Online sexual harassment as a political weapon in the Post-Umbrella era

Online sexual harassment as a political weapon in the Post-Umbrella era

Jun Lam

I first met Tiffany eight months ago at a café in Mongkok, where I interviewed her for my dissertation titled ‘Gendering the Umbrella Movement’. She was one of the few female students who climbed over the fence and joined the standoff with the police in Civic Square on 26th September 2015, the move that triggered the 79-day occupation.

Concerning her experience as a female protester, she said: ‘why should girls be protected? Actually boys and girls have the same chance to be injured. Why do they accept that boys can have scars but girls are so vulnerable and should stand at the back? I do not agree this at all… When boys tried to grasp me and throw me to the back, I would stand straight and say, “Don’t touch me. I am okay. I can protect myself”’.’ She was fearless and independent. She never stepped back in the face of physical confrontation and political prosecution. Despite the dissolution of the protest, she was optimistic about the possibilities the movement had brought about to the civil society of Hong Kong. Little did she know what happened next would become a bigger challenge in her political life and to her personhood.

Around two weeks after I interviewed Tiffany, the social media was crammed with her images. She was at the centre of the dispute about the disaffiliation of Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) at her university, City University of Hong Kong (CityU). In the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, five referendums were held in different universities in Hong Kong to decide whether the respective student bodies would disaffiliate from the coalition. This was in response to the perceived inefficiency of HKFS’s leadership of the movement, which was seen as having led to its failure. Tiffany, who was upfront about her stance during the campaign against the disaffiliation, was under tremendous attack online.

The image of her distributing pamphlets in support of HKFS on the campus was widely distributed via the social network of university students (not limited to CityU), calling her the ‘dirty cunt’ of HKFS. Pictures from her Facebook account were shared with blatantly sexist remarks. On the Golden Forum, the most popular online forum in Hong Kong, there was even a thread dedicated to discussing ‘the reasons and extent of the smelliness of her sex organ’. As I was about to send her my support, I found that her Facebook account, which was the way I approached her originally, had been deactivated.

I met Tiffany again five months later, when I joined the research team on ‘women’s participation in social movements’ led by Petula Sik Ying Ho. In the face of months of intensive sexual violence, Tiffany had become fearful. During the voting period for the referendum her classmates would shout in her face with the most degrading slurs. She was scared to be identified – she would use the backstairs, choose a longer route and keep her head down.

Tiffany was not alone though. Her experience of online sexual harassment was shared by other female activists whose names, if put into Google, would produce threads of profanity and pornographic doctored images. They no longer wanted to be seen, when being seen means being body shamed. As a result, they started to fade away from the political arena. For Tiffany, the most distressing comment was from a female stranger saying: ‘I have only been called a bitch in my life. She must be really trashy to be called a disgusting cunt by that many people.

This new form of online sexual harassment differs from that theorised in existing feminist communications literature in that its destructiveness does not come from the anonymity of abusers. Once female political figures were targeted their opponents would share pictures or writings from their profiles, and invite their peers to ‘come on in to her comment section and fuck the “leftist-plastique-cunt”’. All of a sudden, the women’s social media profiles are filled with filthy language, threats and false allegations by hundreds, even thousands, of identifiable users. Worse still, most of these abusers were those whom the victims considered to be co-participants in the Umbrella Movement. These were the people they had shared living space with in the street while fighting for the same cause just months ago.

The dissolution of the protest, without gaining any tangible outcomes, has fostered a hostile attitude among movement actors towards the perceived leaders and the activists associated with them, (mostly identified with the left-wing), and has produced a political environment that encourages personalised and sexualised attacks. We have witnessed an intensified paternalistic field of power, that seeks to systematically injure and exclude female participants, in the midst of the split between movement actors, namely the left-wing and the localists. Although our research participants are mainly left-wing female activists, online sexual harassment occurs towards female members on both sides. Localist female activists are also often under attack by left-wing activists, often as a form of revenge.

When female activists become the target of online sexual harassment due to their political stance, they are also deprived of the words to express and defend themselves. Most of their intimate partners, who are also activists, consider these attacks to be too trivial to care about. Making comments such as ‘The arguments happen on the Internet. Just let them stay there.’ ‘They are not real.’ When female activists continue to let these attacks occupy them emotionally, their partners would start to allege that they were too feeble as to be activists and too sensitive to empty threats. Thus, the sexual harassment not only bars their political participation, but also damages their personal lives.

With regard to technology-facilitated sexual violence, Henry and Powell (2015) prompted us to reconsider its effects as embodied harms .To consider online harassment as non-real and maintain a dualism between physical and emotional harm fails to take violence and injury seriously as constitutive of embodied experience. Some of the intimate others of these female activists would even make frivolous remarks about these bullies, and exacerbate the harm. There is a need to understand and reframe the nature and consequences of such violence, so the injured at least have a vocabulary to articulate their experiences, defend themselves, and continue to exist in the political arena.

At an organisational level, these attacks are usually tied to the respective civil groups these female activists belong to. Some of our participants revealed that instead of giving support work partners, from their organisations, have blamed them for implicating their organisations and criticised their arguments as not being plausible enough and therefore creating an opportunity for their opponents to attack. The bodies of female activists are objectified as a political asset of the organisations. In the masculinist understanding of both attackers and co-workers to harass female bodies is to attack the organisation itself. When the perceived chastity of female members is spoiled, the imagined wholeness of the organisation is tamed and the male members are shamed too. The female body is represented as a source of horror, shame and burden. This forces female activists into a state of constant insecurity and self-blame. In our research we discovered that being an easy target for attack in the public domain leads directly to the denial of equal participation and a fair chance of leadership for Hong Kong female activists.

The new media creates a unique platform for gender violence. During the Umbrella Movement and the Post-Umbrella era, the architecture of social networks has been built according to polarised political ideologies. These networks replace a more conventional sense of social movement organisations (Castells, 2012). As street protests dissolve, the continuity of these political links is nonetheless sustained by misogynist objectification. The female body is objectified as a political tool that glues the fraternal bond of strangers in their networks through reproducing the traditional patriarchal script of inequality and abuse.

The scale of such sexual harassment, often numbering hundreds of attackers at once, displaces accountability and diffuses responsibility. Victims are left with little or no social support. The injury is not being articulated or attended to, as these acts are not perceived as violence in the political domain in Hong Kong – not yet. Most of the participants in our research are facing prosecution at the moment and they are fearless because there has been a well-established support system in our civil society for those facing state violence. In contrast, when it comes to gender violence, these same activists are put in an extremely vulnerable position in which their injuries remain unspoken and unspeakable.

There has been a long tradition of feminist social movement theory in sociology but little has been done with regard to online platforms. We are lacking feminist analysis of online political networking and its effects on personal and organisational practices in the context of social movements. In the Post-Umbrella era, online violence and ideological battles constitute a significant part of the political life of Hong Kong activists and ordinary citizens, and gender is at the core of it. This domain is under-explored but it is nonetheless important especially when we could all agree that the new media has played a major role throughout the movement.

Castells, M. (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movement in the Internet Age. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.
Henry, N. & Powell. A. (2015). Embodied harms: Gender, shame and technology facilitated sexual violence in cyberspace. Violence Against Women 21(6): 758-779.


Jun Lam is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong and is currently working on the study ‘Hong Kong Politics and Personal Life ’ (no outputs or website in English yet). His research interests are located at the intersection of social movements and feminist theory.