If you are a woman with any form of online profile, you have probably experienced some kind of sexist comment, misogynistic jibe or encounter with a creepy stalker.
Basic social etiquette gets thrown out the window within online spaces, especially when it comes to the treatment of women, and incidences of an unsolicited dick pic arriving in a female’s Facebook inbox are not uncommon.
Social media has become a breeding ground for unfiltered sexism, making it an exhausting, and sometimes dangerous, place for women to be. There are endless stories of women receiving rape and death threats online, usually for merely expressing an opinion.
A 2014 Pew survey found that young women “experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels”, with 26% having been stalked online and 25% experiencing sexual harassment. A more recent study conducted in Australia in 2016, found harassment of women online is at risk of becoming “an established norm in our digital society,” with 76% of women under 30 experiencing online harassment.
Some women, tired of the online rigmarole, have found an alternative way to avoid harassment in the form of private, women’s only groups. These groups (most commonly found on Facebook) are proving to be vital not only for avoiding abuse but for providing them with a safe space for support, encouragement, friendship and entertainment.
Astrid, who is a member of the private women-only Facebook group “Just a Little Idea” explained to The Tempest why the group has been invaluable to her: “I realised quite soon after joining that this was genuinely a place where I could be vulnerable safely. It is truly a no-judgement area where women are lifted up instead of forever being brought down – unlike the vast majority of the internet.”
These Facebook groups are a personable and inclusive platform for women of all ages, backgrounds and interests, and are proving to be highly popular. For example, the “Fierce Babe Network” (FBN), originally founded in Leeds, was so successful and grew so large the group had to be shut down in 2014 when it became too difficult to moderate. After missing the sense of community she experienced in the group Lorna Gray decided to set up another FBN group based in Liverpool.
“I thought it was such a shame that it had to go. There was a definite gap in my life. I really felt like I, and so many other girls in and around Liverpool would benefit from this sort of network, so decided to set it up [again] and I’m really glad I did,” Lorna said to The Tempest.
The group now has over 1,000 “self-defined females helping, supporting and creating amazing and inspiring relationships with one another.” Due to its growing popularity the group has branched out and set up a number of sub-groups, for topics such as fitness and books.
“We live in a male-dominated society,” said Lorna. “It’s fact that males have the upper hand. A female-only group is refreshing as it differs from the norm and it allows women to talk about things they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing in front of other genders.”
The necessity of these women-only groups is undeniable, as evidenced by the Australian group “Help a Sister Out”, which aims to provide career support and advice. Formed in summer 2015, the group now has over 6,000 members and there are also various spin-off groups based in different locations with similarly large memberships.
Its founder Catherine Brooks, said: “It’s wonderful to have a safe space for women to ask questions about their career, or start up, and have a wealth of expertise provided out of kindness and to further the sisterhood!”
The private Facebook group “Just a little idea” (JALI) is an invite and women only space, set up in 2013 by Toni Allum and Emma Hulse as a discussion group for them and 15 of their close friends. The group has grown astronomically since, with membership currently standing at over 1,700 including women from all over the world.
The Tempest spoke with Toni to discuss the group’s success, and why having women only spaces online are so important.
Why did you decide to set up the Just a little idea group?
“When we set up the group, the initial intention was that it was going to be more of a creative platform – we thought it would be fun to set up a fb group to share ideas not just about feminism but also about ‘womanhood’ – ultimately we wanted a space for us and our friends to share and bare all. I guess it hasn’t really worked out the way we planned, but in a way I think that’s a testament to all the amazing women we invited to the group to begin with, who made it their own, utilised it well and allowed it to grow.”
What’s the best thing about the group for you?
“The support. 100% the support. Women are fucking incredible. I love scrolling through the page on my way to work and seeing a post about someone’s dodgy contraception nightmare, or someone being catcalled in the street, or asking for advice about how to handle a sexist family member…I am constantly overwhelmed by the solidarity I see amongst these amazing women. It’s really special to witness.
I think especially now that the group is much bigger and the demographic is broader, I love reading conversations between two people and thinking that this kind of raw, honest conversation might not have been possible in real life. “
Why do you think so many women have used the group and find so much enjoyment and solidarity from it?
“If I’m honest I think it’s because it’s a really varied forum and there aren’t many rules. You won’t get penalised for not knowing something, or asking questions, you are free to use the space as you wish. I think women like using it as a platform because the internet is such a big part of our collective life and this happens to be a forum that you can share things with like minded people without fear (I hope!). I think people appreciate that they can post about intersectionality, cultural appropriation, plus size models or just a funny meme and, although they might be challenged, it will be in a less antagonistic place than the internet can sometimes be.”
Why do you keep it as a female-only space?
“I literally ask myself this question about once a month. It’s so important that we open out the conversations we’re having on the group with all the various men in our lives. I do think that if there’s one thing every active participant in the group could do, it would be to talk about the kind of things that are discussed on the group with their significant men openly, without shame, or fear of embarrassment, and then I think that’s when we’ll begin to see more of a societal change.
“Having said all that, Emma and I asked the group about a year ago what they thought about allowing those that identify as men into the group, and the answer was a resounding no. I think that’s because the group has become synonymous with the idea of a ‘safe space’ – and you know what, to put it bluntly – there are enough spaces in this world where women feel unsafe, and we didn’t want JALI to be one of them.”
How can the public online space be more welcoming to women, like the Just a Little Idea group?
“I think as I said it begins with opening out the type of discussions we have on JALI and the manner in which such discussions are held, and allowing those that truly believe feminism does not involve them to realise how much of an active role it plays in their daily lives. Also, there will always be trolls – ignore them.”
Women’s Facebook groups may seem controversial or even a backward step to some in striving for gender equality, but it is clear these groups provide members with an organic and unique environment to discuss, support and learn in a safe and inclusive space.
Daisy Miles, a member of Just a Little Idea, summed up the experience faultlessly, “I feel like there is a group of women out there rooting for me and who I can root for. We get angry about stuff together, we get sad about stuff together, we celebrate each other’s and other women’s achievements together. Sometimes we disagree, sometimes heatedly, but from this we help to educate each other, and I feel more confident attempting to educate other people.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity.