Trigger warning: This post deals with domestic violence and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.
Imagine a man messaged his girlfriend a list of reasons why she was “not worthy.”
Imagine that 34-item list accused her of having a “fat gut”, a “loose” vagina and “bad breath”, accused her of “hating men”, and criticising her for her sexual abilities.
Turns your stomach, doesn’t it?
The same man went on to send a string of abusive texts to another of his girlfriends, Bree Robinson, calling the 21-year-old woman “a stupid, dumb c***” and threatening to leave to find “better sex elsewhere”.
Minutes after receiving a message like this, Bree jumped off a balcony to her death — a devastating culmination of what a magistrate later described as a deliberate campaign of “gratuitous harrassment” perpetrated by Shearin.
The story is tragic and infuriating. But just as distressingly, the messages Shearin allegedly emailed and texted these women are not unique.
Domestic violence experts say this sort of use of new technologies to harrass and control partners is on the rise — and the phenomenon, dubbed “textual harrassment” by the Courier Mail, has presented a major challenge to anti-domestic violence campaigners.
Domestic violence goes hi-tech: the frightening new epidemic.
Heidi Guldbaek from Women’s Legal Services Australia told Mamamia she and her colleagues had seen “all kinds of stalking, harrassing” and “abusive” behaviour through the use of technology.
“(They include) threats to disclose nude photos, the use mobile apps with GPS technologies to stalk victims” as well as “harassment on social media or hacking of social media and/or emails and non-stop calling, texting or emails to threat and intimidate,” Ms Guldbaek said.
“Also, we often see situations where there may be a restraining order in place that prohibits the person bound by the order from sending text messages – except to communicate about the children,” Ms Guldbaek said. “Often abusive ex-partners will use this as an opportunity to send threatening or harassing messages.”
A Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria survey from last year revealed that more than 80 per cent of domestic violence workers now report that smartphones and social media were used stalk victims, as the Daily Mail reports.
It’s news that gives me the chills — not least because it reminds me of text messages, Facebook posts and emails my friends have received from boyfriends over the past couple of years.
One one occasion, a former workmate went on holiday with some girlfriends, only to constantly receive texts calling her a “dumb slut” and erroneously accusing her of infidelity when she didn’t respond within the hour.
On another occasion, a friend’s boyfriend installed a GPS tracker app on her phone and used it to constantly follow her movements; if he couldn’t see her position on there, he would constantly call and text until she’d reveal where she was.
One of my own ex-boyfriends even once called me 180 times — in an hour — demanding to know who I was with.
All too often, women dismiss these behaviours as “a bit jealous”, “so protective” or, in one case, “classic male tempter tanty” (my friends did, and for a while I did too).
But let’s be clear here: the tactics showcased in these anecdotes involve controlling where a woman goes, making her feel guilty, using jealously to justify bad behaviour, and putting her down.
And those are all classic hallmarks of domestic abuse, as Ms Guldbaek agrees.
“(This is) just another way that the violence can manifest nowadays,” Ms Guldbaek said. “If this behaviour happened to us verbally, it would be considered abuse; just because it’s happening through a different medium doesn’t make it any more acceptable.”
Got a friend who’s receiving these kind of messages?
The statistics, and the tragic story of Dan Shearin and Bree Robinson, send a very clear message: Next time a friend mentions that her boyfriend texted her calling her a c-word, or next time an acquaintance’s partner posts something intended to humiliate her on social media — those are flags that couldn’t be any redder.
So let’s agree on something right now: it’s time to stop calling those messages “immature”, “overprotective” or “sulky”, and call them what they are.
“Name that it’s abuse behaviour and that she doesn’t deserved to be treated that way,” Ms Guldbaek said.
“Listen to (your friend’s) concerns, believe what they say and express concern,” she said. “Save your judgements and don’t victim-blame,” she said. “(L)et her know there are options and supports she can access and know what they are.”
It’s also “important to let her friend know that she will support her to make her own decisions,” the Women’s Legal Service NSW told Mamamia.
Some options open to women experiencing this type of abuse, however, may include seeking free legal advice about the possibility of making a report to the Police about the harassment, and seeking an ADVO for her protection.
“In general, it is good to keep written records of intimidating and harassing conduct so that it is easier to establish that there has been a pattern of controlling and intimidatingbehaviour over time,”the service said.
“There may also be technological solutions to the problem, if the harassment is coming from an ex-partner that a woman no longer wishes to be in contact with,” it added. “Changing a phone number or email address, or blocking the numbers or email addresses of the ex-partner,can ensure unwanted emails are not received.”
One other thing you can do? “Become educated about domestic violence so that you can recognise the signs and respond appropriately as a good citizen should,” Ms Guldbaek said.
Then, spread the word. Start a conversation with a friend you’re worried about. Post this article on your Facebook and tag every woman you know. Have a word to your little sister as a preventative measure.
And when you see abuse happening, call it for what it is.
You might also be interested in reading:
- How to talk to a friend in an abusive relationship.
- How to get an intervention order.
- “So, why didn’t you just LEAVE him?”
If you believe you may be an abusive partner, you can receive help via Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277. You may also find the following websites useful: 1800 respect, Out Watch, White Ribbon, Avert Family Violence and ANROWS.
The following apps may also be useful for survivors of domestic violence, or those escaping abusive relationships: “LiveFree“(a general informational App for the community to provide information about domestic violence and links to services); “Re-focus” (an interactive app for women who have separated or thinking of separating); “Girl’s Gotta Know” (a legal info web-based app); “Aurora” (an accessible way of finding information, support and services about domestic violence in NSW.