Comment: why secret women-only online groups are important

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As a men-only Facebook group has been shut down for revenge porn and rampant misogyny, the value of female-only online groups becomes clear.

Since I was a little girl I have been taught I wasn’t safe.

The playground, neighbourhood streets, and eventually nightclubs were places where the onus was on me to watch my own back. Even high school classrooms and workplaces were places where I was at risk. As a girl and teenager I was told time and time again how and why I should keep myself safe, yet my classmates and I were taught very little about the importance of consent and respect.

Since I was a little girl I have been taught that other girls are my enemies.

I was told girls were out to get each other, everything was a competition and no matter what kind of person I was or what I did, I was an open target for judgement from other girls. The ultimate goal was always to be liked by boys, and it didn’t matter how much we had to tear each other down: how I was seen by boys was the true reflection of my worth. I believed what I was told, and let it colour my relationships and opinions of other girls. Unfortunately, it also followed me into my adult life.

If that’s what growing up was like for me, a white, cisgender, able bodied girl living in middle-class neighbourhoods, I can only imagine the complexities that would have been intertwined with safety and girl code if I was a woman of colour, transgender, or living in poverty. All examples of groups whose suicide, murder, bullying, and sexual assault statistics are far higher than my own.

A woman’s world is a battlefield where no one can be trusted. At least that’s what we’ve been told.

 "I can discuss my views and experiences without the outpouring of hatred, death or rape threats, harassment, and misogyny that a woman often finds in public spaces on the internet."

I am a member of several online secret women’s groups and also help to moderate one. Why? Because when I am there, I am safe. There are no men yelling out to me from their windows as they drive by. I can discuss my views and experiences without the outpouring of hatred, death or rape threats, harassment, and misogyny that a woman often finds in public spaces on the internet.  My opinions are never dismissed as hysterical or too emotional or assumed to have an agenda.

I am a member of these groups because as much as they give me in the way of safety, they also provide a place to learn about issues outside of my bubble. I was unaware of the true meaning of misogyny and how it coursed deeply through the lives of all women until I was introduced to a women’s safe space. Not only could I learn about and from other women, I could finally talk about my own experiences with assault in a place where people could relate and didn’t automatically feel uncomfortable or presume I was lying.

I’ve witnessed women bravely open up about their gender dysphoria, help other abused women set up their new lives through the donation of funds or furniture, and importantly I’ve learned the true meaning of intersectionality and ways that my own words or actions contribute to the systemic oppression of women of colour.

"When women feel empowered, it challenges the status quo."

I often hear of men either successfully or unsuccessfully attempting to infiltrate the many women’s groups that exist on the internet, and while I can’t understand why men partake in invasions of privacy of that level, I’m never surprised. When women feel empowered, it challenges the status quo.  While my online friends and I are learning, sharing, and supporting; people on the outside are trying to prevent what they see as the “feminist agenda” through compromising our privacy, leaking deeply personal information and photos, and essentially attempting to take back the power we have found through our solidarity.

" I have disclosed the name of a man who was sending abuse and threats of harm..."

The appropriateness of “naming and shaming” our abusers if they are not present to defend themselves is a topic often discussed within and outside of these groups. I have certainly been witness to this happening in these groups and I think it’s an imperative aspect to dismantling rape culture and the trivialisation of harassment by mainstream society and media. The bravery in naming your abuser is trumped only by even talking about your experience in the first place. There is no merit to the person being present to defend themselves; these are private groups where women have nothing to gain by lying or misrepresenting their experiences. In a society where up to 70 per cent of rapes go unreported, we must encourage women to tell their stories. I have disclosed the name of a man who was sending abuse and threats of harm to other women, and in turn several women thanked me profusely as they had just matched with him on dating apps. I’m not concerned with protecting an abuser’s privacy at the expense of protecting women’s safety.

"What may have started as an important space for men to share their own issues has become a medium from which to degrade and betray women."

If there are negative aspects to these groups, it’s the ingrained misogyny and societal beliefs of the constitution of womanhood, femininity and power structures that still make their way into even the most well-intentioned conversations. But here we are provided a platform to learn how we can recalibrate these types of thinking in a helpful way. If the recent media surrounding Melbourne Men’s Society is anything to go by, what may have started as an important space for men to share their own issues has become a medium from which to degrade and betray women.

I, and the other women in these groups, use our private online spaces for positivity, support and learning. To share lived experiences, learn from lived experiences and exist in a space where collectively, for once in our lives, we can feel safe. And despite what society has always told me, somewhere along the way, whether it was online, in my workplace, in a club or on my lounge with a glass of wine in hand; I've learned women are not my enemies. They are my refuge. 

Jenna Quartermain is a moderator at an online women's space and contributes to several others. 

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