Sexual harassment remains prevalent in our society — what do we do when it takes place behind a screen?
Reading Time: 17 minutes
By Teodora Pasca
Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, mentions of sexual assault and rape
Sexual harassment is often thought of as something intrinsically tied to the physical world. From getting catcalled on the street to receiving unwanted advances from an acquaintance, our typical notions of harassment are too frequently grounded in non-consensual interactions within physical relationships and spaces.
The internet has changed things — and our notions of harassment need to change in response. The experiences of online harassment survivors are no less valid, and the need to listen to their voices no less vital.
I spoke to 15 students about their experiences with online sexual harassment. The responses I received were overwhelming, humbling, and at times frightening. We don’t often think of the internet as an unsafe or evil place, but the stories told here might cause us to reconsider. The profound impact harassment has had on these students’ lives and the lives of others should spur us to confront this issue head on.
Persistent or predatory?
Unwanted romantic and sexual advances often escalate into the territory of harassment when parties refuse to take no for an answer. Many of my sources reported being singled out, being tracked down, receiving repeated messages from insistent individuals, or being otherwise targeted through online platforms like Facebook and Snapchat. Such experiences are common within a multitude of online spaces and apps, even on platforms where you would least expect them to take place.
Daryna has had multiple experiences with harassment on LinkedIn — a platform that, by all accounts, is intended to be a professional online environment — in which men have initiated conversations under the guise of beginning a professional relationship but quickly shift to making comments about her appearance or suggesting that she go out with them on dates. When Daryna turned down one invitation, the man managed to get a hold of her personal email and attempted to add her on other social networks.
A notorious arena for unsolicited sexual advances is the world of dating apps like Tinder, where inboxes are cluttered with lewd openers and cringe-worthy one-liners. One of Nicole’s matches, despite seeming normal in his profile, messaged her unsolicited and increasingly graphic descriptions of what he wanted to do to her, which made her very uncomfortable. When Adina cancelled a date she had set up on Tinder, the match she was supposed to meet called her a whore and accused her of leading him on.
(Interview conducted electronically)
Nicole: You can ask me more questions if this isn’t what you were looking for, but in my experience with online harassment, the internet has really changed what people think is appropriate and it’s easy to forget that if interactions were face to face, they would never say some of the things they do. As someone who uses online dating apps like Tinder, I’ve come across plenty of lewd messages and even people who don’t take no for answer. In one specific experience, there was a guy who I matched with and who seemed completely normal in his profile, but his first message was a detailed description of what he would do to me if I came over. When I didn’t reciprocate and told him that was very out of the blue, he tried a different description of sexual acts he thought I might like. I recognize that the internet has also changed how I see harassment because I’ve become so desensitized to receiving sexts that it doesn’t faze me, but if I think about it I realize that these messages are entirely inappropriate.
The Varsity: Hey Nicole, thank you for sharing that. I’m sorry you had that experience. I have a few follow-up questions if that’s ok:
How often would you say you receive unwanted messages like that when you are using dating apps? Have those experiences changed how you think about dating apps or how you use them? Did you ever tell anyone or try to report the users who harassed you? And what kinds of consequences do you think there should be for doing something like that?
N: I’d say pretty often. I feel like it’s just part of the experience in the sense that like, in order to find the good people, I have to go through the suggestive people. It’s something that I share with friends because it’s become kind of a joke amongst us, and on the actual apps I usually report them instead of simply unmatching. It’s definitely something friends and expect as something that goes hand in hand, it’s dating apps. I’m not too sure what kind of consequences could be put in place, I think it’s more important to educate people one what harassment entails.
Before you message someone, Tinder has a suggested message like “just say hi,” so I think it would be good to incorporate a reminder that way so people see it before they message someone.
Adina believes such experiences have as much to do with the dating app environment as the people behind the screen. She tells me that simply being active on a dating app can create the perception that you are looking for sex and are therefore open to receiving any and all sexual advances, no matter how misguided that might be. In the long run, the environment breeds a toxic sense of entitlement to sexual experience, which may make some users feel uncomfortable or threatened.
The Varsity: Yeah, so tell me what happened.
Adina: I’ve had random people I’m not friends with on Facebook send me messages and sometimes it’s just like, “Hey beautiful” or weird things. And it’s people I don’t know. But I feel like a lot of it has been from dating apps, from Tinder and Bumble, where you’ll get dudes sort of directly asking, “Do you want to have sex with me?” right away. Or I’ve had people, I’ve had men say… I was talking to this one guy and we were making jokes about dogs, and I was like, “Oh throw me a bone.” Like, dog. And he was like, “Oh, I can throw you a boner.” Which is, like…
A: Yeah. [laughs] And then I had this one guy who I was going to go out for a drink for, and then I ended up cancelling. I was like, “Actually, I don’t really think I want to see you after all.” And then he was like, “You whore, I can’t believe you, you probably do this to all these guys, you’re so terrible.” I can’t remember exactly what he said… And I had one guy who kept asking me, “Do you want to see my dick, do you want to see my dick,” so on… Like, no, I don’t. Over and over again. I feel like the most… I’ve had a few other things on Tumblr or other anonymous messages that have been creepy or gross, or porn bots will start following you and stuff. I feel like for dating apps it’s the most…
TV: What do you think it is about dating apps that makes that stuff so prominent?
A: I think it’s just because it’s the environment. You feel like, ‘You’re already on Tinder, so obviously you want to have sex. And you’re already matched with me, so obviously you want to hear me talk about my penis and you want to see pictures of it’ and stuff like that. I think it’s the environment that people feel like is automatically a sexual environment, like being here, you’ve already agreed. Which is obviously ridiculous.
TV: Do you think that stuff is more prevalent online in your personal experience, than in person?
A: Yeah. Yeah, I think so, because I feel like… You know, from my experience and from what I’ve experienced with friends, it’s very rare for a guy to come up to you randomly and say things. Not that that never happens, but it’s much rarer. And I feel like people feel more emboldened, cause it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not like I have to suffer any consequences really if it’s online or if it’s in an app or something. I can send these messages and I don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for people. It’s just there. I send some of these messages and I don’t really have to suffer any kind of consequence to it.’ I don’t know, I feel like, it’s like… I heard this comedian doing a bit about dick pics. Actually, I think it was Aziz Ansari, which is… now is a weird thing. But he was doing this whole bit, and he was like ‘Yeah, in the ’90s, it’s not like you would print out a picture of your penis and like show it to someone on the street.’ [laughter] So I do think it is that accessibility and ease of it. I’m a very pro-Internet person, and I don’t like the whole ‘apps are ruining the world’ kind of mindset, but I do think there is something a little disturbing about how easy it is to send those kinds of messages or pictures without asking the person first.
TV: You mentioned the experiences of your friends, so the people around you have similar…
A: Yeah, I’ve had friends who are into dating apps a lot who will get creepy messages or… I have a friend who’s Chinese and she gets a lot of racialized, racist, sexist messages. Sometimes it’s with guys that they kind of know, but not really, who will send them unsolicited messages. I’m not… I was going to say I’m lucky, but I don’t think I’m lucky, that I’ve never experienced like an unsolicited dick pic. But I know that’s happened to a lot of people and a lot of my friends.
TV: Yeah. How do you think that stuff should be… What do you think people should do about that kind of thing?
A: People who get harassed, or in general?
TV: In general. How do you solve this kind of problem?
A: I don’t know, it’s hard, right? It’s hard to police something like that. Cause you don’t want to… I mean first of all, there are some people who are sexting consensually, you know, you don’t want to prevent two adults who want to do that together. And it’s much easier to react when something like that happens than to prevent it in the first place. You know what I mean? It’s much easier to block someone or report them or whatever, but it’s hard to preemptively know. It’s not like people advertise on their profiles online, ‘Oh, I’m a creep. I’m going to do this to you.’ I think there is sort of, I think a lot of women do tend to send messages to each other. I think some of them, Toronto-based Facebook groups, and they’ll send each other messages like, ‘Avoid this guy on this app because he’s said things.’ I think talking about it more openly and saying, avoid so-and-so… And I do think, I mean this is more of a reactive than a preventative measure, but I do think that apps and websites and social media need to be a lot stricter about banning people. You know, it’s very common for sexual harassment and stuff to be done on Facebook or on Twitter or whatever, but the guys don’t get banned or, you know, I’ve seen other kinds of sexist comments on something and I’ll report it. And Facebook will say, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” You know? I think it needs to be taken seriously, and so when it does happen, there needs to be some kind of punitive measure.
TV: What kind of legal consequences do you think might be appropriate for that kind of thing?
