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Sexual Harassment Is Rampant Online. But What Does It Even Look Like?

Content warning: This post includes discussion of sexual assault.

Sexual harassment can happen anywhere, from the workplace to college campuses, and can include lewd comments, gestures, questions, video sharing, and more. Now, with the ease of access to the internet, many young women are finding themselves facing online sexual harassment on social media and through messaging platforms. 

In fact, according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center, 33% of women below the age of 35 have reported some form of online sexual harassment. That boils down to one in three college peers and young female professionals. Additionally, 11% of men younger than 35 reported receiving unwanted digital advances as well.

Between these recent studies and the anecdotes you may have shared with college friends, it seems beyond obvious that those of us who are frequently online need to fully understand what exactly digital sexual harassment is, and how we can protect ourselves from it.

Here’s what digital sexual harassment looks like. 

The Pew Research Center found that 75% of respondents noted that they received harassment through social media channels. To put this into perspective, that’s about 31% of all Americans being targeted online with violent sexual advances. 

So, why is online sexual harrassment so prevalent? Social media can allow anonymity in a way that allows some users to feel comfortable hiding behind a screen to make such threats. And because of that anonymity, it can be difficult for social media organizations to hold perpetrators accountable in concrete ways, or for survivors to be able to protect themselves.

Sexual harassment can take place in your iMessages and via calls as well, in the form of unwanted sexual photographs, obscene voicemails, graphic messages, and more. 

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) also outlines newer terms to describe various digital harassment specifics. This includes acts such as “cyberstalking” referring to persistent unwanted contact online all the way to “doxxing,” describing how private details such as contact information and addresses are nonconsenually disclosed, opening up the survivor to death and rape threats and even unwanted, violent visitors. 

Taylr Ucker-Lauderman, the Chief Officer of Communications and Engagement at the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence defines virual sexual harassment as “not much different than harrassment” in a physical or ‘in-person’ space. “It still involves violating consent and boundaries, and doing things that are harmful to someone and of a sexual nature,” she tells Her Campus. “This could involve repeated, or even one-time, sexual messages and photos that are unsolicited or non-consensual. It could involve bullying, name-calling, focusing on someone’s gender, sexuality, and body.”   

Aligning with Ucker-Lauderman’s points, the NSVRC outlines the importance of “digital consent.” In the digital space, it’s vital to ask individuals you’re messaging if they’re comfortable receiving sexually explicit photos or texts, and doing it every time you want to engage in this behavior. 

There truly is not a one-size-fits-all definition as the digital space is ever-growing, meaning ways to harass digital users changes as well. One thing is for certain: Sexual harassment in all of its forms is about power, not sex itself. 

Online sexual harassment can leave a lasting impact.

Survivors of online sexual harassment may feel afraid to check their phones or jump at the sound of a notification as they are afraid of what the phone screen might look like or what their voicemail may have picked up. 

Ucker-Lauderman tells Her Campus, “[Digital harassment] can be short-term or long-term and often causes trauma.” With this trauma, it is possible for some mental health problems to arise. According to a 2017 NBC News report, sexual harassment can cause anxiety, depression, or PTSD

Sexual harassment not only affects the survivor emotionally and mentally, but physical problems are also a possibility. The same NBC report describes concerns with blood pressure, muscle aches, blood sugar, and more. 

In these cases, survivors may want to have both physical and mental healthcare resources at the ready. One resource to openly learn about and discuss how you’re feeling is RAINN, who have a helpline you can call directly at 1-800-656-4673 as well as the option to chat online with trained specialists at the organization as well as other survivors. 

Here’s what to do if you’ve been sexually harassed online.

There are myriad ways to deal with sexual harassment that takes place online. Many social media companies like Instagram simply recommend blocking, muting, and/or reporting accounts that share graphic content without consent. However, most social media users do not believe that these major corporations are doing their due diligence when it comes to protecting those on their app. The Pew Research Center noted that 79% of respondents believe “social media companies are doing an only fair or poor job at addressing online harassment.” Additionally, one third of Americans believe victims of harassment via social media should be allowed to sue the platforms where said issues happened. Overall, it’s not always effective to simply “avoid” social media or block users.

Though social media community guidelines, including those on Twitter, describe a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or bullying of any kind, it is often hard for major platforms to monitor all interactions. 

Fortunately, Ucker-Lauderman does have advice for survivors. “Those who are sexually harrassed online can go to their local rape crisis center (just like with other forms of sexual violence), campus advocates, mental health support people, or even report to the administrators of the online platform,” she says. “At the local rape crisis programs, there are advocates that can help survivors process what is happening and decide on next steps that might be helpful.” You can find your local center at RAINN.  

These resources are vital to recovery and moving forward as the legal system isn’t always a source of help for survivors.

Finding justice for survivors of online abuse also looks a bit different than those who are harassed in person. “It can be difficult to find who is actually perpetrating the harm, because people can hide behind fake IP addresses, screen names, emails, etc.,” Ucker-Lauderman says. “So, they may never be tracked down for justice or healing for the survivor.” 

Always remember that no victim of sexual harassment, digital or physical, is “deserving” of this treatment. Sexual harassment really is not about sex — it’s about crafting power and dominance. You have the strength, power and support to take your power back. 

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.

In love with jokes, comprehensive sex ed and Stephen Colbert-- (Stephen, call me!) Kent State University Class of 2020, Current Freelance Journo Follow @MaSerra8 on Twitter :-)
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