Survivor Safety: Online Sexual Harassment

Mar 23rd, 2022

By Natalie Scott, Program Intern 

In today’s world, it's no secret that technology is rooted in everything we do. With the continuous threat of the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020, technology has become more a part of our world than ever, as a large part of our world exists fully online. While technology offers us an amazing opportunity to connect with loved ones from a distance and work from home, it is unfortunately not immune to the dangers of everyday life. Online sexual harassment has been a large problem since the rise of the internet and has become a serious issue on social media platforms and messaging apps. Online sexual harassment may be difficult for the victim to recognize because there is no face-to-face interaction and no physical contact. This does not lessen the seriousness of this issue, and everyone has the right to exist and engage online without fear of harm or harassment.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, online sexual harassment includes acts of sending unwanted sexual remarks, sending unsolicited nude photos or videos, pressuring a person to send nude photos, sharing unwanted pornography, making hurtful comments on another’s sexuality, and grooming of minors (NSVRC). Online sexual harassment can be perpetrated by complete strangers, but perpetrators can also be someone the victim knows and interacts with in-person. Unfortunately, as we become more dependent on technology, this form of harassment becomes more prevalent.

In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 11% of Americans have experienced online sexual harassment (Vogels, 2021). The rate has nearly doubled since 2017 when it was 5%. The Pew Research Center also found that 75% of acts of online harassment occurred on social media websites, emphasizing the need to create a safer space within these environments (Vogels, 2021). To further emphasize this problem, other researchers have undergone similar studies and discover comparable statistics regarding the issue within the past year. According to a study published by Joseph Johnson in 2022, it was discovered that 12% of Americans had experienced online sexual harassment, and close to half of Americans (41%) had experienced harassment online in general (Johnson, 2022). These statistics emphasize that abusive behavior using technology is increasing and impacting more and more people each year. 

While looking at online sexual harassment, it is also important to examine how this harassment affects marginalized populations. The Pew Research Center found that 50% of those who identify as LGBTQ+ said they believed they experienced online harassment because of their sexual orientation (Vogels, 2021). Additionally, a research study published in 2018 discovered that women who identified as LGBTQ+ were more likely to experience online harassment than their heterosexual counterparts. The data showed 19.1% of gay and lesbian women, 17.0% of bisexual women and 12.8% of heterosexual women have endured four or more different forms of digital harassment and abuse, including online sexual harassment (Powell, et al. 2018). This disparity also exists within the male-identified population. The data reveals that 31.9% bisexual men, 10.6% of gay men, and 8.5% of heterosexual men reported experiencing digital sexual harassment within the past year. The data from these studies highlight that online sexual harassment victimization is higher for LGBTQ+ populations, specifically bisexual individuals.

In addition to LGBTQ+ populations, other marginalized identities also face discrimination virtually through online harassment. For example, in 2018 3% of Americans reported experiencing online harassment due to their religious, sexual, and racial identity (Paul, 2020). However, in 2020, that number has become over ten times higher. 35% of Americans reported experiencing online harassment due to religious, sexual, and racial identity (Paul, 2020). Through this information, it is clear that marginalized communities experience discriminatory online harassment and the problem is growing fast.

We all have the right to access technology freely and safely without fear or limitations. Technology is not the problem, but rather abusive behavior and misuse of technology to harm others is the problem. If someone is using technology to harass you, it is not your fault. There are steps you can take in an effort to stop the harassment and prevent further harm in online spaces. Focusing on social media as a large site of this abuse, most social media platforms offer a reporting and blocking feature to cut off contact. You can also take additional steps to review your online presence and increase safety features on your accounts by:

  • Reviewing your privacy settings
  • Reviewing your security settings and notification settings
  • Ensuring your accounts are password protected with a strong and unique password
  • Adding a two-step authentication method to log in (when possible)
  • Blocking individual accounts that follow you from viewing your story and or seeing their posts on their timeline, instead of just blocking them generally.
  • Using different usernames and photos on your social media accounts to prevent tracking profiles across sites
  • Limiting the sharing of personally identifying information on accounts, such as current location or where you live

Taking any of these actions may be difficult if you know the perpetrator in real life, but remember it is always an option. While blocking individuals may be uncomfortable, never forget that it is not on you to put the comfort of perpetrators of sexual harassment above your own. Here are some additional technology resources that can support survivors in recognizing and documenting online abuse: 

  • DocuSAFE Evidence Collection App
    • This app allows survivors to store evidence relating to online sexual harassment and or sexual violence, such as screenshots or photos of messages. This app can be used to provide legal evidence for law enforcement if one wishes to take legal action against the perpetrator and can also be used to keep a personal record of the abuse.
  • The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) TechSafety App
    • This NNEDV website and mobile app provides information about tech abuse and harassment, as well as tools to increase phone safety, device safety, and location safety.
  • National Cybersecurity Alliance: Stay Safe Online
    • The National Cybersecurity Alliance offers guides on online safety basics, managing your privacy, and securing online accounts to enhance online safety. 

If you want to seek legal help you can contact MCASA’s Sexual Assault Legal Institute (SALI) at 301-565-2277 to speak with a legal advocate or attorney and learn more about your options for legal actions. For support and counseling, you can contact your locate Rape Crisis and Recovery Center. To find the center nearest you visit our website here.

 

References

Johnson, J. (January 25, 2022). Share of adult internet users in the United States who have personally experienced online harassment as of January 2021. Statistia. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/333942/us-internet-online-harassment-severity/

Online Abuse and Trauma. National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Prevention Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.nsvrc.org/saam/2021/about/onlineabuseandtrauma

Powell, A., Scott, A. J., & Henry, N. (July 30, 2018). Digital harassment and abuse: Experiences of sexuality and gender minority adults. European Journal of Criminology, 17(2), 199–223. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1477370818788006 

Paul, K. (June 2020). Online harassment increases to 35% for American minority groups. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/23/online-harassment-increases-for-american-minority-groups

Vogels, E. The State of Online Harassment. (January 13, 2021). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/the-state-of-online-harassment/

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