A: I think it depends, because, I mean it’s not like… Not that it’s good for someone to send a random message out of the blue that’s inappropriate or to send a picture, not that that’s okay. But that’s quite different from easier cases of men constantly harassing women over and over again, sending pictures. I don’t know. I think there should be… I’m trying to think this through. I think it depends. I think there are some things that should have more severe consequences, things like revenge porn should have much more severe consequences than it does now. I think something like that kind of constant harassment… But… I guess it should be treated like regular workplace harassment, but as we’ve seen that also doesn’t get taken very seriously. I don’t know. I’m not a legal authority, I’m not an expert. But there should be some kind of consequence. I think also once something like that gets publicized, the person should have to suffer some kind of consequence, even if it’s just the social consequence. Or if it’s a school setting or a workplace setting, then it’s easier for workplace consequences from the school or the place.
TV: Last question. Do you think that the definition of harassment online is different than the definition of harassment in person? Does online harassment take very important, different forms that we should watch out for compared to in person? Or do you think they are enough of the same to be treated the same?
A: I think they’re mostly the same and should be treated the same. Obviously, like I said, it’s a lot easier to be anonymous online and send them anonymously. I think that sometimes it can take different forms, and there are certain things that only might happen online, like sending certain pictures, versus something that might happen in person, like touching someone inappropriately. But I don’t think there’s a huge fundamental difference between them.
TV: Is there anything else that you want to share?
A: No. You know, men should stop sending people their dicks, cause no one really wants to see that. [laughter]
TV: Fair enough, that would be nice.
Ray*, a gay man of colour, tells me about his experience on dating apps like Grindr and Scruff, where overt instances of racism are normalized and often justified as sexual preferences. All of the harassment Ray has experienced on dating apps has had racial overtones.
“Some of the things will just be so racist that it comes across as funny,” he tells me. “There was this one guy who told me he was trying to sleep with one guy from every country. He’s like, ‘Where are you from? I’ve slept with guys from Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, and I’m trying to find someone from Hong Kong, China, India, are you any of those?’… Another told me he wanted me to be his ‘manga prince’ or something. He used some sort of Japanese term from anime.”
It is common knowledge that the internet can serve as a breeding ground for various forms of bigotry. The accessibility of online platforms can have profound repercussions in terms of the dissemination of harmful ideas, making it easy for some users to spread hatred while hiding behind the anonymity their laptop screens provide — all the while gaining support from cohorts of virtual followers.
After Pam* cut ties with a friend she had dated, she was disturbed to discover that he secretly owned an anti-feminist Reddit account, which featured misogynistic comments about women in general and about her and her friends. Pam came across multiple threads and comments linked to his profile that had themes of sexual violence; other users commented on his posts referring to women as ‘bitches’ and ‘cunts,’ stating that women needed to be raped in order to be taught a lesson.
(Interview conducted electronically)
Pam: A couple of years ago I discovered one of my good friends actually owned and actively posted on a secret reddit account that bashed women and spouted anti-feminist propaganda.
I’ll start at the beginning — I once dated this guy from my friend group. He was a good friend and an overall good person — or at least that’s what everyone thought. Our dating life was fun, simple and easy-going. While I enjoyed our conversations and sometimes healthy debates, he’d often say things that made my stomach feel uneasy. He’d make statements such as “women just aren’t as good at directions,” and “women aren’t good at sports,” among other classic stereotypical statements. This wasn’t worthy of cancelling our friendship over, so I’d laugh it off and tell him he was wrong. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to laugh off one of our conversations. I don’t remember how it came up, but we started arguing over the wage gap — super fun stuff, right? His comments and his stance of vehemently denying that a gap existed were too much for me. I told him that I was truly sorry but I didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. This conversation wasn’t explosive or angry. We both agreed that it sucked but was just how it was.
It was a month or so after this conversation that I discovered his reddit account. I can’t describe the empty feeling that you get when someone that you know and interact with has such anti-feminist views that they feel the need to trash women on the bowels of the internet. His posts included hateful and spiteful comments and screenshots about the women in our friend group. One of his posts read something like this: “just broke up with a pretty radical feminist over a discussion on the wage gap… didn’t realize this was who she was, now i’m expecting the police to come to my house any day claiming I raped her.” The people who commented took it seriously and told him to save our text messages so that he had proof I had consented. I was so shocked that he would even think to post something so ridiculous, but I was also hurt that he’d trivialize rape and claim that women use it as a tactic to ‘get revenge.’ The comments on his other posts about the women from our friend group were far worse than the post about me, much more violent and much more hateful. Comparatively, my story isn’t that bad… But I will forever wonder if the people I think are “good people” are actually running some secret reddit account about woman-hating.
Sorry if it’s cheesy haha, I wasn’t sure how to write it out.
The Varsity: Hi Pam, thank you so much for sharing. It’s not cheesy or too long at all, I really appreciate hearing your perspective. I have a couple of follow-up questions if that’s okay.
TV: You mentioned that this person was saying worse things about the women in your friend group. What kinds of things was he saying or doing? Did he ever try to contact you or your friends directly with those kinds of statements or was everything on reddit?
P: He posted a lot of screenshots of my friend’s Facebook statuses saying stuff like, “this bitch in my program actually thinks this” or about how feminism is a cult and we all drank the Kool-Aid. The comments were horrible, a lot of people saying things on the screenshots like “cunt, I should rape you see how you like that,” etc etc. I don’t want to say too much about that just to protect the identity of my friend but there were a lot of similar posts to that.
And he would never say anything to our faces. It was all on reddit. Other than general comments like “haha women should stay in the kitchen,” but nothing directly about us.
TV: I see. I’m really sorry to hear that happened to you folks, that is horrible. Have any of you ever tried to report him or get his posts taken down?
P: I actually anonymously commented on one of his posts because I was so angry, and he deleted the post. I wanted to report it but my friend asked me not to so I didn’t. I think what’s worse is when I told another one of my male friends about the reddit posts, he just laughed and thought it was funny.
TV: I see. In your opinion, what kinds of consequences should this person and people in his position face for his behaviour?
P: Oh boy, I’m not sure. I wish he was more educated, and less entitled. I wish he had the ability to listen to women and accept the hardships women face. I wish he had more empathy. But how do you undo those kinds of insidious beliefs that our own society teaches people? I wish though that a consequence he had to face was that his reddit account was made public and that everyone in our friend group and school department knew about it, it seems like a fair consequence to me to let everyone know what he truly thinks.
TV: Yeah, other people I have spoken with have thought anonymity on the Internet to be a serious problem in these kinds of cases.
P: Definitely. It lets them hide behind a mask. I think if people knew they’d act differently around him. It kills me that people think he’s such a great guy.
TV: Thank you very much for sharing this with me. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
P: Yeah no problem! Thanks for listening. And no, I think that’s it.
The anonymous nature of many online communities, and the separation between users online, also has the potential to facilitate behaviour that can only be described as predatory.
In her mid-teens, Manuela* was harassed by someone she met on an internet forum whom she initially trusted because he was a well-respected member of the online community. Wanting to explore her sexuality in a virtual space, Manuela corresponded and had cyber sex with the user over the course of a few weeks.
Though their initial interactions were relatively harmless, things quickly escalated into something more insidious. “It became pretty apparent pretty soon that he was basically a pedophile,” says Manuela. The man was significantly older than her and would frequently talk about how attractive and innocent he found young girls to be. Manuela was also aware that he had dated girls even younger than she was at the time.
When Manuela refused to send him naked photos of herself, the user became verbally abusive. “He would start to guilt me and shame me every time we talked about sending him my nudes,” she says. “He really would get into my head and just say a lot of terrible things. About how I’m worthless and terrible and selfish and narcissistic… It was very classic abusive behaviour.” At one point, he threatened to come find Manuela and rape her.
Max* sent naked photos of himself to a popular Tumblr user. He later came across a troubling post the user had made mocking a 12-year-old’s experience with self-harm. When Max confronted him, the user reblogged his comments to their public Tumblr and attached Max’s nudes to the post. “I felt so violated,” explains Max. “I’d [experienced] sexual assault before in my life. Everything just came rushing back. Everything I thought I was able to compartmentalize and store away in my head… all those things came back to me.”
Dave* had a frightening experience with Tagged.com, a website that matches Facebook profiles and facilitates conversations between users. Dave matched with a beautiful blonde girl, and the two of them started video-chatting and having cyber sex over webcam. The ‘girl’ turned out to be a scam artist stationed in the Philippines with an elaborate extortion operation. The person had set up a fake profile and used video footage from another source to trick Dave into thinking there was a woman on the other end of the screen. The man screenshotted Dave masturbating on camera, tracked down Dave’s family members on Facebook, and demanded money, threatening to send the photos to his family if Dave did not comply.
Terrified, Dave wired the man some money and begged him to stop, and the man eventually deleted all but one of the images he had on his hard drive. Dave finally blocked him, deactivated his email and Tagged.com accounts, and changed his privacy settings on Facebook. The man did not contact him again.
“I never heard anything from anyone, so I figured he must have actually taken pity on me,” said Dave. “But he still may very well have that last photo, and could bring my name up at any time.”
(Interview conducted electronically.)
Dave: Well, I guess it all started when me and my girlfriend at the time broke up. We were together for three years, so when we broke up it had a pretty big impact on me. I instantly became reckless and downloaded Tinder and signed onto this website that I used to go on when I was about 15. It was essentially Facebook and Tinder combined, you had the ability to choose “yes” or “no” when someone’s picture popped up, and if you both matched, you could message each other. To be honest, when I was younger this was a place where I would meet people online and eventually, if things went well, we would Skype, and things would generally get hotter from there. So when I signed back on, I kind of had an open mind about where things could go with people I matched with.
Anyways, I matched with this girl, and she asked to see me over Skype, so I added her. Her screen was of this gorgeous blonde girl, and it seemed legit. She eventually starts talking to me about seeing more of my body, etc., and before I know it, we’re both naked. She asks me to masturbate, so I complied, and then she asked me if I would show my face and penis. I thought it was strange, and to be perfectly honest I thought, ‘She is probably a romantic and just thinks it’s hot,’ so I did it.
Next thing I know, the beautiful blonde girl disappears and her screen is a live feed of the other person’s monitor. On their monitor was a folder that was open, and it had a bunch of screenshots of me holding my penis with my face in the shot. In his other window my Facebook was open, and he had opened my sister’s Facebook, my grandmother’s Facebook, and others. The text box started to pour in messages like “HAHAHA GOTCHA FAGGOT!!!” and “HOW WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO SEND THESE PHOTOS TO YOUR FUCKING GRANDMOTHER, FAGGOT!!!”
Of course, I’m shocked, and I just simply reply with “What do you want…” and [he] said something like “I FUCKING WANT YOUR MONEY.” We discuss how much money he wants and how to complete the transaction. He tells me to login to this money wiring website, type in this code, and type in my bank information. He said he wanted a hundred dollars, so I go through with it. He tells me he’s going to go to the wiring station tomorrow and get the money, and that if I fucked him over he’s going to send out the photos.
So he messages me and says he got the money, and I thought that would be the end of it, until he says, “Now get me more.” I knew it wouldn’t stop. I figured that the only way for him to stop would be for me to cry and sob on camera, and maybe he would take pity on me. I think it did, because when we Skyped again and all I could see was the live feed of his monitor, he deleted all but one photo he had in his album. I saw him physically drag the photos into the Recycle Bin, and empty it.
I asked the obvious questions like, “Why are you doing this?” and he told me he’s only trying to make money for his son and him. I remember looking up the address of the wiring station, and it was someplace in the Philippines, so I assumed that he probably didn’t have a lot of money. He even showed me his folder of his other victims, trying to justify that he’s only trying to survive and that what he’s doing just happens. I was disgusted.
He told me to get him another fifty dollars, and that after the second wiring he would delete my last photo and that would be the end of it. He told me he’s going to give me a day to get the money together. In that time, I told [name redacted] what was happening, and I asked him if he would come to the police station. He agreed, and when we got there we had to wait to speak to someone at the desk. Eventually we spoke to someone, and I can’t quite exactly remember what they said but I think they told us to go to some other law building to file a report. So after all that was said and done, we returned home.
The next day, I was waiting for the guy to come online so we could go forward with the transaction. While I was waiting, two police officers came to the apartment to take another statement. I started to explain to them what had happened, and while I was finishing up my explanation the guy came online. I told the cops to wait because I had to go online and talk to him. What was particularly terrifying was the fact that the cops were standing on the other side of my laptop while I was crying and pleading for mercy from the guy. He saw me talk to them, and asked if the cops were there. Up to this point he had toned down significantly, and wasn’t shouting, but after he asked that he started screaming again. “THEY’RE NOT GONNA FUCKING DO ANYTHING. YOU’RE FUCKED. SEND ME THE FUCKING MONEY.” I tried to explain to him I didn’t have the money and to let me go. He said he will give me another day to get the money, and he signed off.
The cops pulled me aside and essentially said, “Listen kid, this happens. Often. You can either keep paying him, or you can tell your friends and family that they may receive some private pictures of you from an anonymous source online.” I thanked them, and showed them to the door. I decided that I would try and wire him an odd amount of money that wasn’t fifty dollars, like $35.24 or something, that way it might convince him that I tried to scrape together what little I had.
I tried to wire the money, but for whatever reason my transaction didn’t go through. I received this message that said “Transaction rejected,” blah blah blah. I took a screenshot of the message, sent it to him while he was offline, and explained that I tried and couldn’t do it and that I was sorry.
I sent him more messages, again, while he was offline, begging him to stop what he was doing. I blocked him, signed off, deleted my Skype account, deleted my email account, went in and changed every privacy setting on Facebook, and deleted my account from the website that I first met him on.
I never heard anything from anyone, so I figured he must have actually taken pity on me. But he still may very well have that last photo and could bring my name up at any time.
The Varsity: Thank you very much for sharing that story. I’m really sorry that happened to you. It sounds terrifying to have to go through that.
I wound up staying online a bit longer than expected, so I read through the whole thing. I’m going to send you a couple of follow up questions in the morning if that’s okay, and in the meantime please feel free to share anything else you would like to say.
D: Sure, thanks.
TV: Hey, okay, here are a few follow-up questions.
1. What was your experience like dealing with the Toronto police? Were you happy with how they handled things, etc.?
2. What kinds of consequences do you think should be available for the person who did this to you?
3. Do you think this experience has changed how you behave online or your perception of the internet and apps like the one you used? (What was the name of the app also? I’d like to look it up because I’ve never heard of it).
Take your time with the answers and thank you again so much.
1. Well, the Toronto police that came to my apartment were amazing. Like I said, they had mentioned that they’ve dealt with similar situations before, and they were truly reassuring and comforting. However, speaking to the clerks at the station, they didn’t seem too impressed with my situation. I found them kind of snarky.
2. To be honest, I’m not sure. If I had the ability to choose a punishment for whoever did this to me, I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend anything. I think that he simply found a means of obtaining money, as disgusting as this way was. Like I said, he told me he’s only trying to support his son. But obviously, that may have been a lie as well. I kind of wish he could experience the terror that I experienced during that time and how terrified I was, but I don’t think I could wish that feeling on the worst of my enemies, him included.
3. The experience definitely changed how I behave online, but it hasn’t inhibited me from doing anything I wouldn’t do otherwise. I still go on Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, etc. I’m just a little more cautious with people who seem suspicious online. Furthermore, I definitely am more cautious as to what my privacy settings are and what kind of personal information I have accessible to others online. The website was called tagged.com. I knew that the website wasn’t exactly the safest place because I’ve been on there before when I was younger. I walked into the situation naively, and I paid for it.
Personal conflicts in online spaces
While trolls, creeps, and criminals lurking the internet’s darkest corners might paint a stereotypical picture of the dangers associated with the online world, the internet also facilitates and enables harm between people in ‘real-life’ relationships.
In 2014, a man who asked Joyce* out attempted to escalate their relationship very quickly; this made her uncomfortable to the point where she chose to stop talking to him. In 2017, completely out of the blue, the same man messaged her, writing, “ahaha you’re fat now and your boobs sag. Karma does exist.” Joyce had had very limited contact with him immediately after she ended things, and they hadn’t had any contact at all over the course of three years.
“Frankly the whole thing was uncomfortable and appalling,” says Joyce, “but I was just shocked at how long he held this grudge for after I very politely turned him down.”
(Interview conducted electronically)
Joyce: Hey! I have a story about online sexual harassment if you still need some.
The Varsity: Would love to speak with you, thank you for coming forward.
J: Actually I don’t know if it qualifies, but… Basically what happened between me and this guy was we met at a restaurant, he asked me out, we started talking online, and he tried to escalate the relationship very quickly — like in one day. So I pretty much said that I was uncomfortable with how quickly things were going and stopped contact and unfriended him. This was in grade 10 for me, and he was a couple years older.
TV: I see. Sorry to hear that you had such an uncomfortable experience. Before we talk any further I need to let you know I might include your story as part of my article, so that will mean screenshotting the conversation and providing it to our fact-checkers —
J: And then THIS YEAR, this guy messages me out of the blue saying, “Ahaha you’re fat now and your boobs sag. karma does exist.”
TV: — you can definitely remain anonymous if you like. but this is on the record.
J: Okay for sure! That’s not a problem, I’d just like to remain anonymous.
TV: For sure.
J: Frankly the whole thing was really uncomfortable and appalling, but I was just shocked at how long he held this grudge for after I very politely turned him down. But yeah, that’s the story.
TV: So you had no contact with him between when you unfriended him two years ago and when he recently reached out to you? What did you do when you got the message? Did you respond at all?
J: The only contact I had was seeing him two or three times around the city, where he would either stare me down or try to approach me. One time he got close enough to touch my arm and try and talk to me. And he messaged me twice after I unfriended him — wait sorry, three times. In 2014 after I rejected him, and then no online contact until 2017.
TV: I see.
J: Yeah. When I got the message I actually had to try and figure out who he was at first. And then I was just really uncomfortable and upset, so I talked to my boyfriend and my friends about it.
TV: The messages that he sent you in 2014, were they similar to the one you got most recently?
J: The first one was as though he was just ignoring that I had rejected him, then he said something along the lines of, “Now we can’t even be friends,” and the third was him asking to hang out after he saw me in public. They didn’t feel as malicious as the most recent one at all.
TV:That blows. I’m sorry that happened to you. For the record, although you weren’t sure if it qualifies at sexual harassment, in my view it absolutely does.
J: Thanks for saying that. You’re right, I think it’s just easier to not qualify it as what it is so it’s simpler to move on.
TV: I totally get that. I’ve done the same thing in my own experience. If there’s anything else you’d like to share on this story or others just let me know, I really appreciate you telling me.
J: Okay if I think of anything I’ll let you know. Thanks for listening!! I look forward to the article.
After she left her summer job, Fiona* exchanged Facebook information and phone numbers with a co-worker whom she considered a friend. Two hours later, to her shock, he sent her unsolicited photos of his penis. Although Fiona responded negatively, he refused to leave her alone. Over the following weeks, he sent Fiona persistent messages asking her private questions about her sex life and accusing her of leading him on.
When Fiona confronted her co-worker, his response was disturbing. “When I openly told him, you know, ‘What you’re doing constitutes sexual harassment, because this is not okay,’ his response was literally, ‘This is turning me on,’” she says. On the other end of the phone with her, my stomach churns at the thought that her harasser found the situation all the more sexually arousing.
The Varsity: Could you tell me a little bit about your story?
Fiona: Well, I thought this was relevant because I actually had an experience with a co-worker that was exactly in the realm of online sexual harassment in the summer. I was at a summer job, so I worked with him for three-ish months. You know, it was just some minor flirtation, but nothing too serious. It wasn’t anything. But we became friends. I considered him a friend. And immediately after I quit at the end of the summer, so two hours after my last shift, he started sending me unsolicited nude photos. To which I reacted really negatively because it was unprovoked and unasked for and unconsented. So that to me is kind of, you know- if you’re not asking to see these types… But his reaction was literally extremely defensive right away. And it was very much, “You know, you flirted with me, what did you expect,” blah blah blah, and then he had a girlfriend, so I said, you know, “What does your girlfriend think of this?” And he said, “Don’t worry, we won’t tell her. This is going to be our little secret…”
A lot of messages following a couple weeks after that that was very much in the vein of sexual harassment in that he would ask me extremely private questions about my sex life via text and stuff, which made me really uncomfortable. And I would either not answer them or just answer really negatively. But it all culminated in him being like, you know, “I don’t understand. Since when are you like this? Don’t pretend that you didn’t want me to be like this. You flirted with me. Don’t think that I’m stupid.” And when I openly told him, you know, “What you’re doing constitutes sexual harassment because this is not okay,” his response was literally, “This is turning me on.” So he sent me more photos, which resulted in eventually just blocking him and reporting him to the management.
TV: Wait sorry, can I just clarify — so his response to you saying that it was sexual harassment was that he was turned on?
F: Yeah. Literally yeah. And he sent me another photo of his penis.
TV: I’m so sorry that that happened to you.
F: Yeah. Yeah. It was really messed up. And he got fired, rightfully so because management took it very seriously, because regardless of whether I was an employee with them or not anymore, that kind of behaviour was not okay. But I think what struck me the most was like… Because it was in the digital, in the media, it somehow made it more okay for him to behave this way. When I was hanging out with him in person, like we were friends. I considered him a friend up until all of this. There were absolutely no signs that he could behave this way. And it’s kind of crossed into this weird realm that like, if he just showed me his penis on the street, that would be considered sexual harassment black and white. But for some reason for him, because it was online and because he didn’t put his face in the photos that he sent me, it somehow made it okay, which is what was extremely confusing.
F: And the exact words he used were “take some responsibility,” “don’t pretend like you didn’t want this,” basically like the staple victim-blaming language. But that was the entire story. It was just pretty awe-striking how he made a complete 180 as soon as I was not working there anymore so he didn’t have to see me in person anymore unless we made plans to meet up. So that pretty much gave him the green light to behave however he wants.
TV: When you did report him, what was your experience like dealing with your employer or your former employer?
F: That was actually a lot more reassuring. I think I got extremely lucky, because my manager was just a super super cool person. So I told him about this, naturally, ’cause I just ran into him on the street and we chatted for a while. I told him about this, and he took it very seriously. I basically just filled a report out of exactly what happened and sent it off to human resources. And then from then on, it wasn’t my problem anymore. I actually have no idea what ended up happening. I believe he was fired last time I asked. But I don’t know because I haven’t followed up with that story afterwards.
TV: And to clarify, so this happened after you stopped working there.
F: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
TV: Okay. Do you have friends who have similar experiences? You don’t have to name any names, but I’m just wondering.
F: I definitely have friends who have received unsolicited photos as well. I can’t think of specific stories off the top of my head right now, but you know, it’s just so common. Especially with dating apps. There’s nothing wrong inherently with dating apps, but for some reason it’s become much more acceptable to send out nude photos without the consent of the receiver. So I’ve definitely heard stories from friends of mine who have been using Tinder that, you know, as soon as you exchange numbers with a guy he immediately begins this kind of behaviour, which is really concerning.
TV: Yeah. And you mentioned something about the internet facilitating this or making him feel like he could do it? Can you elaborate a little bit on that? What do you mean?
F: Well, I think that was actually, I was talking to one my friends about this, and he said, you know, ‘it’s kind of messed up because if you know, while you were still working, he just pulled out his penis, that would undoubtedly be sexual harassment and get him in all kinds of trouble. But for some reason for him, the fact that this exchange was occurring over Internet, it gave him a lot more confidence in acting the way that he did. Literally to the point where I said, “You know this is unacceptable behaviour,” and his response was, “You need to take some responsibility” and “this is turning me on.” And he started sending me more photos. So, you know, it’s not acceptable, and it’s long been not acceptable for someone to basically use this kind of harassment in person. Like I said, because he was my friend, right, this is what was really striking to me because I never expected for him to behave this way in person, but that completely changed as soon as he was able to message me. At the last day of my shift, we exchanged numbers, we exchanged Facebook, stuff like that. So as soon as he had access to my social media, it completely changed his specific behaviour and how he could interact with me.
So when he messaged me it wasn’t even like “Hey, we should grab a drink sometime,” it was like, “Hey, here is my penis.” And he genuinely did not seem to understand why what he was doing was not okay. Because he was kind of just like, you know, “this is not a big deal,” “this is fun,” “we’re just having fun,” blah blah blah. And I think a lot of the responses that I hear about this are like, you know, you can just block this person, which is true, but it doesn’t mean that these interactions should not be occurring in the first place. Cause yeah I did block him, but I didn’t want to see those photos in the first place. They shouldn’t have been sent in the first place. So just because I have the option of blocking him and not hearing or seeing him anymore doesn’t mean that it gives him the opportunity to behave this way.
TV: Yeah. That’s rough, I’m really sorry.
F: Yeah, no it’s fine, it was a while ago. It was just a really weird situation.
TV: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
F: I think that’s pretty much it. But yes, essentially just… Yeah, that was my biggest confusion about this whole scenario, is how much his approach changed completely since he could talk to me online and not in person. And yeah, of course the whole, “this is sexual harassment” and his response being “this is turning me on” was very weird to say the least.
TV: Thank you for sharing, I really appreciate it.
F: Yeah, no worries. Good luck with your article.
TV: Thank you. Yeah, if you happen to know anyone else who would like to contribute, just send them my way. There’s a lot of people coming forward, so that’s really good to see.
F: Yeah for sure. You know it’s messed up how so many people have these stories but, yeah, it’s really important. Yeah, thank you for writing it.
