Isolation is not a problem of the past
The 67th UN Convention on the Status of Women began last week in New York. As I watched the live events via zoom, I was struck by the activists’ energy and joy. The hybrid live/remote events created a window into the most important aspect of any gathering: community building. Technologies like zoom are an innovation to combat the sense of isolation that is part of the human condition. But like all things human, technology is imperfect and flawed.
I could sense the excitement and anticipation that enveloped the individuals in the room at the UCC Ecumenical Women’s Orientation, but I could not experience it. I was, quite literally, remote. Later that week, I attended another hybrid gathering of Ecumenical women and had a similar experience. The people in the room were exhausted from a long day of meetings, but they sparkled with conviction. Coming together in person had enabled them to connect with like-minded individuals, to learn about initiatives happening around the world that were making life better for women and girls, and to share stories about their own activism. They were building a community as I watched.
And that was exciting. It dovetailed with the presentations I watched regarding the myriad of ways in which NGOs around the world are changing society for the better — not only in developing countries, but also in communities that resemble my own. I am so happy that these remarkable individuals were able to meet in person, to build cross-continental connections to help them help us.
Combatting isolation was an underlying theme in this year’s conference. One Australian non-profit presented their work in “Smartphones and Survivors – Using Tech to Help Disrupt Domestic Violence.” In Australia, more than 95% of victims reported experiencing technology abuse alongside traditional violence. Technology is a new tool used for a classic abusive purpose: exerting control. Victim-blaming is the traditional response to reports of DV, and it hasn’t changed with new technology. Women experiencing tech abuse are told to “just get offline.” But in the U.S., like Australia, telling someone to “go offline” is not only impossible, it makes it easier for abusers to isolate and control their victims. This NGO provides DV survivors with smartphones and counseling on technology use to help them safely escape their abusers.
In “Safety for Women in the Digital Age,” European activists discussed the use of social media in the developed world to expand the sex trafficking market. Professor Kathleen Richardson presented her research into the attachment crisis that lies beneath the demand-side for pornography. Porn is a poor substitute for the mutuality of love, a gift that cannot be bought or sold. Patriarchal norms have prevented us from even understanding how to obtain true human connection, but has not erased our need for it. Women and girls attempt to sate their needs with sexualized internet posts. “Likes” are an imperfect substitute for missing love, but a substitute which internet pimps promptly leverage to entice women into pure internet pornography, which is harder to escape. Men, too, want to feel loved, and often turn to the empty calories of one-sided titillation to fake that experience. Until we tackle the attachment crisis, we won’t be able to eradicate the estimated $85+billion porn industry, that exploits and isolates women and girls.
Community-building is one way we can all help address the attachment crisis. Isolation is not a problem of the past, solved by modern tools like Zoom, Facebook, and Only Fans, but is an on-going crisis. We need more gatherings — large and small, more party-planners, more salon-organizers and matchmakers. We need people who are connectors to teach the isolated how to form real attachments that are based on mutuality and true love. That is my takeaway from this conference, and one that I will be implementing in my own faith community this year.
Laura Engelhardt is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Hamilton College. She is the author of three feminist fantasy novels, the co-author of a commemorative history of American feminism, and an active volunteer with Christ Church in Summit, N.J. She mediates disputes for the New York Peace Institute and moderates candidates’ forums for the League of Women Voters. To learn more about her writing, see https://lauraengelhardt.com.