How to Stop Online Sexual Harassment and Protect Yourself

The onset of the Internet and the digital era has brought about many changes in the world. Some of them are positive, such as access to people, information, and educational tools.

But, there is also a dark side to it.

Cyberspace is a perfect ground for criminal activities, aggression, and discrimination. The Internet has reinvigorated the ‘rape culture’ that standardizes sexual violence and minimizes its effects on the victims.

Various forms of cyber harassment, especially online or cyber sexual harassment, are possible because of the actual or perceived distance between people in cyberspace. It enabled potentially aggressive people to disassociate from their victims and desensitize to the cruelty they inflict on others.

There are various forms of online sexual harassment, and we must address them by understanding what it means when somebody is harassing us, by educating ourselves and people we love on dangers of cyber sexual harassment, and by learning our rights and methods of dealing with this problem.

What Is Online Sexual Harassment?

Online or cyber sexual harassment encompasses a range of unwanted, unwelcome, or unauthorized behaviors, sexual in nature, that are addressed to or shared about an individual through digital communication channels.

It is a nefarious form of harassment as the perpetrator does not have to be in the victim’s proximity to be able to inflict damage on them. That is why it is much more difficult to detect and take action against it. The most alarming aspect of cyber sexual harassment is that the victim may feel helpless in the face of it.

Even though the usual targets are women, the victims of harassment can also be other individuals from the gender spectrum and children. Just as the perpetrators can be individuals from all walks of life, so can the victims.

Online sexual harassment can overlap with hate crime and discrimination grounded in gender, sexual orientation, race, special needs or disabilities, and more.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Cyber sexual harassment can be highly gendered and rooted in the traditionally propagated inequality between men and women. But, one of the greatest myths is that only women are the targets of such harassment—men can be harassed, too.

According to a Statista‘s survey on online sexual harassment conducted in 2020, 12% of adults aged 18+ experienced online sexual harassment. 

If we add the LGBT+ community to the equation, we can see that the problem is much graver. The GLSEN’s 2013 study “Out Online: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth on the Internet” reports that 32% of young LGBT+ respondents experienced online sexual harassment during the previous year. Much more drastic results come from vpnMentor‘s worldwide survey—50% of respondents from all categories of the gender spectrum and sexual orientation spectrum reported being sexually harassed online.

Children

More often than not, online sexual harassment extends to children. It seems that minors are particularly vulnerable to online sexual predators.

Children are often not even aware that they are the targets of such harassment, and that they are going through a cycle of emotional and psychological abuse.

Online sexual harassment targeting minors involves a range of tactics. Some of them are:

  • Pitying/guilting—a manipulative strategy that predators use to make the victim feel guilty and succumb to the will of the predator
  • Grooming—gaining the victim’s trust by showering them with compliments, affections, gifts, and more
  • Boyfriending/girlfriending—manipulating the victim into thinking that they are in a romantic relationship with the predator
  • Blackmailing—threatening to hurt the victim unless they do the thing that the predator demands

As online sexual harassment occurs across all age-groups, it is not uncommon for children to experience it from their peers. A study conducted in 2015 by a Michigan State University expert suggested that one in four children, aged 12 to 16, were sexually harassed online by their friends.

Children are usually not familiar with legally and ethically questionable behaviors and in what ways such acts can affect them and their peers. Parents need to educate their children on the risk factors of online activity and types of behavior are legally acceptable.

Types of Cyber Sexual Harassment

Online sexual harassment covers a range of behaviors. Depending on how the victim is targeted, it can be roughly categorized as:

  1. Direct online sexual harassment—sending inappropriate sexual content to the victim
  2. Indirect online sexual harassment—sharing or posting sexual content about the victim on or through digital and social platforms

The specific behaviors that the harassers display fall within four major groups, as outlined by project deShame. Check out the overview in the table below..

deShame’s Sexual Behavior Category

Sexual Behavior Examples

Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos

  • Taking and sharing sexual videos or photos of the victim without their consent—upskirting or creep shots
  • Taking sexual videos or photos with the victim’s consent, but sharing them without consent—revenge porn
  • Recording non-consensual sex acts (rape) and (or) sharing the content

Sexualized Bullying

  • Body shaming
  • Bullying based on actual or perceived gender or sexual orientation
  • Sharing personal information of an individual without their consent to encourage online sexual harassment—doxxing
  • Using offensive or discriminatory language and name-calling online
  • Impersonating an individual and sharing sexual content online to damage their reputation or sexually harass others
  • ‘Outing’ someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation online without their consent
  • Spreading lies, rumors, or gossip about the victim’s sexual life, either directly naming them or alluding to them

Unwanted sexualization

  • Sexualized comments on the victim’s posts on social media
  • Online advances or requests for sexual favors
  • Online sexual jokes
  • Sending someone (graphic) sexual content without their consent—videos, pictures, emojis, and texts
  • Altering pictures or videos of an individual to make them sexual
  • Rating peers or social platform members on attractiveness or sexual activity

Exploitation, coercion, and threats

  • Pressuring someone to share sexual content of themselves or engage in sexual activity online, offline, or both
  • Threatening to sexually violate an individual
  • Threatening to publish sexual content online to intimidate, coerce, or blackmail an individual—sextortion
  • Inciting an individual to engage in sexual behavior and exploit them by publishing the content online
  • Encouraging others to commit sexual violence

Laws Pertinent to Online Sexual Harassment

Although there have been appeals to legislate cyber stalking and cyber sexual harassment, there is no unified federal law that addresses the instances, implications, media, and means of online sexual harassment.