TV: No worries.
F: Good speaking to you, good luck.
TV: Thank you. Thank you. Have a nice night.
When Khrystyna was 17 years old, someone at her workplace messaged her on Facebook, telling her that he had been “watching her” and made sexual comments about her body, including that he sometimes got “hard” at work while staring at her. Khrystyna later found out that he was nine years older than her. Even after Khrystyna changed jobs, for the next five years the man continued to pester her with messages, some sexually explicit, others angry that she was not responding to his advances. Once, he sent her a photo of his penis.
A substantial portion of online harassment occurs when intimate relationships go sour. When one of Khrystyna’s ex-partners found out she was seeing someone new, he sent her angry threatening messages and voicemails about harming her, himself, and her new partner. Another ex left sexist comments on all of the feminist Facebook posts she put on her profile; when she confronted him about it, he told her all she needed was “a good dick.”
(Interview conducted electronically)
Khrystyna: I suppose I’ll start with my creepy ex-coworker. So when I was seventeen, I worked cash at a grocery store and one day this guy messaged me on Facebook. At first I had no idea who he was so he proceeded to tell me that we worked together and that he had been “watching me.” I later found out he was nine years older than me. After some friendly banter, which I felt obligated to participate in, seeing as we were apparently coworkers and I didn’t want to be rude, he proceeded to start commenting on my appearance, specifically how my butt looked in “those tight pants” and how he sometimes got hard at work when looking at me. I stopped responding to him after that, but nevertheless he continued to send me messages periodically, even after I quit my job — not ‘cause of him, I just got a better job. Most of the messages were either sexually explicit, angry or just straight up annoying af — ie. why aren’t you responding, did I do something, I guess I missed my chance. At one point he sent me an unsolicited dick pic. On multiple occasions he asked me out. This went on for five years. A few times a year he would “check in” with me. I finally blocked him last year.
One of my ex-boyfriends wasn’t happy that I didn’t seem to care he cheated on me, and we broke up, so he sent me several angry messages about it, in which he called me a slut. A lot. When I didn’t respond to those, he eventually showed up at both my home and work, but that’s a whole other story. He has continued to try to get in contact with me through [Facebook] messenger and [Instagram] over the last few years and has tried to emotionally manipulate me into talking with him by bringing up various life struggles in hopes that I would feel sorry for him. He’s also asked me out a couple of times despite my clear lack of interest.
When another ex of mine found out that I was seeing someone new, he started sending me angry and threatening messages and voicemails about harming me, himself and the guy I was seeing. He even ended up stealing my phone once, after confronting me in a public place that he knew I was in, in order to call and message the guy I was seeing “as me” to end things. I had to call his mom to get my phone back.
Another ex used to leave sexist comments on any feminist adjacent [Facebook] posts I made. When I messaged him to confront him, he told me a good dick would cure my feminism. I proceeded to unfriend him.
I’ve, of course, received my share of unsolicited dick pics and disgusting Tinder messages. One time I told a guy he was being sexist and he responded with a picture of his penis.
And lastly, I’ve recently been experiencing a strange phenomenon with men from Bumble that I do not swipe right on. I’ve had multiple of these men slide into my DMs — I don’t have my Instagram linked to the app, so I’m not sure how they find me as I believe all they have to go on is my first name — and send me messages that range from “hey, I saw you on Bumble” — which usually prompts a response in my head along the lines of “saw you too, didn’t swipe right, why you here?…” — to “dat ass tho” to more sexually explicit messages. They also rarely stop at sending just one message.
The Varsity: Thank you for sharing all those stories. Really sorry that shit happened to you.
I have a couple of follow up questions if that’s okay. What kinds of consequences do you feel are appropriate for the various people who did all that stuff? And did you ever try to report or tell anyone what you experienced, particularly in the cases of the coworker and the exes?
K: Sure, I’m just at work right now so I’ll respond when I get a chance.
TV: For sure, take your time.
K: In terms of consequences, I think those would definitely vary depending on the situation. When it comes to things like workplace sexual harassment, obviously there need to be specific anti-sexual harassment policies in place which not every workplace has. Further, employees should be required to go through anti-harassment training and feel empowered by their employers to come forward if incidents occur, which is also not [something] that happens frequently. Usually even if there is a policy in place, it’s not really talked about so if an employee is being harassed they may not even know what their options are in that particular situation. Additionally there’s also the concern that the policy in place may actually burden or discriminate against victims of sexual harassment/assault. Of course, a workplace should have zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour and employees should be disciplined accordingly, whether that means suspensions, without pay, for first time minor offences, or dismissal for repeated and/or major offences.
When it comes to consequences for online stalking someone, or harassing women with sexually explicit messages or images, I think social media companies really need to take responsibility for the kind of platforms they provide for this behaviour. I’m not too familiar with Facebook’s or Twitter’s or Instagram’s harassment policies, but I do know that the few times I’ve reported certain [Facebook] comments the only feedback I got was that they didn’t interfere with their harassment policy. I think ultimately people should have their accounts suspended and/or deleted if they choose to harass people on these platforms, because if you can’t use social media without sexually harassing women, then maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to use social media.
In addition to consequences though, I think we need to be having broader conversations about rape culture and specifically how rape culture affects our dating norms. In a lot of the situations that I’ve encountered the way that men behave is a reflection of the inherent idea that ultimately women do not have ownership over their bodies and men have the responsibility of conquering our bodies. So when a man is confronted with rejection, whether that presence itself in the form of a verbal “no” or through someone simply not responding to messages, they see that rejection as merely an obstacle they have to overcome, because culturally that’s what our dating norms not only dictate but validate. And this is something we teach kids from the first time we let a young boy go undisciplined for pulling a girl’s hair in class “because he likes her”. So sure we can and should talk about consequences, but unless we start to shift and unlearn what we consider to be “normal” behaviour within the realm of dating, we’re just giving out slaps on the wrist to men, most of whom don’t even understand what they did wrong. And that’s not to say that men don’t have a responsibility to actively seek out and spread information on consent culture, because they absolutely and unequivocally do!
Lastly, in terms of reporting sexual harassment I’ve never done that. I’ve always just defaulted to talking through these experiences with friends. I think a lot of women don’t report incidents for two reasons. First, the processes for reporting are usually unclear and require victims to do a lot of emotional labour to even bring a complaint forward, at which point the likelihood of that complaint being taken seriously is usually a huge gamble. And second, I think a lot of women, especially young women, don’t even know what constituted sexual harassment and it’s only sometime after the fact that we look back and think “oh shit, that was really messed up.” When you grow up with people constantly validating the predatory behaviour of boys and men, you eventually learn that apparently that’s “just how men are” and you as a woman are just required to sort of live with it. And it can take a long time to unlearn that. I would say that’s definitely what resulted in me not reporting most of the sexual harassment I’ve experienced in the past.
As for present day harassment, for me a lot of the time it comes down to just not having the time to deal with it. I think if women actually allowed themselves to feel and express the kind of anger that the amount of sexual harassment we get warrants, we would be so emotionally exhausted and drained that we would literally never get anything done. Personally, I think I’ve become somewhat desensitized to the more day-to-day forms of “minor” harassment as a coping mechanism, because I just don’t have the time to deal with another comment about my ass when I have a deadline or a paper or any assortment of things going on. So as opposed to going through some long, mysterious and most likely fruitless process of reporting an incident, I think I just resort to setting whatever feelings I have aside until there is time and space to discuss it with friends.
Sorry, that turned out suuuuper long. Feel free to use or not use [whatever] from those messages. I just have a lot of thoughts on this subject lol.
TV: It’s not a problem at all, I really appreciate you sharing. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
K: No, I think I’m done. Good luck with writing this piece and don’t forget to take some self-care time afterwards!
When Talia* started receiving suspicious messages from her friend Noelle’s* Snapchat account, they discovered someone had gotten a hold of Noelle’s password. Over the course of a few months, Talia and Noelle were bombarded with random dick pics and threats that Noelle’s intimate photos would be released if Talia did not send intimate photos to Noelle’s Snapchat account.
Though their harasser never revealed their identity, Talia and Noelle believe that it was Noelle’s ex-boyfriend, who had sexually assaulted Noelle at a party. Though Noelle never told anyone except Talia about her assault, he denied the fact that the encounter was not consensual and became convinced that Noelle was spreading rumours about what had happened.
The Varsity: Tell me what happened.
