Online Sexual Harassment

Online Sexual Harassment

Updated August 2020

Also known as "gender-based online violence" or "gendered threats of violence." Includes words, insults, profanity and, often, images to communicate hostility based on gender.

Threats can come in a variety of forms: an inundation of messages, extortion, explicit or implicit sexual harassment, comments on your appearance and other forms of gender-based violence. It’s completely normal for this type of abuse to cause anxiety, stress or traumatization.

If you'd like to learn more about this type of harassment read this first.

  • Name-calling, vile or hateful comments based on someone’s gender or sex, including appearance
  • Threats of sexual or gender-based violence, in an online forum, in direct messages, or publicly on social media
  • Comments that play into typical gender stereotypes or seek to undermine someone’s work or personhood because of their gender
  • Non-consensual photography, often referred to as “Revenge Porn”
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NOW

These are the absolute first steps to take. Do this before deciding what to do next.

  • Secure your physical safety. Make sure you’re in a safe place. Call 911 if it’s an emergency and if you are comfortable working with the police.
  • Do not engage with the perpetrator.
  • Document the harassment and comments. Ask a trusted friend or peer document the harassment—especially if you encounter a deluge of messages and comments—by taking screenshots, downloading videos and taking notes
  • Tell a friend, family member, confidant or employer about the situation. Make sure you don’t feel alone and that others know about what you’re going through. They may be able to help you document events, report messages to platforms or contact law enforcement. Have an emotional action plan in place to take care of yourself.
  • Turn off location tracking on social media and web browsers.

“Someone who is a target of online gender harassment should report the incident to the platform...Look for accessible online forms for reporting harassment; visible links that connect users with content moderation specialists; or community guidelines about available anti-harassment tools. Since some users may be doxxed through online harassment, it is important that targets protect their personal identities (e.g., address, full name). [Targeted individuals] may want to inform their employers, family, and close friends if their personal information is released online to mitigate potential consequences of this abuse.”
— Researcher Jennifer Rubin

NEXT

Then, choose what to do:

Report the harassment to the relevant platforms. Use your documentation to help you demonstrate the harm caused. If this is triggering or retraumatizing, consider having a trusted friend or peer reach out to the sites.
Conduct a threat assessment to understand who is making the comments or threats, what you can protect yourself from and what’s at risk. This will help you determine what your next steps need to be
Think about your mental state and health. Do you want to reach out to a professional? Maybe a trusted group of colleagues, friends or peer group?

ALSO

You may want to:

If you’ve been threatened physically or violently, consider whether to approach law enforcement. It’s good to know that this means presenting evidence of the threats and rehashing your experiences, which can be stressful and overwhelming. It may be best to discuss with a trusted confidant first and then decide. However, if this is an emergency, call 911 and make sure you’re safe.
-- We understand this can be contentious and is not a viable option for everyone. The benefit of reporting a threat to law enforcement is that it starts a trail of evidence for your case, in case further threats are made and you decide to take further action in the future. Consider making the report with a friend, family member or colleague if you do not want to approach law enforcement on your own.
Step away if you need a break. Receiving sexualized and gendered harassment can be overwhelming, upsetting and interrupt your personal and professional life. It’s completely O.K. to step away and take care of your emotional well-being. Have a trusted friend or colleague monitor your accounts on social media, email, other relevant platforms or Google alerts set up with your name as a keyword so that someone can keep an eye out for new or escalated threats.
Request help from colleagues or friends if the situation overwhelms you.

“Having a group of colleagues you can vent to is a huge balm. Most of my colleagues had gone through similar, if not worse experiences; simply sharing made me feel better.”

— A., a freelance investigative journalist

CONSIDER

“Good to know”, once you feel more secure and less overwhelmed.

◻ Avoid doxxing the person harassing you; it may antagonize them.
◻ Remember that you did nothing wrong and this is not your fault.
◻ Try not to draw extra attention, such as by giving an interview, which might provoke your harasser.
-- However, note that ultimately do what feels right to you. Some people do feel more empowered after speaking out about their experience. You may decide not to draw extra attention because it could escalate the harassment. But if you feel that speaking out about your experience will be empowering, learn more about safely confronting harassers or how to engage in counterspeech without confronting your harasser, so that you can weigh your options and make the best decision for you.
◻ Consider contacting a legal resource or attorney.
◻ Review any information or photos stored on dormant or alias accounts
◻ Take down your contact information online
-- From social media platforms (your posts, your friends or colleagues' posts, etc)
-- From data broker websites like Spokeo or InstantPeopleFinder
◻ Think and consider possible outcomes before posting any information that may spark attacks or threats

FUTURE

Extra steps to take with time—when you have breathing room.

◻ Contact a professional organization for help, including your union if you belong to one. Many organizations offer direct emergency funds or support, including IWMF, CPJ, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
◻ Develop secure communications. Make sure that your device isn’t compromised (consider switching temporarily to a burner or backup phone) and that you use an encrypted messaging app like Signal. For direct support, you can connect with AccessNow’s Helpline. They can help you improve your digital security.
◻ Consider using a service like DeleteMe to delete your personal identifying information from white pages, directors and data broker websites. Note that it can take weeks for companies to remove your information. It’s also worth asking your employer or editor if they can cover the cost of such a service.