Police have a responsibility to respond as strongly to the online harassment of women as they did for Dylan Grimes

Police have a responsibility to respond as strongly to the online harassment of women as they did for Dylan Grimes

Tayla Harris

While participating in the AFL Dreamtime game in Darwin over the weekend, Richmond player Dylan Grimes was subjected to horrific online abuse. The harassment got so bad that Grimes feared for the safety of his family, so he reported it to Victoria Police with the backing of Richmond FC and the AFL.

Victoria Police acted swiftly and comprehensively, identifying Grimes’ abuser and making an arrest as quickly as Tuesday.

The actions of the police are commendable in taking these threats seriously and responding so quickly. If only the same kind of support could be offered to women who experience the same thing.

We know women experience serious online harassment and abuse at higher rates than men, but it is rare to hear about women having such positive encounters with the police when they make reports.

In the mayhem that has been 2020 it’s easy to forget the sexual harassment and abuse of AFLW star Tayla Harris took place only last year. Where was the swift police response to this incident? Harris told radio station RSN that she had received support from the AFL community, but worried about why police didn’t seem to be considering whether the comments could be the tip of the abuse iceberg.

Just last month, Walkey-award winning journalist Leigh Sales exposed, not for the first time, the kinds of vile sexualised abuse she receives every time she interviews a politician. At the time of writing this article, Sales was again trending on Twitter after a tough interview with Anthony Albanese. Sales said in Twitter in July, “Check my @ mentions to see for yourself after any big interview”.

In June, numerous outlets reported the online abuse of Human Rights Lawyer and advocate Nyadol Nyuon after she appeared on Q&A. Perhaps most gallingly of all, one of Nyuon’s abusers was a South Australian police officer. South Australia police apologised and said the officer had been suspended pending an investigation, but it’s unclear whether any further disciplinary action has been taken.

Police serve a useful and important function, but they are not beyond reproach and they must be held to account. Women have been documenting and reporting this abuse for years and little has been done about it.

There needs to be greater understanding within the police force that someone does not need to be in the public eye to feel threatened or exposed. Countless women journalists, writers, commentators, editors, and women with nothing to do with the media industry experience online harassment and don’t report it because they are afraid it would result in even worse attacks, or they fear they won’t be taken seriously.

In 2016 I reported to the police I was feeling threatened after receiving a text ending with “how’s your safe space cunt?” from a man I turned down for a second date. The officer I spoke to told me to block the number and just ignore it, because it was “unlikely” the man would do anything. The security guards where I worked took me more seriously than the police did, printing off his photo and sticking it up in the office in case he was seen on campus. We need the police to be taking online abuse and harassment of women as seriously as the VCA Security team did.

Gender Equity Victoria has been funded by the Victorian Government to develop moderation guidelines for media organisations to help them protect their women journalists from online abuse and to respond appropriately when it does happen. We emphasise that it is the institution’s responsibility to support their employee, whether freelance or full-time, in making reports to the police. As we have seen with Grimes’s case, the support of organisations goes a long way. For those without organisational support, having someone to assist is essential when they experience harassment. We suggest women go with a friend when they make reports to the police and make sure they have documented everything, including their interaction with the police.

In 2017 Dr Emma Jane and Dr Nicole Vincent brought together activists, police representatives and academics to workshop ideas about how organisations and institutions like the police should be supporting and responding to reports of online abuse and harassment. In their report Jane and Vincent quote blogger and activist Kath Read who said the police had told her to “stop being so confident” and “get offline” when she reported harassment and abuse.

As Jane and Vincent argued, police should have “clear guidance about what evidence victims need to present when reporting cyberhate, whom they should present this evidence to, and what standards must be met to ensure that evidence is valid”. At present, GEN VIC cannot find evidence that these guidelines exist online. We are in the process of developing such a resource.

The police response to the Grimes case demonstrates that they know exactly how to respond to online abuse and harassment when it is presented to them. This therefore begs the question, why are they letting so many of the members of the community down when it comes to online harassment?

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