Talia: It started off getting some really weird messages from a close friend of mine on Snapchat. I was kind of like, “Oh this is weird.” At first I was like, “She’s just trying to be funny,” but then I was like, “This is actually concerning,” so I started taking screenshots of it and sending it to her. They were all like, “Send me some pictures of you wearing this,” and I was like, “Why do you want to see that?” I didn’t send it, obviously. I sent her the screenshots because they had come directly from her Snapchat account. I sent her the screenshots on Facebook and she obviously freaked out, she said it wasn’t her, someone had hacked her account. When I confronted the person on her Snapchat about it, they told me that if I didn’t send pictures, they wouldn’t give her her account back. But they would use her pictures. She said she didn’t have any naked photos saved on Snapchat or anything, but she still had pictures she didn’t want people to see obviously. She still wanted her account back.
She managed to actually get through to Snapchat and get them to disable her account before he was able to do that. That worked out, and for a while we thought that was just a quick thing, and they won’t bother us anymore, or ‘he.’ And then a few days later, I got like 10 pictures, just random dick pics, which we found out later were just random ones from the internet. They weren’t from the person sending them. Still telling me like, “I’ll find other ways to get into her account, I know her information, I know how to get her stuff, if you don’t send me this stuff,” blah blah blah. We tried to find out who they were for a while, but it was clear they obviously weren’t going to tell us. They made more and more and more accounts and they sent pictures both to me and to her. To her it was mainly threatening her and telling her they had pictures she didn’t want released. And to me it was, “Send me pictures or we’ll release your friend’s pictures.”
Obviously we made our Snapchats private so people couldn’t contact us anymore, but after that just every few months we would un-private our Snapchat, see like 10 new- because Snapchat, if you make it private, people can still send you stuff, you just don’t get it. But then when you make it un-private, you get them all at once. So, yeah. Every month, few months or so, we would un-private, look at all the pictures, delete every one, block them, put it back on private. This went on for a while, but this started at the beginning of last year and for the last three or four months there’s been nothing. It’s just stopped recently.
TV: What kind of action did you try to take? You actually mentioned something interesting which is that Snapchat managed to disable the account?
TV: Was that difficult to do?
T: I don’t know. She did it. But she said it was, when I was first talking to her, I was like, “Disable your account,” right? And she said, “I can’t get into it though, and they won’t believe me that it’s me.” So… At first she wasn’t trying to disable it actually, she was just trying to kick the other person out and change her password. But then when that obviously wasn’t working, she did manage to disable it because the other person hadn’t changed her password. Which was a bit weird. But yeah. We were scared at first, because they managed to hack into her account, that they would be able to hack into other people’s accounts, but she said her password wasn’t very secure, and she thinks they probably just managed to guess it. I don’t know if they were really all that smart or just knew her. She did contact Snapchat though, cause she kept getting kicked out of her account. She’d log in, and then by the time she got to ‘disable’ she would get kicked out again.
TV: And then after that do you know if she tried anything else? Or did you try anything else?
T: Well, we were very certain that it was someone from our old school. She studies in Australia now, she’s not anywhere close to here, but we both went to the same high school, and the person targeting us, they pretended to be a lot of our high school friends. When we asked who they were, they would say they were someone from our high school. I did contact my high school once saying, “I think someone who is still in school is doing this,” and they said, “Yeah we do workshops on not to do that,” and I’m like, “Okay well, that’s not very helpful but thanks.” So… Other than that we didn’t really know what to do. We think we know who it is, but there’s no proof so we can’t really do anything about it.
TV: Were you scared? Or were you worried, were you angry?
T: I was scared at first definitely when they hacked her account. Like I said we didn’t know if they were capable of hacking other accounts. The same day, I got a notification that someone had tried to hack into my Facebook, but failed, so that was pretty nice, comforting. But it was really scary at first. I have things… If you know one of my passwords, you probably know all of them, right? There’s a lot of stuff that I have, pictures I have either on Snapchat or on the cloud or whatever that I don’t want people to see. I was really scared at first. But I think as time went on, we realized that it was probably just people trying to annoy us rather than really cause us any harm.
TV: Okay. Do you have any idea why you were targeted?
T: Well like I said… I don’t want to say this as a certainty or anything, cause we still don’t know who it is obviously, but she did have… In high school she had a boyfriend who was two grades below her. It ended very very badly. He… I mean like, this all remains anonymous right?
T: Yeah, he raped her at a party. She confronted him about it afterwards and he lied to her about it. He told her that she was drunk and she didn’t remember consenting, but… Yeah. She obviously broke up with him and it was the same time she was moving away to go to university. I think that’s also why she decided to go to university so far away. Originally she was going to stay closer. He’s always obviously denied it, and she’s never told anyone but me about it. She didn’t want to do anything about it really. She didn’t want people to look at her different or anything like that. I guess she didn’t really feel like doing that. And then we… I heard actually just very recently that her ex and a group of his friends had created an Instagram account to post pictures of girls in their grade. Like, pictures that they had found from them, I don’t know how they found them. Not nude pictures, but still sexual or bad pictures just in general. They made an Instagram account about it. After that, me and her were pretty sure it was him, because it just seemed so similar. He has a reason to dislike her, I guess. He said that she’s been badmouthing him even though she didn’t tell anyone except me. He knows that she felt that he raped her, which he did. But yeah.
TV: What do you feel should happen to this person? What kind of consequence do you think there should be?
T: Well, the thing is, it’s also… When this started he was in like 11th grade. I guess it’s just… I think that in our school there was a bad culture when it came to this kind of stuff. They didn’t talk about it enough, they didn’t really- they talked about it, and it was very much, “Oh, consent consent consent,” blah blah blah. But they also completely closed their eyes to anything happening outside of school. Inside of school, sure, if anything happened you’d go to the teacher and they took it extremely seriously. A guy once got kicked out for even just making some comments to this one girl. He immediately got expelled. In school they were strict, but they never bothered to look into what was happening outside of school. It was bad. Especially at parties, consent wasn’t really something anybody thought about ever. I don’t want to say he’s just a product of the culture that was there, because that’s kind of letting him off the hook too much, obviously. But- also I don’t really- it was just something that was bound to happen I guess in that kind of situation. I don’t know what should happen to him. He blackmailed me and he wrote horrible things to me, but I obviously wasn’t raped. I obviously wasn’t the one who was facing having pictures exposed or anything. I probably wouldn’t be the right person to ask what kind of consequences he should face.
TV: Okay. Yeah in terms of anonymity, I don’t want to put either of you in any sort of harm’s way, so what I’m going to do is, I think after I decide which portions of the interview to use I’ll send it back to you just to make sure that you’re comfortable with what’s being shared. I’ll change… I’ll probably give your friend a fake name and I’ll give you a fake name as well. And if you’re okay with that, then we can go forward.
T: Yeah, that’s fine. Also, the high school wasn’t in Canada, so it’s unlikely. But the guy is Canadian and he messaged me a few times from his real account asking about going to U of T, and he was asking what residence I was at, it was very… Uncomfortable. So he might end up going here, which is very scary to me. Anonymity would be best.
TV: Of course. Okay. I can send you back whatever, and just let me know if you feel comfortable with that. Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
T: No, I don’t think so. If you have any other questions.
TV: Yeah that pretty much covers it. I’m really sorry that that happened to both of you.
T: I mean… It’s…
TV: Yeah, that’s really shitty. Part of the goal with this piece is to sort of show people, I guess, how the internet can make people terrible, or make already bad people even worse. You know? Facilitate that kind of conduct.
T: I guess it’s just also the fact that they get to remain anonymous. We tried every way of trying to figure out who these people were. I get that the internet, it’s sometimes good that you can be anonymous on the internet, but it was- it seemed so unfair that they were able to do so many things, get away with so many things, blackmail and all that kind of stuff and still get to remain anonymous. That definitely didn’t feel very fair. But there’s not really anything we could do about it because there’s too many protections about anonymity on social media.
TV: Yeah. Okay. Well, thank you very much for speaking with me. Again, I really appreciate you sharing that.
T: No problem.
Some of the most extreme cases of online harassment between intimate partners involve ‘revenge porn’ — disclosure of a person’s intimate images without their consent. After Bethany* broke off a long-term relationship, the person she had been dating leaked her intimate images online. Many of Bethany’s friends, as well as complete strangers, were able to gain access to the photographs. She received an onslaught of unsolicited explicit images, harassment, and judgment from the people around her.
The Varsity: Please go ahead and tell me what happened to you.
Bethany: Ok, so I thought that you were looking for a couple of specific things, so I was thinking of a few things. One was receiving photos, unsolicited images, and the other one would be having images spread around without your consent. I’ll talk about the second one first, because that’s the more recent one. I had previously been in a relationship for about four years. We ended the relationship just because I was unhappy with it. Due to that, the person I was with decided to spread the images around to a lot of different people. Because of that, people felt that they could use that against me — people took advantage of that, and they kind of, the first thing I was talking about, where people just started sending me unsolicited images, whether it was on Snapchat, Instagram, I even received some on Facebook from people who had seen images I’d sent to my partner. That was sort of the response.
