Slut Shaming: Notes from a panel

My university has decided that it must act more quickly to join into a larger social debate on current events and to this end they arranged an open event on cyber bullying. The topic was well chosen as in December Göteborg experienced “slut shaming riots” when groups of youths attempted to catch and punish the person they thought was behind a local slut shaming account on Instagram.

The event was in the form of a panel with psychology professor Ann Frisén, police commissioner and chief of the youth section Birgitta Dellenhed, and myself. The university vice chancellor Helena Lindholm Schulz moderated the panel and three thoughtful and perceptive school teenagers were given the role of questioning the panelists before the audience were given time for questions.

The event was held in the old university main hall and was very well attended.

Professor Frisén opened with a presentation of what the concept of cyber bullying was and presented the findings from her research. Her worked confirmed that many children and young people experienced cyber bullying. I was next and then the presenters session was completed by commissioner Dellenhed explaining how the youth section worked and the basics of the recent slut shaming riots.

My role was to talk was on the technological side of the problem. As the reason for the panel was the result of slut shaming I focused my talk on technology’s role in slut shaming. I began with a restatement technology as neutral by using the well know “Guns don’t kill people”. In this perspective I explained that technology is not misogynistic per se but it is important not to forget that the technology is embedded with the values of the creators and adapted by the users.

I used a timeline of the last decades social media innovations to show that we have in a particularly short time evolved a whole new communications infrastructure. This infrastructure has enabled us to do things which we previously could not. This enabling has created new behaviors that may previously been unacceptable.

The ability to do new (and maybe unacceptable) things through technology means that it is our use that brings into question the rightness or wrongness of the situation. Users need social cues and guidance to know the ethics of their actions. Carrying on in technology at time minimizes the ethical social cues and makes behavior online morally complex.

As the whole event was focused on slut shaming and the riots there was a call for order and justice underlying everything that was being said. So I tried to bring back some balance by pointing out that the value of freedom and freedom of expression is important to our lives and societies. Yes I raised a warning finger against moral panic.

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
Salman Rushdie

The questions from the students were very interesting and deep. They reflected a need for both space and security. The complexity of this paradox (surveillance and control) was not lost on them. The questions from the floor were mostly good but towards the end was a gruff man demanding more surveillance, law and order. If we know who did it why don’t we prosecute and punish? His comments were applauded which made me think that some of the finer points were lost on the crowd.

The police explained that they do not ignore prosecutions but finding the guilty is not easy. She also pointed out that the person behind the account is also a victim (in some ways). I tried to argue that to catch the guilty in the way he was proposing would entail surveillance of all the innocent and was not compatible to a free and open society. But he denied that he was talking surveillance.

Most of the questions carried the discussion along nicely and the whole event seemed to be enjoyed by all.

The panel and the venue