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Women’s-only support group ignites debate

Is this online support group serving its purpose?

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CW: Sexual Assault

A few months ago, a friend added me to a women-only Facebook group, where women in Sydney could share stories of unsettling and sometimes threatening encounters with men in public spaces.

The group, which will remain unnamed for the protection of its members, welcomes all people who identify as female, including “trans/non-binary [people] and anyone femme-identifying.”

It was created earlier this year after the disappearance and murder of Qi Yu, and the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon. Initially, the group functioned as an online space where women could post seeking help or assistance in getting out of a dangerous situation. Members were encouraged to have notifications turned on for all posts, to maximise the utility of the group. But as the group gained more members, its purpose quickly shifted from a responsive platform to an advisory one.

Madeline Ward, Co-Wom*n’s Officer at USyd’s SRC, and a member of the Facebook group, tells me a lot of members prefer to write ‘caution posts’ over going to the police. These are posts that alert others of unsafe situations and/or areas, “a good community alternative to policing,” Ward says.

Caution posts have catalysed the creation of a support network for women who have had unsafe experiences in public, with other members often commenting to offer support or share advice.

Jessica*, a member who posted a warning about an individual she met on Tinder, says, “the group dreams of fostering…a culture of solidarity amongst women themselves.”

The issue with these caution posts is the impact they have on the women reading them.

“I wouldn’t say I feel safer,” another member of the group, Rita* tells me.

“I get triggered by experiences that different women in the group have had and if I find out something has happened in an area I regularly frequent it just makes me feel afraid.”

Additionally, some posts use markers of nationality or race, such as being “dark-skinned” or “Lebanese looking,” to identify an offender, instead of describing them by clothing or accessories. Many consider this a form of racial profiling.

Madeline decided to post in the group to raise the issue that racial profiling perpetuates people of colour being perceived as aggressive and a ‘threat.’

“When people post things like ‘a Lebanese man in a green shirt’… what does a Lebanese person actually look like?”

Similar accusations of racial and class profiling occurred earlier this year in Plan International Australia’s interactive ‘Street Safety Map,’ which was designed as a tool for women to add and collect data on street harassment in Sydney. The most “unsafe” areas were overwhelmingly located in the Western suburbs, with many people from those areas feeling as if this represented popular stereotypes, rather than actual threats of danger.

These problems appear to stem from a lack of shared standards and guidelines as to what measures will actually be helpful for women.

For instance, not all members are happy that ‘name and shame’ posts are banned in the group due to fear of defamation. A ‘name and shame’ post identifies an offender who has previously harassed or assaulted a woman and warns members of the dangers associated with the individual.

“I feel silenced,” Jessica says. “The group identified a person who had assaulted a large number of people in the group alone.

“The post was later taken down… due to fear of litigation I think what we should fear is not litigation or backlash but other people being at risk of… a serial offender.”

Although defamation laws in Australia are strict, “the likelihood of someone bringing a defamatory cause of action against someone is incredibly rare, and the success of one, even less so,” she tells me.

As the group is online-based, it’s difficult to definitively rule out the possibility that posts by members would not be at risk of a defamation suit.

The women in the group—including myself—need to decide how the group should be used, whether as a supportive space for women or as a preventative tool to warn others of potential dangers. But until the group stops replicating the racial and social tensions already existent in our society, this goal will never be realised.

The moderators of the group rejected an interview and declined to comment. They said they are refraining from publicity until they establish clearer guidelines.

*Names have been changed

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