Sexually explicit and threatening text messages sent to Maribyrnong’s two women councillors have prompted calls for a rethink on the public availability of councillors’ mobile phone numbers.
Maribyrnong councillor Sarah Carter told Star Weekly sexually explicit messages and even death threats had become a regular and unsettling occurrence.
She said the rise of social media had escalated a problem that had plagued her since being elected to the council in 2008.
“Ever since I was elected to council this has been happening, but recently they are beyond what you would normally get,” she said. “It’s meant to shock and unsettle.”
Cr Catherine Cumming said it was an issue she had silently weathered across her 18 years on council.
“I’m a strong person, but I don’t believe anyone should be abused in this way,” she said. “I’m constantly aware of my safety as well as the safety of my children.”
Maribyrnong councillors have their email address and mobile phone numbers posted on the council website, so as to be easily contactable by residents.
But Cr Carter has questioned whether there needs to be a review of the practice in light of an escalation in threatening and sexually graphic messages.
“It’s heartbreaking. One of the things we celebrate about local government is that we are not wrapped in cotton wool; we are easy to get hold of. But we need to look at ways of safeguarding so you’re not subjecting yourself to this kind of abuse.”
Cr Carter, who has blocked about 40 phone numbers, said she went public last week by posting examples of inappropriate messages on Facebook, as it was time to call out the “crass and cruel” behaviour.
One of the messages she posted warns: “I have your home address. I will find you.”
“It’s not just about me; my mother sees messages like this, as does my partner, and it’s upsetting for
Cr Carter said the rise of social media and social media apps had made it easier than ever for people to send messages directly.
“It just adds a whole suite of additional avenues for people to reach out to you.”
Cr Carter said the issue was particularly upsetting given local government was “a bit of a boys’ club” and she wants to encourage more women to become involved.
“Yet you may get death threats or unwanted sexual advances.”
Cr Cumming said she had developed ways of minimising abuse and unwanted harassment, such as refusing to answer calls without caller ID and turning her phone to silent overnight.