Sex and Crime in the Time of Social Media

Part 1 of 2

Whatever we may have thought or felt about erswhile lovers Katrina Halili and Hayden Kho–and whether or not we may have felt that their case was worth any airtime at all–we do have a lot for which to thank them. For one, their little lovers quarrel showed how appalingly simple it can be to produce and distribute intimate videos without one’s partner’s consent; for another, their case cracked wide open a series of social phenomena that have been penetrating the urban underbelly for a while now but which remain, for the most part, undisclosed and undiscussed. It also forced us to look at their issue as more than just a domestic matter or a sordid secret gone awry, but to look at what is essentially a private matter as a cause for public concern and action.

Investigating electronic-Violence Against Women (e-VAW)

From September to October of this year, the Foundation for Media Alternatives hosted a series of consultation meetings with government and non-government organizations in an attempt to map out issues and initiatives related to emerging forms of violence against women (VAW) using information and communications technology. These forms of abuse, collectively named e-VAW, are many, ranging from harassment and stalking through mobile telephony all the way to cyber-prostitution, sex trafficking, and online child pornography through the Web and social media.

According to the definition used by FMA, based on Republic Act 9262 or the “Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act”, “Violence Against Women” is defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberaty, whether occurring in public or private life.” The forms of VAW that are criminalized under Philippine laws are: rape, sexual harassment, violence against women and children (including physical, sexual, and emotional and psychological abuse), and trafficking.

Based on data provided by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, (and used in FMA’s presentation during a consultation meeting) the following were the reported figures for the first quarter of 2010: 451 cases of physical abuse, 237 cases of sex trafficking, 190 cases of emotional abuse, 79 cases of rape, 52 cases of incest, 21 cases of involuntary prostitution, and 11 cases of acts of lasciviousness.

Meanwhile, e-VAW, or violence against women mediated by or perpetuated through the use of information and communication technology, were classified under the following (definitions provided by the Foundation for Media Alternatives):

  • Cyber or mobile harassment – The sending of unwanted and unwelcome messages or images through SMS or email that is sexual in nature; the uploading of intimate photos of videos to blackmail or humiliate a woman through a local network or the Internet in general; and the sending of threatening messages to cast fear or show power and control over the woman.
  • Cyber or mobile stalking or surveillance – Tracking the location of a woman through mobile phones, or accessing online activities, information, and data accessed by third parties for the purposes of blackmailing the woman, using data to file counter-chargers, or harassing and abusing the woman online or offline.
  • Involuntary cyber-prostitution/sex work and trafficking – Organized and syndicated commercial operations involving the online trade of women and children, including the operation of cybersex dens in urban and rural areas
  • Online child pornography – The bringing in of children to computer shops to pose nude (or half-nude) for money; the recruitment of under-18 students to tbe “models” or talents in cybersex or cyber-voyeur videos
  • Unauthorized recording, reproduction, and distribution of images and videos – Including distributing unauthorized images and videos with sexual content through CDs, the Internet, and mobile phones
  • Indirect e-VAW – The use of sexualized images of women in online games, such as strip poker and earning points for killing prostitutes (in games such as Grand Theft Auto)

The discussions in these meetings showed the extent of e-VAW practices around the country. The term “night shift”, for instance, denotes the practice of young professionals engaging in nighttime sex work in cybersex cafes–a popular sideline among yuppies in Davao City. There is also the term “Cyberbora”, which refers to cybersex work by gays and transsexual women. Apparently, sexual abuse through the Web happens not only in the country’s metropolises or in urban areas, but it also happens even in the sleepiest towns, no thanks to sexual predators operating from within nipa huts equipped with wireless broadband access, who rope innocent children into their world in exchange for a few bucks or sweets. Online child pornography is said to be a lucrative racket, with perpetrators raking in anywhere between P30,000 and P100,000 monthly. Discussions revealed that there is a huge international market for these activities, with payments transmitted from means as sophisticated as e-commerce sites through those as “amateur” as pasaload (mobile credit transfer) or, more specifically, G-Cash.

Among teenagers, sexually abusive practices abound in peer groups and “textclans”. (Parents: Take note!) A “textclan” is a fraternity-like organization, where “clan members” are made to go through sex with multiple partners or, in some cases, are even gang-raped as part of their “rites of passage.” A “rainbow party” is a glamorized term for an orgy, where the object of the activity is to have sexual intercourse with as many partners as possible and “collect” different colors of the condoms being used. On the other hand, a “ninja party” is one where the participants are blindfolded and engage in sexual activities in round-robin (or speed-dating) fashion, not knowing exactly who they’re being intimate with at any particular point.

And, let’s not forget: e-VAW happens not only within the context of cybersex or prostitution and sex trafficking via the World Wide Web. It happens, as the Katrina-Hayden case showed so inelegantly, within the confines of one’s intimate relationship–sometimes within the supposedly sacred context of marriage. Some anecdotes have shown that, in the cause of marriages ending because of domestic violence, wives are subjected to even more psychological and emotional abuse when their husbands use mobile phones to threathen them and their children, even using telcos’ “mobile tracker” services to determine their spouses’ whereabouts.

