Women Need to Take More Steps to Protect Themselves in Digital Spaces

I remember the first time my dad sat me down in his office and gave me tips on how to protect myself. “When the girls at school are bullying you, defend yourself by pulling their hair. When a guy is doing something you don’t like, kick him in the groin and run.” Thanks dad, glad I never did either of those things. It wasn’t the usual type of advice I would hear from my dad, who is generally a passive individual but it wasn’t the first time I would get advice on how to protect myself. And it definitely wouldn’t be the first time I would think of how to protect my body if anything I didn’t like were to happen.

As a woman who lives in a busy city and loves to walk or take transit, I constantly have to think about my safety in public spaces and take steps to protect myself. Some of the advice and overthinking has actually come in handy and thankfully, some of it was never needed.

I know I’m not alone. Many other women I know have gone through similar measures and taken precautions they felt were necessary. Some even go as far as to take classes that specialize in self-defense, martial arts, boxing etc. Go them! Women like myself have grown up in a world where we are required to take steps to defend ourselves in the physical spaces we are in. For many of us, it is mandatory.

With technology being increasingly prevalent in our everyday, we have shifted to showing up in more digital spaces and while the spaces we’re in have changed, the mindset to protect ourselves is often forgotten or lost.

As women, we know we are more vulnerable online and open to attacks, threats, harassment, bullying and shamming. Unfortunately we are showing up in spaces, being harassed and quickly leaving. We are leaving the Internet, programs and tools at alarming rates because they are no longer safe places for us. We know we are vulnerable and that is why we care about our privacy way more than our counterparts.

But while women care more about our privacy, we don’t necessarily take steps to protect ourselves online much like we would do offline.

And with digital harassment towards women growing at an alarming rate, we need to learn how to protect ourselves in the new spaces we are showing up in.

This isn’t the Internet I want for women. I don’t want us to fight to maintain our presence online or be fearful of what could happen to us if we stayed in dangerous spaces. I want an ecosystem that is inclusive of our differences.

We are far from achieving this.

When Sierra and Liz from Mozilla came to me with the idea to host a self-defense class for women in NYC that drew the parallel between physical and digital self-defense, I knew this was the work we needed to be doing. We’ve been talking for months, even years, about how we deal with the issues women face online and get them engaged in the conversation. Knowledge and awareness was the start to an answer. The event would serve as a pilot to test how this messaging landed with attendees

Myself, Sierra and Liz from Mozilla. Photo by Amy Cao.

We created an intimate setting for 20 female influencers in the city. The first part of the event focused on discussion and activities that looked at why and how women could be safe online. I was excited to lead this and have shared my curriculum for others to view or use. The second part of the event focused on a physical self-defense workshop with a professional from Krav New York.

It was edgy. It was fun. The women were bruised (with their consent) from the physical component, and they were scared (the right kind) of their vulnerability online. I say the right kind of scared because it’s the kind of scared that makes you take action towards protecting your privacy and security online. This is the type of action we need more people to take.

It wasn’t until an article summarizing the event was released by The Verge titled “A Case for Taking Online Protection as Seriously as Physical Defense” that I started getting messages from the women in my network. Women who would say, the “Article is awesome! So much empowerment and such a different way of looking at things which I didn’t even connect like harassment online and offline are both similar.” Messages like that have been rolling in. Women supporting the work and wanting the event in their city. Even my mom asked me to run it at the school where she works. Suddenly, it feels like more women around me are realizing they need to protect themselves in all the spaces they are in, including the digital ones.

This is our work. And we need to do more of it.

We need to continue drawing parallels for the new world we live in and help others realize that while we have shifted the spaces in which conversations are happening, the issues are still the same. Just because you can’t physically feel the threat, doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain from the digital world.