Future Tense

The Complicated Relationship Between Abuse and Tech

An expert on domestic violence and technology responds to Madeline Ashby’s short story.

Illustration: frail hands touching a panel, sections of a dark portrait.
Lisa Larson-Walker

The technology safety legal manager for the National Network to End Domestic Violence Safety Net project responds to Madeline Ashby’s short story “Domestic Violence.”

Violence against women is having something of a moment right now. Which is to say, portrayals of domestic violence in film and TV are gaining critical acclaim. Through shows like Big Little Lies and movies like I, Tonya, popular culture is grappling with more nuanced representations of domestic violence and the humanity of survivors of abuse. These are important conversations, and I hope that this is the start of a profound societal transformation, though time will tell. For me, the most disturbing part of these portrayals is not the brutality of the assaults, but how frequently physical violence is prioritized over other types of abusive behavior. It is what we don’t see that worries me.

We see this distorted prioritization in real life, too. I’ve been a domestic violence attorney for more than a decade. Despite the long list of clients who have struggled to get the justice system to live up to its name, I have found that survivors are much more likely to get help for physical assaults than for other kinds of abusive behavior such as stalking, surveillance, harassment, and intimate image disclosures, which frequently feel more harmful to the survivor.

Nevertheless, physical violence is almost never the first (or even close to the first) type of injurious behavior exerted by an abusive partner. The focus on cuts and bruises make for an impactful cinematic experience, but it can also make people feel that they must endure years or even decades of escalating abusive behavior out of fear that they will be taken seriously only if they bear proof of physical violence. But physical abuse is neither the most common nor necessarily the most terrifying part of domestic violence. Control can be exerted in many ways, and increasingly that is accomplished through technology.

The predominance of physical violence in popular portrayals makes the subtlety of Madeline Ashby’s piece all the more powerful. In “Domestic Violence,” our only peek into the perpetration of abuse comes in these simple words: “I’m sorry; I had some trouble getting out of the house.” The remainder of the story shows glimpses of the impact of abuse through the eyes of a bystander, a human resource professional, grappling with what to do in response to an employee suffering from abuse and her own past experiences.

We never learn if physical or sexual violence was part of the abuse. What we do know is that a controlling husband has likely programmed the front door to remain locked unless his wife does the “chicken dance.” By forcing her to undertake an embarrassing dance meant for children in order to leave or return to the home, the husband has taken away his wife’s mobility and agency. He has determined when she can leave and when she can stay. He has also found a way to put her job at risk through forced absences and decreased focus, making her increasingly isolated and more reliant on him. Through technology he did all that without uttering a single word or leaving any visible scars. At the Safety Net project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, where I work on the intersection of technology and domestic violence, we constantly receive calls about similar types of surveillance, tracking, and digital control. Unfortunately, we often have to inform callers that the laws have not always caught up with the abuse. Even when the law clearly protects against tech-related abuse, it can be hard to get law enforcement to respond.

The legal limitations stand in grave contrast to what we know about the role of technology in domestic violence. In today’s world, there are very few cases of abuse that do not have a digital component such as harassing text messages or the use of spyware. While technology can serve as a constant threat for survivors, digital exile is not a viable option. Smartphones, social media, and other tech can be a necessary lifeline for many, helping to organize an escape or maintain contact with essential support systems.

This tension makes safety increasingly difficult. “Smart home” technologies create an especially difficult challenge for safety. Cameras that can be remotely accessed, smart speakers that are always listening, and sensors that identify which room you are in and how many people are in the home—these technologies already exist with very minimal regulation or oversight. If current trends continue, I fear that Ashby’s tale is not far away.

Approximately 30 years ago, Elaine Scarry completed a masterful work, The Body in Pain, that examines how torturers manipulate physical spaces into weapons. She wrote about the use of common items as torture instruments to unravel the victim’s sense of time, space, and comfort. The sections on how torture victims are housed are particularly enlightening, when considering the misuse of smart home technology. Specifically, she wrote:

In normal contexts, the room, the simplest form of shelter, expresses the most benign potential of human life. It is, on the one hand, an enlargement of the body: it keeps warm and safe the individual it houses in the same way the body encloses and protects the individual within … but while the room is a magnification of the body, it is simultaneously a miniaturization of the world.

Ashby has provided a similar point in her picture of domestic violence in a smart home.
By containing and defining the ability of his wife to leave or return home, the husband has taken away her sense of safety and security. The home has become a prison that paradoxically represents danger and isolation, but also serves as the only place for her to go. To leave is to be completely untethered, to stay is a constant threat.

Technology has not changed domestic violence—nonphysical abuse has always been a part of how power is exerted and maintained. But new technology does provide more opportunities for control. Is it morally right to consider misuse by intimate partners when designing new technology? I would argue that it is. But I believe that the message of “Domestic Violence” is that whether or not the moral imperative is accepted, the great strength of technology is that it can be democratized. The victim also has the ability to access many of the same tools.
The protagonist in Ashby’s story uses technology to exact retribution on those who have committed violence. The strength of the #MeToo movement and countless other examples of leveraging technology to highlight abusive behavior by powerful individuals show that the tides are slowly changing. Abusive people are not always held accountable, but technology is making abuse harder to commit with complete impunity. Will society, and men in particular, learn to take abuse seriously before a digital arms race expands? I’m hopeful, but in the meantime it’s probably not a bad idea to learn about online safety and how to document evidence of tech abuse. After all, while we are constantly waiting for the newest upgrade on our devices, sometimes it feels like we as humans aren’t quite ready to trade in our old operating system.