It was very uncomfortable because whenever I would go back home to see my family in my home country and I would try to go and hang out with my friends, people in the area who had seen me in certain ways that I wouldn’t want people to see because it was a very intimate side of me, that I had only ever shared with this one person before. In return, I’d constantly receive both hateful messages and images from people I had been acquainted to, and complete strangers, that somehow got an access to this. Portraying me as a sort of object. … [inaudible] It kept going on until a few months ago, and I just sort of freaked out, I went off social media for a while because I just couldn’t stand it. It was just driving me insane The first time I started receiving photos, harassment online through photos, texts, that sort of thing, it started about a long time ago, like talking MSN days… A lot of people in high school would do that… It was very scary because the people who were part of your society, you see them every day. I think … [inaudible] that feeling of being in the passenger seat, of feeling overwhelming power by other individuals. Especially when, you know, you don’t know what they’re going to do. You don’t know what kind of actions these people can take. If they feel comfortable doing such things, whether it’s in person or online, maybe they’re doing it to a lot of other people apart from myself, and manipulating them…
[inaudible] I think that happens a lot nowadays for women. For example, for me, I had a physical case of sexual assault, and then the person chose to keep messaging me images and stuff online, and even if I had blocked them everywhere, they would still find another way to message me. It’s a very scary thing to go through, and I think there’s a lot of people out there who are going through that. Even though online it’s not physical, it’s still touching from a distance…
TV: Mmhmm. Did you ever tell anyone what happened to you, or did you try to report anything?
B: I tried to speak about it. The only person I spoke with about it was a very good friend of mine. They choose to use it against me. They had been an individual who had been part of my former friend group, and she chose to use what I told her to talk badly about me. That if I had not wanted such an incident to take place, I should not have sent them in the first place. I wish I could have confronted my parents, but I was too afraid to report it. There was so much fear because of how things would get out, and I was too scared of everything. It’s no longer just you involved, it becomes a larger array of other people. It becomes something so much more, something so much bigger than what you are. Because of how you have to deal with that situation. And obviously when this happens, you end up having to deal with people attacking you or making you feel this way even worse. I mean, I wish I had. I think I would have been able to do something, I think my mental health would be a lot better as well. But I just was afraid. I was too scared. I couldn’t. I felt guilty in a way, and I just- I don’t know how to describe it. There was this really big sense of guilt. And the only person I had told was someone very close to me who had chosen to use it against me, so that was a very big initiating factor to feel guilty about something like this.
TV: I’m really sorry that you had those experiences.
B: No problem, thank you. I feel like this happens to a lot more people than we realize.
TV: Yeah, for sure. I’m definitely realizing myself as I interview more and more students What kinds of consequences do you think there should be for people who do the things that you described, the various things? And if you could just speak a little bit closer to the phone, just because the audio is cutting out a little bit.
B: Oh yeah, I’m sorry about that.
TV: No, that’s okay.
B: Consequences… I think when you’re dealing with something like this, the victim should be able to confide in someone, to tell them what happened or to get help. Because [the person] will just keep doing what they do until they get caught, or if somebody is bullying us, we should speak about it comfortably. These people, I feel like they should be- to act in a certain way, you’re acting in such a way for a reason. I feel that it is to boost their ego or to have some sense of pride. I think something like that… [inaudible] Like just telling them, ‘You cannot keep doing this, you are causing so much trouble, you are damaging so many people’s mental health.’ I know that’s a lot harder to do. I think something like this would be educating people about how damaging this is. I think unless you tell people, people will feel like, ‘h this is okay, I can go,” like no you can’t, they need to be stopped. [inaudible] People who are victimized, they are so shocked that they can’t, they don’t have the courage to- it’s a very difficult thing to say what consequences there should be for such individuals. But I think the first step is showing people that you can open up to me, that’s okay, who did this and how can we get them to stop? Or even going to the person who is doing these actions and being like, ‘Why are you doing this, what is your motivation for this, why are you hurting people?’ I believe it’s something on both ends that will actually make progress.
TV: Mmhmm. Yeah… Is there anything else you’d like to share?
B: You said it’s like online assault, but it’s also sexual experiences — I don’t know how to explain this properly. [laughs]
TV: Yeah. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly, so the things that you raised are totally within that umbrella. …Any sort of unwanted sexual experience online. I’ve spoken to students who have been sent nude photos, have had their photos sent out, have been harassed through different platforms, received unwanted attention, have been hacked, all those kinds of things.
B: I mean, for me the only thing that really disturbs — not disturbs me, but causes great discomfort, is that I’ve never had a dating profile or any anonymous website like ask.FM or… Whenever I’ve had these accounts [i.e. people message me with images], it’s been through social media, MSN, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, sometimes — somebody messaged me on my LinkedIn.
TV: Yeah! I had a source who was harassed over LinkedIn as well.
B: Yeah. You mentioned, it’s stupid, the fact that this happened when I was physically assaulted, the guy who kept messaging me, messaging me everywhere. It took him messaging me through LinkedIn to actually get in contact with me. I just thought that was ridiculous. Now I don’t even have my name on LinkedIn because I just don’t want to have to endure that. The thing that always stuck out to me is that people on social media, I know who you are, I know what you’re doing, you see a name. You’re sending an image, you’re sending a text message, I see what you’re doing. It was just so confusing and conflicting, because if I actually had the courage, I could just go up to somebody else in the community, and be like, ‘Look what they’re doing to me’- that I find is such a puzzling thing. That he had to go through LinkedIn to drag on the extent of his harassment. That’s my only further comment. That it was never anonymous. It was just unfolding, endless texts, unravelling.
TV: Yeah. Again, I’m really sorry, and I really appreciate you coming to me with your story.
B: Oh, it’s no problem. I know this happens a lot to people, and I know other people are uncomfortable with talking about it, but it helps sometimes to recover from it. It’s just more comfortable to talk about with someone, to meet with them, have a conversation.
TV: For sure. It’s really beneficial to be able to hear how many people have had these experiences. I’m hoping that by writing about this, and by having so many people come forward, that other people will feel the same way, you know? Realize just how common it is.
B: Yeah, it’s actually really great that you’re writing about this, because I think it will let people know that they’re not alone, we can… We can talk about it, have this conversation. Hopefully the people who are doing these things will realize, ‘Shit, maybe I’m really causing some damage to people’s mental health.’ Or maybe they’ll stay ignorant- [laughter] but hopefully the people who have gone through this will be able to find comfort.
TV: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Chloe* was involved in a rocky on-and-off relationship with her girlfriend, Evie*. In order to rope her back into the relationship when things went sour, Evie would blackmail Chloe, threatening to send Chloe’s intimate pictures to her parents. After Chloe finally cut things off, Evie managed to gain control over Chloe’s email and Snapchat accounts and was able to access intimate pictures and videos of Chloe and her new partner in the ‘Memories’ section of her Snapchat account.
Alarmed, Chloe got in touch with the police, but it was too late. Evie had followed through on her promise and sent the photos and videos to Chloe’s mother. Chloe had not previously been open about her sexuality with her parents; the incident forced her to reveal her sexual orientation to her father.
When she was in ninth grade, Indira’s* friend began a long-distance online relationship with an older man she had met on Omegle and who she later discovered had been operating through a fake account. When the two of them got into a fight, he posted a photo she had sent him of her masturbating on her Facebook wall. “About five hours passed until she realized it was there,” says Indira. “By that time, her friends, family, all the people she knew had seen it. She was 15.” Indira also tells me that sending intimate pictures or screenshots of her female classmates was normalized at her high school.
These experiences are not only disturbing, they are also highly illegal. Though Chloe opted not to press charges, it is worth noting that under the Canadian Criminal Code, what Evie did could classify as extortion, an offence carrying a maximum penalty of life in prison. Meanwhile, the girls involved in intimate photo leaks at Indira’s school were all underage.
“For the most part we were under 18,” says Indira. “That’s child pornography.”
The extent to which perpetrators are willing to violate the privacy and dignity of the people around them is alarming. Perhaps there is something about the online environment that makes the decision to do so easier and more appealing.
“The internet enables and empowers to amplify what they would have done in person, or maybe wouldn’t have done in person, given the circumstances,” says Daryna. She explains that the distancing effect the internet has on personal relationships can enable people to make decisions they might not otherwise have made in person.
