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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Virtual injustice : technology, gendered violence and the limits of the law Brydolf-Horwitz, Rachel


Technology-facilitated violence faces a dangerous combination of attitudes: that such violence isn’t serious and that it can’t be regulated. I look at linked events – the experiences and suicide of a young woman, and the passage of Canada’s first standalone anti-cyberbullying legislation – to analyze the workings of the Canadian justice system and the consequences of thinking about the digital as 'not real life.' The young woman, Rehtaeh Parsons, came to symbolize the dangers of cyberbullying, but her case involved sexual assault, the distribution of a photograph of that assault, and lengthy navigation of the justice and mental health systems in addition to the abuse directed her way via technology. In trying to understand how violence ‘online’ is naturalized and why the harms of technology-facilitated violence receive uneven recognition, I look at the roots and consequences of assumptions that orbit Rehtaeh’s case. I illustrate how as a young woman, her allegations of sexual assault were disclosed and confronted institutionally in an environment and culture steeped with longstanding discriminatory myths and stereotypes, especially around gender, alcohol, consent and sexuality. The distribution of the photograph of this traumatic night and the abuse around it were similarly invisibilized. They did not represent to the police an incident of tangible, corporeal harm because of a number of beliefs about digital technologies. In addition to the persistent partition of online and offline, with offline envisioned as ‘real life,’ I discuss how the widely used metaphor of the Internet as a frontier zone locates it on the edge of or just outside of the reach of the law. In effect, while greater attention to cyberbullying holds the promise of increasing recognition of technology-facilitated violence, there remains a disconnect between the embodied experiences of technology-facilitated violence and legal and social recognition of harm.

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