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.

Discrimination based on sex or gender is also sexual harassment. Intentional and unintentional sexual harassment can make an environment feel hostile and unwelcoming. It could also lead to issues such as job termination and lost wages. Today, modern technology makes it possible for someone to suffer sexual harassment anywhere through the internet—even within their own homes.

Online sexual harassment is just as much a crime as in-person sexual harassment. It can still inflict very real suffering and emotional distress on the target. Online sexual harassment simply does not involve any face-to-face interactions between the perpetrator and the target. Harassing behaviors can appear online on social media sites, forums, emails, and messenger systems. Both forms of sexual harassment can be significantly harmful to the victim.

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.

Twenty-one percent of women ages 18 to 29 said they have been sexually harassed online, more than twice the number of men in the same age group who say they have experienced it, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in July.

But sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace. Sue Scheff, the author of the recently released book “Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate,” which includes a foreword by Monica Lewinsky, says that in the digital age, sexual harassment is prevalent online, as well.

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“Shame Nation” shares stories of online harassment and offers advice on how people can protect themselves online.” In ‘Shame Nation,’ we’re giving a voice to the women that have been sexually harassed online,” said Scheff, a family Internet safety advocate who was herself the victim of online shaming in 2003. “We’re letting you know that these people are just as emotionally … in pain” as women who are sexually harassed by a boss or colleague.

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 Online 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..

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deShame’s Sexual Behavior CategorySexual Behavior Examples
Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videosTaking and sharing sexual videos or photos of the victim without their consent—upskirting or creep shotsTaking sexual videos or photos with the victim’s consent, but sharing them without consent—revenge pornRecording non-consensual sex acts (rape) and (or) sharing the content
Sexualized BullyingBody shamingBullying based on actual or perceived gender or sexual orientationSharing personal information of an individual without their consent to encourage online sexual harassment—doxxingUsing offensive or discriminatory language and name-calling onlineImpersonating 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 consentSpreading lies, rumors, or gossip about the victim’s sexual life, either directly naming them or alluding to them
Unwanted sexualizationSexualized comments on the victim’s posts on social mediaOnline advances or requests for sexual favorsOnline sexual jokesSending someone (graphic) sexual content without their consent—videos, pictures, emojis, and textsAltering pictures or videos of an individual to make them sexualRating peers or social platform members on attractiveness or sexual activity
Exploitation, coercion, and threatsPressuring someone to share sexual content of themselves or engage in sexual activity online, offline, or bothThreatening to sexually violate an individualThreatening to publish sexual content online to intimidate, coerce, or blackmail an individual—sextortionInciting an individual to engage in sexual behavior and exploit them by publishing the content onlineEncouraging others to commit sexual violence

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 maybe 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
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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.

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
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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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