Fiona tells me that, prior to her experience with harassment, she considered her co-worker a friend and did not suspect he was capable of such behaviour given the way they interacted face-to-face. “There were absolutely no signs that he could behave this way,” she emphasizes. “As soon as he had access to my social media, it completely changed his specific behaviour and how he could interact with me.”
The internet has the potential to drastically change a person’s behaviour — sometimes to the extent of seeming like an entirely different person. In the case of Fiona’s co-worker, moving their interactions to the digital sphere meant him feeling entitled to her sexual attention and open to share a side of himself that she clearly did not want to see.
“He genuinely did not seem to understand why what he was doing was not okay,” she says.
Damage beyond the digital
The harassment that takes place in the online world can have profound and tangible repercussions for victims. We should not underestimate the potential psychological stress associated with being exposed to repeated unwanted graphic or threatening sexual messages, having your most intimate photos shown to others, or feeling physically unsafe as a result of these experiences.
Because Max’s pictures had been posted on a popular Tumblr account, countless other users had access to them; some actually reached out to him personally, making jokes or continuing the harassment, though others expressed support for him in his situation. Traumatized, Max’s grades and personal relationships suffered dramatically; when he lost his achievement-based financial aid, he was forced to recount his experience in detail to the university administration.
“Victims get revictimized constantly,” he says. “You always have to relive that trauma when you explain it.”
What happens online is also undoubtedly and necessarily connected to the analogue world. Ray draws a connection between the threats of violence he has received on dating apps and recent cases such as that of Bruce McArthur, who, as of press time, is facing six charges of first-degree murder in relation to the deaths of primarily racialized gay men in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood. “It’s usually an older white man messaging a younger man of colour, wanting to somehow enact and play out his fantasies of dominance and submission and racial power and authority and control,” Ray tells me.
Unsurprisingly, traumatic experiences can change how users behave online. All too wary of incurring further harm, many sources reported deleting their social media accounts or otherwise modifying how they navigated the internet. Daryna has taken steps to scrub her LinkedIn profile of certain personal details, ensuring that the image she projects is professional to the point of being “sanitized” so as to ward off unwanted attention.
The very fact that the onus to take such precautions is often placed on those who have faced harassment, and not the perpetrators, is highly problematic. Nevertheless, this logic continues to pervade interactions between harassers and their targets. After Fiona confronted her co-worker about the photos he sent, he accused her of leading him on, said things like “don’t pretend that you didn’t want this,” and “take some responsibility,” and told her that his girlfriend didn’t need to know about what he had done — that it would be their “little secret.”
Even more problematic is the extent to which victims internalize that mentality. A number of the sources who came forward had at some point minimized or second-guessed their experiences, unsure whether what had happened to them could be classified as harassment or was serious enough to warrant intervention. A troubling number of sources began their stories with, “I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for,” or “I’m not sure if this counts.”
For many people who experience harassment, the prospect of redress might not seem reasonable in the first place. Khrystyna draws attention to the fact that, in many circumstances, the reporting procedures themselves are unclear, require much emotional labour from victims, and simultaneously afford no guarantee that their complaints will be taken seriously.
Bethany did not report the person who distributed her intimate photos or the people who harassed her. She tells me now that she wishes she had, but she was paralyzed by fear of retaliation, as well as by the inexplicable guilt she felt about what had happened to her.
Bethany was also afraid that sharing her experience with more people would cause things to spiral even further out of control. “It’s no longer just you involved, it becomes a larger array of other people,” she explains. “It becomes something so much more, something so much bigger than what you are.”
Khrystyna also expresses that a lot of women do not process interactions as sexual harassment due to the extent to which such behaviour is normalized in broader society. “When you grow up with people constantly validating the predatory behaviour of boys and men, you eventually learn that apparently that’s ‘just how men are’ and you as a woman are just required to sort of live with it,” she says. “And it can take a long time to unlearn that.”
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that lots of people who are survivors minimize experiences,” says Manuela, speaking to the trouble she had reconciling with her abuse. For the few weeks she was being threatened and degraded online, Manuela would cry herself to sleep almost every night after logging out of her conversations with the forum user with whom she had been corresponding. Despite the emotional toll this experience took on her at the time, years went by until she realized that the man’s behaviour classified as abusive.
Manuela explains that because everything was happening online and the man never physically came to her jurisdiction, her feelings of pain, shame, and fear sometimes felt unreasonable or unjustified. “It just took that long to see it as harmful,” she emphasizes. “Because it felt like it didn’t impact anything, because it was digital.”
We’ve now seen that the internet’s grasp is far-reaching, and that the impact of online harassment has implications that extend far beyond the digital sphere. But when your harasser is not physically in front of you, and you are separated by a screen and a network, it is all too easy to convince yourself that what you are experiencing is insignificant — that what is happening to you is not entirely real.
Routes to redress
Victims should not have to feel as if their experiences are invalid, and clearly something needs to be done to remedy the injustice that can take place online.
One approach is to confront social media outlets about the ways in which their structures might inadvertently facilitate online abuse. Given the frequency with which harassment takes place online, outlets can certainly take proactive steps to prevent it from happening. Most major social media outlets have now integrated mechanisms for users to report offensive or hateful content. To help dissipate potential toxicity on dating apps, Nicole and Ray suggest incorporating regular reminders for users to be respectful when they reach out to one another and embedding clearly visible reporting tools onto the main interface.
But there are limitations to what social media outlets can or will do in this regard. After repeatedly being locked out of her account by her harasser, Noelle reported her situation to Snapchat, which helped her disable her account. But both Adina and Khrystyna have tried to report sexist Facebook comments, and Facebook has neglected to take them down.
Some complainants turn to law enforcement for assistance, with mixed results. Though Dave found the officers who took his statement to be helpful and reassuring, Chloe’s experience was lacklustre. When she took her case to the Toronto police, they told her they would go to Evie’s house and talk to her in person. As far as Chloe knows, that never happened.
“The process was really long,” says Chloe. “It took a month for them to simply leave a message being like, ‘Don’t contact her.’” Not wanting to wait any longer for the police to take action, Chloe resorted to getting in touch with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) through a mutual connection, and an RCMP officer went to Evie’s house that night to give a warning.
At the same time, Chloe appreciates that police at least have the influence necessary to scare people into compliance with the law. “Even if the police don’t necessarily do anything, I think a lot of people are still afraid of consequences,” she adds. “A lot of people are just stupid, but they’re not just going to do something regardless of what the police say. If the police say stop, a lot of people will stop.”
Importantly, many complainants have indeed managed to achieve redress through formal channels. Deeply frustrated with the repeated unsolicited photos and messages she received from her co-worker, Fiona wound up filing a complaint with her former management, who took it very seriously. She believes the employee was eventually fired.
Finally, there is the potential to achieve positive change through grassroots, community-based channels — often themselves facilitated by online networks. Adina mentions the existence of Toronto-based Facebook groups that women join to alert one another about experiences of harassment they have experienced with specific men on dating apps. The sheer ubiquity of these experiences, especially for women and other marginalized people, means there is power to be harnessed from banding together.
Toward a better internet
The experiences of the people I spoke with, and the concerns they raised about the nature of online platforms, are valid, concerning, and demand redress. At the same time, they bring us to a crossroads in terms of how we want to think about the internet in the first place.
Certainly, elements of online environments make it easier for harassment to take place. But by and large, the internet also facilitates positive connections and relationships; it traverses otherwise impossible distances and barriers and is integral to the openness and accessibility of knowledge, information, and dialogue in the twenty-first century. In many circles, internet access is considered a basic human right.
“As someone who has made a lot of friends and connections online,” says Manuela, “I think there’s a really complicated conversation to be had there about how it can be possible to make things safer for people without just villainizing the medium.”
Under these circumstances, an overly restrictive or heavy-handed approach might be inappropriate. The internet can definitely unearth the worst parts of human nature — but it can also be a space for productive dialogue and innovation. Any solutions we put forward to addressing its uglier facets should be sensitive to that.
In the meantime, it is encouraging to see that many people are growing more comfortable sharing their experiences. Multiple sources expressed gratitude that someone was willing to publish their stories and hoped that speaking on the record would bring courage to others who were contemplating doing so as well.
An immense amount of suffering ties these stories together, but it is compassion and resilience that will ultimately propel them forward.
“I am in a place where I am safe from [my abuser],” says Manuela. “He can’t touch me anymore. He can’t hurt me. So I just feel very sorry for him. I feel more sorry for all the people he’s probably hurt along the way, and probably in much worse ways than me, but he needs help in a way that I don’t think any system currently would provide.”
“[The] people who probably had to endure his bullshit need help in ways that the system doesn’t provide either,” adds Manuela. “They should come first.”
*Name has been changed at the individual’s request