Sexual Harassment in Digital Spaces: Sharing Experiences and Resources

I was thrilled to join social media the first time I did, eager to meet people – strangers who could become friends – and share my writing with them. I was fifteen. Social media exposed me to life-changing opportunities and gave me a few sustained platonic relationships (friendships?), but it also brought me an abundance of unsolicited photos of men’s privates, as well as name-calling and slut shaming. In my twenties now, I find myself reflecting on assault and harassment, and on how it has affected me. I think of all the times I have witnessed other women suffer this, and driven to properly understand this struggle, I created a survey. Here is what I found:

What counts as Online Harassment?

Online harassment includes any form of virtual interaction, action, or reaction that makes a person feel unsafe or discriminated against (Nimisire, 2021). According to Pew Research Center in a January 2021 survey, online harassment is measured by the following behaviours: offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, and sexual harassment. However, it is important to note that online harassment can be a subjective and personal experience.

Yasmin, an 18 year-old, says online harassment is “Everything pushy and forceful, done with the intent to harm. From stalking to persistent texting, sharing nudes, making up lies, blackmail, sending graphic pictures without consent, screen grabbing pictures and saving them (especially nude pictures).” Yasmin experiences some of these often because of her sexuality. She prefers to ignore harassers. For 19-year-old Mariam, online harassment is “Sending unsolicited dick pictures, someone constantly in my DMs trying to get me to sleep with them even after I’d already said No.” Mariam blocks and reports harassers’ accounts. “Trolling, body shaming, and doxxing.” These are what Cassandra, 22, considers online harassment. She mutes and blocks her harassers, or logs off the internet when she’s being harassed.

How is Online Sexual Harassment Violence?

Sexual harassment online can make a person feel threatened, exploited, coerced, humiliated, upset, sexualised or discriminated against. On many occasions, women and girls are harassed because of their gender and for having opinions. In another research in 2017, Pew Research Centre found that women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result of their gender (11% vs. 5%). Moreso, marginalised women are more at risk of online violence, especially LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, and women who are activists. 6 out of the 10 women and girls who filled my survey said they are harassed because of their sexuality. These indicate only a small portion of the targeted violence and insecurity that women are often at risk of in their daily lives.

Online sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of behaviours that use digital content (images, videos, posts, messages, pages) on a variety of different platforms (private or public) to harass or assault a person, ranging from unsolicited nude photos to rape and murder threats. A survey conducted by German advisory organisation, HateAid, shows that around 52% of women between the ages of 18 and 35 have suffered digital violence at least once.

There are largely four (three?) categories of online sexual harassment. These include: unsolicited sharing of intimate photos and videos; up-skirting — a situation in which a woman or girl is recorded without their consent; and revenge porn— where a video or photo is taken with the consent of the women but shared without consent. Other types of sexual harassment online include exploitation, unwanted sexualisation and sexualised bullying.

How has covid exacerbated online sexual harassment?

Use of social media increased following the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through the lockdown period. Movement ground to a halt, causing social interactions, workspaces, events, and engagements to move online. According to one survey, this directly resulted in an increase in reports of online harassment.

Impact of Online Harassment on Women and Girls

Silence: Survivors of online harassment are often scared into silence, especially in cases where non-consensual intimate images (NCII) are used to blackmail women and shared online, which may result in reputation damage. In less severe cases, to protect their privacy when harassed, women and girls change their privacy settings or deactivate their accounts.

Physical Insecurity: Survivors of online harassment may have a heightened fear of physical violence, especially if the harassers have access to private information such as their contact number, email address, or location. Research by Plan International conducted in 2020 across 31 countries with over 14,000 girls and young women about their experiences online discovered that more than half (58%) of those surveyed have been harassed and abused online, and 24% (that is, 1in 4 girls) are left feeling physically unsafe.

Psychosocial Stress: In the aforementioned report by Plan International, 42% of the girls and women who participated in the survey lose self-esteem or self-confidence, 42% feel mentally or emotionally stressed, and 18% have problems at school.

Loss of access to digital resources: In a society rife with rape culture and characterised by victim-blaming, when parents or guardians of girls who are being harassed online catch wind of the situation, they may limit the their access to the internet by seizing their mobile devices and computers. This in turn affects the girls’ education, professional and social lives.

How to handle Online Harassment

Report harassers’ content and account: Many social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have functions with which one can report abusive content and get support. You may also proceed to block the harasser’s account to prevent seeing their future updates.

Report to a local police station: According to the Nigerian Cybercrime Act 2015, child pornography and related offences – cyberstalking, racist offences, conspiracy, etc – are crimes that can be reported to the police and are punishable by law.

Be an active digital bystander: When a person is being harassed online, do not engage the content in any way, but instead report it and the harasser’s account. You may also check on the survivor to see how they are doing, offer support, or share helpful resources or tools with them.

Resources for combating Online Harassment

Feminist Internet is an organisation that intervenes in digital inequalities women and girls experience, and supports those who are discriminated against by providing tools such as Maru, an anti-harassment chatbot that helps with tackling online abuse.

EndTAB specialises in training people and organisations on how to navigate the digital abuse landscape via its online and live courses.

Web Foundation, with its Tech Policy Design Lab, is collaborating with tech companies and civil society organisations to create solutions for online gender-based violence.

As of 2020, 24 percent of Africa’s female population had online access, which means that about 161 million female Africans were at risk of online sexual harassment. This number has not remained static; more women and girls keep gaining access to the internet and will continue to do so. Creators of digital services and platforms must treat having effective policies that safeguard their users from online harassment as essential as the functionality of their products and platforms. We can no longer feign ignorance or turn a blind eye to the reality that our world now includes the digital world. Individuals must acknowledge that a person’s rights do not become non-existent the moment they get on the internet. The respect of the dignity of women and girls in the digital world is as important as their rights in the non-digital world.

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