There are cases of severe online sexual harassment where the victim is an individual from a different state, but the federal enforcers are not adequately equipped to deal with such cases, and local authorities do not have jurisdiction over interstate problems.

In the absence of adequate federal legislation, most online sexual harassment cases fall within the state and local authority jurisdiction. To protect yourself and your loved ones from cyber sexual harassment, you should refer to your state’s laws pertaining to the matter.

Some of the federal laws that cover online sexual harassment in part are listed in the table below.

Federal Law

Online Sexual Harassment Relevance

18 U.S.C. 875

Stipulates that it is a federal crime to transmit “in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another.”

18 U.S.C. 2425

States that it is a federal crime to “entice, encourage, offer, or solicit any person to engage in any sexual activity,” initiating the transmission of the minor’s information by any “means of interstate and federal commerce.”

18 U.S.C. 1801

Specifies that it is a federal crime to take a photo or make a video of “a private area of an individual without their consent” and “electronically transmit a visual image with the intent that it be viewed by a person or persons.”

47 U.S.C. 223

Stipulates that it is a federal crime to create, make, solicit, and transmit using any telecommunications device “in interstate or foreign commerce” any content that is obscene and aims to annoy, harass, abuse, or threaten another person.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Applicable only in the work environment.

States that it is illegal to discriminate based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin.

The acts presented in the table should be amended to explicitly address all forms of cyber sexual harassment regardless of where within the maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States they take place.

Is Your Child Sexually Harassed Online?

It is difficult for children to come forth when someone sexually harasses them both online and in real life. Some children may not be aware that their peers or adults are sexually abusing them in cyberspace. Those who do realize what is going on may be unwilling to share their problems with trusted people, fearing that:

  1. They may lose their internet privileges
  2. They may have broken safety rules
  3. They may be stigmatized

Parents have a crucial role in their children’s lives and should nurture open and honest relationships with them, especially when it comes to the kids’ activities online. The better you know your child, the easier it will be for you to recognize some of the telltale signs that your child is a victim of online sexual harassment.

Some of the signs of cyber sexual harassment that your child may display are:

  • Isolating themselves to speak with a friend on the phone for extended periods
  • Being secretive about their online activities
  • Hiding the screens on their PCs, phones, or tablets
  • Displaying agitation when answering phone calls
  • Refusing to be alone with specific individuals
  • Talking about a new friend online in a vague manner

Of course, those behaviors can be a phase in growing up, but it does not hurt to be aware of them as these signs can be helpful in the early detection of cyber sexual harassment.

What Impact Does Online Sexual Harassment Have on the Victim?

Sexual harassment can have both short-term and long-term impacts on the victim and their mental health. In time, these effects can amplify if the cycle of abuse continues through re-sharing of the content online or if the victim’s trauma resurfaces.

Typically, the victim of online sexual harassment feels:

  • Sexualized
  • Upset and anxious
  • Coerced and exploited
  • Humiliated and violated
  • Shamed and discriminated against
  • Threatened and scared
  • Guilty and to blame

The way in which victims react to cyber sexual harassment depends on their perception of themselves and people from their immediate surroundings. It is essential to recognize that any form of cyber harassment can have lasting and damaging effects on the target and the people around them.

Want to Stop Online Sexual Harassment? Let DoNotPay Keep the Harassers Away

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Being a target of online sexual harassment can have negative repercussions on your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. To end the cycle of torment, you have to take a stand against the party that bullies you. The painless way to do it is by relying on DoNotPay.

All you need to do is:

  • Access the DoNotPay app from your web browser or your iOS device
  • Select the Relationship Protection option
  • Pick the Explore Relationship Services button
  • Choose Safety and Stalking, then click Let’s Do It
  • Select the Cyberbullying option
  • Provide answers to the chatbot’s questions to the best of your ability

Having collected all the necessary details about the issue and the aggressor, we contact the representatives of the platform where the abuse took place. In your stead, we will:

  1. Report the perpetrator for sexual harassment, so that the representatives can open an investigation of their account
  2. Request that the representatives block the perpetrator’s account and prevent him or her from contacting you in the future

Steps You Can Take to Stop Cyber Sexual Harassment

If you want to end the vicious circle of online sexual harassment that you or your child are experiencing at the hands of sexual predators or stalkers, there are a few ways to do it.

In case sexual harassment takes place on social media, such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or others, make sure to check their policies and guidelines on how to deal with the problem.

You should also try to do the following:

  1. Tell the harasser to stop. If interaction with a person makes you feel uncomfortable, let them know that you want it to cease. It applies to all forms of exchange, including sexually explicit texts, photos, videos, phone or video calls
  2. Stop all communication with the harasser. If the harassment continues, make sure to immediately stop communication and block the perpetrator on all social media platforms
  3. Deactivate all accounts. You should deactivate all social media accounts that you used to communicate with the harasser
  4. Keep all evidence of harassment. Make a folder with all textual exchanges, sexually explicit voice or video messages, and lewd photos or videos. Make sure to record times and locations as well. You will need those if you report the abuse to the authorities or social media representatives
  5. Report the case to the police. If you feel threatened or endangered, call the police and relate the matter in detail. Do not withhold any information as it can be vital for processing the case and the perpetrator
  6. Check your state’s legal acts. Make sure to get acquainted with the laws regarding cyber sexual harassment in your state. Some states offer protection through a restraining order

Remember, it is never your fault that your trust and privacy are violated. The sooner you take action against the perpetrator, the greater control of the situation you’ll have.

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