A stanger is a stranger no matter how you meet them. Whether you meet one at a bar, on the street at Carnival or — as is the case increasingly in our modern social media age — online, the degree of knowledge we have of the other person is the same: none.
But while it may be equally risky for someone to engage with a person online as it is in real life, the online forum has certain unique dangers and pitfalls for which strategies must be devised. Just as a man in a bar can lie, social media is easily manipulated to create an impression that can be deceptively disarming.
People may hide behind catfished photos; they can modify genuine photos or build false narratives around them; they can also use multiple accounts to probe people from different angles — the impact of all of which can range from the mildly annoying to the profoundly harmful.
The tragic case of a 22-year-old Morvant woman who was raped after meeting with someone she met online has raised debate about how we engage with social media.
Let us be perfectly clear: no person, woman or man, calls rape upon themselves. All too often there is a tendency in our society to blame the victim for their misfortune. So a woman who is raped is often asked what clothes she was wearing. She is also asked whether she was “asking for it” in any way through any signals. As human beings, all have a right to the fullest expression of their human individuality; that individuality is as sexual as it is intellectual — no one should be shamed for seeking companionship and love or the fulfilment of sexual desires. Certainly, our society does not hold men in opprobrium for doing same, unless, perhaps, they happen to be gay. No woman calls rape upon herself when she agrees to meet with a man she has met online. No woman calls rape upon herself period. When consent is denied or withdrawn, that should be respected. Therefore, we disagree with the utterances of law enforcement officials who have singled out females for particular cause for concern as though women somehow have a special role to play in not being raped by men. Rape can happen between people who have known each other for years, just as it can happen between strangers. Oprah was raped by a family member; Queen Latifah was raped by a trusted babysitter; the late poet Maya Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The list goes on and on.
The irony is that while people who engage in online dating are judged to be engaging in risky behaviour, many people feel safer socialising online. That is because the high level of crime — which has seen murders in rum shops, outside nightclubs and cinemas, and even on busy pavements in the capital — means people prefer to engage with the outside world from the relative security of home.
Yet, the sad truth is all of us are vulnerable to people with sinister intent, no matter where or how we meet them. The root problem is the behaviour of criminal individuals.
There are advantages and disadvantages of social media. Social media is easy and inexpensive and it allows for the conveying of a large amount of information in a short space of time. However, it can be manipulated. People are also left at a disadvantage because they cannot pick up on cues that might be detectable in an in-person meeting, whether through body language or voice intonation. But the most charming, wonderful person met in person can turn out to be a rapist. The real issue is arming people with the practical tools they need to minimise risk.
There are many resources online that deal with safety. Basic things to do include meeting at a space where there are witnesses, always sharing details of the meeting with trusted friends, and controlling information as much as possible.
The alternative to living our lives freely is to stay walled up at home. Instead of existing in mausoleums we need to find ways to exist safely together, we strangers living in this strange land.