Taking back technology to prevent e-VAW

An obvious problem here is the ubiquity of mobile and Web services that make it effortless for perpetrators to move around freely and anonymously. Mobile prepaid cards enable anonymity in messaging and content distribution, with mobile prepaid cards being sold without requiring any information from the purchaser. According to data shown by the FMA (from the National Telecommunications Commission), around 95 percent of the country’s mobile users are on prepaid lines. Rapid advances in mobile technology has also brought access to imaging and recording services to practically anyone who owns a multimedia-capable mobile phone.

Social media also pose obvious risks. FMA’s data shows that, in the Philippines, more women than men are on Facebook, the world’s No. 1 social network (7.95 million for women versus 7.25 million for men). Globally, according to the June 2010 study “Women on the Web” by comScore: “Women spend 30% more time in [social networking sites] than men.” Although Facebook has taken extra measures to allow users to protect their privacy and personal information, and technically requires its users to be at least 13 years old, , we all know how easy it is for anyone to fake personal information online.

Take Back the Tech - The Philippine Campaign
Take Back the Tech - The Philippine Campaign

The landscape may seem bleak, especially with Philippine legislation taking ages to catch up with current social realities (as dissected by Cocoy Dayao in a related series of posts), but there is hope. Beginning November 25, different organizations worldwide are launching Take Back the Tech, a global campaign led by the Association for Progressive Communications’ Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) and supported by women’s groups and advocates in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, the Congo, Germany, India, Macedonia, Mexico, Malaysia, the Philippines, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, and the United States, among others. It aims to encourage women to “take control of information communications technology, and use it in activism to eliminate violence against women” through online and offline advocacy actions spread out over 16 days (from November 25 to December 10).

Part 2 of this series will reveal initiatives being planned by the Philippine campaign–among them, research and data-gathering, capacity-building, public information and education, and policy development and advocacy–while Part 3 will share tips on what to do in cases of cyber-stalking or harassment. To learn more about e-VAW and Take Back the Tech, follow Take Back the Tech on Twitter, email [email protected], or contact the Foundation for Media Alternatives at (+63 2) 435 6684 or fax number (+63 2) 433 2192

Photo credit: Portrait Some rights reserved by Jaci Berkopec

Niña Terol-Zialcita

Niña Terol-Zialcita is a “Communicator, Connector, idea Curator, and Changemaker” who uses the power of words and ideas to advocate causes and promote the Philippines at its best. She is’s Deputy Editor, as well as Editor-in-Chief of asianTraveler, the longest-running travel magazine in the Philippines. When she is not writing, blogging, or traveling, Niña is conducting writing workshops with Writer’s Block Philippines, hanging out at art galleries and cafés, and performing poetry with her husband, percussionist and performance artist Paul Zialcita. She is also the author of the book "[r]evolutionaries: The new generation of Filipino youth and youth organizations".

  • plsburydoughboy ,

    I’d like to get further clarification on indirect eVAW – the use of sexualized images in video games. Why are video games being singled out here? Aren’t overly sexualized images also prevalent in other media?

    Further to the point, how is this violence against women?

    I hate to be the devil’s advocate here, but this provision seems dismissive and presumptuous on the intention and use of sexualized imagery in media.

    Since you’re singling out video games, I’d also like to point out there are more than a few positive portrayals of women in video games, with varying levels of sexualization (from Lara Croft to Aerith to Carmen Sandiego to Princess Peach)

    • Farina ,

      This is an example of an article that bravely points out women issues and discrimination within the society. Although many attempts are made by women organizations and others to protect women, it is usually taken aside in comparison with the other priorities of the country. Lame fact isn’t it? But it is the truth.

      • Al ,

        Great post Nina.
        Thanks too for the endorsement and mention of the activity…
        Mahabang laban ito…glad to have you on board

        • UP nn grad ,

          The blogpost raises so many intertwined issues that may need to be separated out because of differences in priorities or responses.

          (1) crimes against Pilipinas youth —- there already are existing laws, so the action is for capture and prosecution of the criminals (sex predators, “commercially-minded” parents who “lend out” their children for financial gain, others). Unfortunately the Noynoy administration is no different than the GMA administration with regards protecting Pilipinas youth from predators.

          (2) confusion among the general population as to what is illegal and what is not. The sentence “… binayaran naman, eh bakit uma-angal?” is probably too often said. Or this one — “… letrato lang naman, sino naman ang napinsala?” This requires a Department of Education that is more active with regards presentation of the issues.

          (3) Self-protection is very critical because (just like spousal abuse) the laws are so poorly-worded (or there may not even be a law against “it”) that one has to be very careful so as not to become a victim.