its message, but now that I’m an adult living in the digital age, I no longer believe this. Words can hurt.

Cyberviolence can be launched against women with the stroke of a key at any time, day or night. Cyberviolence refers to online stalking by known or unknown perpetrators, posting sexual photos or content of someone without consent, or threatening someone with death or rape threats through social media.

Despite the prevalence of violence against women and girls online, it often isn’t taken seriously by authorities or the general public. A typical piece of advice given to someone experiencing cyberviolence is “Don’t feed the trolls”—or, in other words, ignore the Facebook posts, emails and tweets and you will be fine.

If only it were that easy to shake off online abuse.

Some YWCA clients experience cyberviolence as an extension of the violence and abuse they endure in their lives. Social media is another avenue for their abusers to deliver threats and exert power over their victims. It’s a common misconception that when women leave an abusive partner, their suffering is over, but it rarely ends there. For example, one YWCA client needs to remain in contact with her abusive ex-partner because of his visitation rights with their child. She cannot ignore or delete his emails because they include pertinent information about the child’s activities, but in addition to that information, taunts and put-downs are almost always woven into the body of the email. It has now reached the point where YWCA staff read the emails to the client, informing her of the pertinent information but leaving out the abuse. Where does it end? When will this be taken seriously?

Victims are often cautioned to stay offline and change their social media passwords, but there are few consequences for the perpetrator. Authorities should treat online violence in the same manner they address threats levelled face to face.

The YWCA is working to raise awareness on the implications of cyberviolence to keep this issue top of mind and visible because chances are that you know a woman who has experienced abuse online. There must be consequences for this behaviour and collectively, society cannot be a bystander. Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can, too.

How YWCA helps

The YWCA supports women leaving abuse with the following services: 

  • Our housing communities Munroe House and Arbour House provide second-stage transition housing and supports for women leaving abuse by intimate partners
  • Our Legal Educator provides information about how to navigate the legal system and provides referrals to other agencies supporting women and families leaving abuse
  • Our Children Who Witness Abuse program offers individual and group support to children
  • YWCA Violence Prevention Program at Crabtree Corner provides individual and group support for women experiencing intimate partner violence, including one-to-one support, referrals, resources and information


Threatening violence against soneone is already a crime. The focus should be on the threats content and the likelihood that those threats are carried out, not on the medium used to convey them.
In fact, treaths uttered on line leave more traces than threats over the phone (as few people record phone conversations). That makes them easier to prove.
A big part of the problem for the credibility of the advocacy against cyberviolence is that its definition is so large that it includes any disparaging comment and sometimes even simple disagreement with someone. It seeks to silence offensive speech along with threatening speech.
Moreover, advocates too often use gratuitous statements and unsound methodolgy to try to prove their point, as exemplified by the recent U.N. report on cyberviolence.
Anybody who does that undermines the credibility of the cause they defend.
Mind you, people who do that can be found everywhere in the political spectrum, from the extreme right to the extreme left. Organisations are guilty as well, from large corporations to grass root movements. The sincerity of believers in a cause never justifies lying to defend it or promote it

Michel, Thank you for your comment.

You're right that all forms of violence are unacceptable, no matter the medium or method. We are highlighting cyberviolence because we are concerned about it as an emerging form of violence that should concern law and policymakers, as well as the public. A number of clients – both youth and single women leaving abusive relationships – have experienced cyberviolence and are looking to the YWCA and other organizations for specific ways they can get help.

If violence can be levelled at someone online, there should be appropriate recourse which starts by discussing cyberviolence in all its forms. Opening up the conversation lends us all a better understanding of how violence and threats online can affect the safety and wellbeing of those impacted, and most importantly, how we as a society can collectively take a stand against it.

YWCA Metro Vancouver digital & content strategist

Laws already exist against violence and threats..
Laws also exist against libellous speech.
Laws already exist against heinous speech.
Your organisation does great work in helping victims.
Opening the dialog on cyberviolence is important to help people realize that threats and intimidation online are just as illegal as those made through other media or in person.
The issue I have is that opening the dialogue as the U.N. did, including speech that is simply offensive rather than really threatening, supporting its recommendation by incompetent research at best and outright lies, makes it very easy to just tune out.
A lot of people are already dismissive. Using easily debunked junkscience gives them ammunition to not only tune out but also become adversarial. Including speech that is merely offensive occults the real issues of abuse and threats.
To give you an example, I recently read a study that "demonstrated" that the exhaust from a big diesel truck being directed in a close room is less hazardous to health than the smoke of two cigarettes smoked in that room in 7 minutes. Methodology: they meaured solid particulates, they completely ignored the fact that the carbon monoxyde (A gas) could kill a human being in the room in the span of 7 minutes.
The point is that, despite being well informed on the dangers of tobacco smoking, I totally dismissed the author as a ranting lunatic. What need did he have to utter disinformation, especially with all the real research data that exist on the harmfulness of tobacco. Because of the plethora of reliable data on the effects of smoking, I just dismiss that author, not the entire anti smoking cause. If however this had been a new topic, with little existing research, and that guy said that he had just wanted to open dialogue, I could very well have dismissed the whole "tobacco is dangerous" thing.
At best I would never have accepted any claim that tobacco is dangerous unless I could check the research and its methodology in detail.
All that to tell you to continue your good work but please be careful about how you open dialogue and who you consider an ally.
In closing and speaking about allies, an organisation that recently appointed a Saudi representative to head a panel on human rights is likely not a good organisation for your cause

Thank you for your comment Michel. We agree that starting a dialogue about cyberviolence is important to help people realize that threats and intimidation online can be detrimental to people’s wellbeing. If you have further comments please contact us directly at 604 895 5767

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