*Trigger Warning: This blog post contains a potentially distressing discussion of online sexual harassment.*
“I connected with a person on Tinder and they recorded an intimate video. Now, they’re demanding money for me not to send it to my Instagram friends. What can I actually do? Please help me. I’m so scared and don’t know where to start.”
“I was sexually harassed on Facebook but am not sure how to take action. He told me not to block him and threatened me. Should I block him anyway? I just don’t know what to do.”
Thank you so much to the brave individuals who submitted these questions. Sadly, they were not the only ones in my Ask Trish “Inbox” this month – several of you have been reaching out about how to deal with online sexual harassment. Your messages are a reminder of how pervasive, scary, and deeply damaging this problem is – and why education on this topic is so, so important. I’m truly so sorry you’re in this position – and heartbroken for you – but grateful that you’ve reached out to me for help.
As some of you will know, we’ve discussed specific forms of online sexual harassment on Ask Trish – in particular, revenge porn and photoshopped nudes. But a key theme I saw come out in your messages was, amidst a chaotic and frustrating situation, a simple guide as to what to do if/when this happens to you. So that’s what this post is – a step-by-step guide to dealing with online sexual harassment. Please note that this resource should be a starting point as you figure out what to do; depending on your situation, other resources, tools, and approaches might also be relevant and helpful. So use this post as a launching point from which to take action.
With that said, here’s a brief, clear, step-by-step guide on what to do if you are being sexually harassed online:
#1. Assess your safety and protect yourself online: online sexual harassment can vary in nature, with some harassment involving threats, including physical or sexual threats against you. Take these threats seriously, even if you believe they are just threats. If you’ve been threatened, depending on the situation, you may want to contact law enforcement. This resource, from Pen America’s Online Harassment Field Manual, can help you assess whether or not you should. You should also take steps to protect yourself online – if your harasser is someone who knows you, like an ex, consider changing your password(s) to your social media accounts; you should also turn off location tracking on your phone, as well as make all of your accounts private.
#2. Block and report: block and/or mute your harasser(s) across your social media platforms, and report any and all evidence of harassment to the social media platform in question. If your harasser has warned you not to block them/threatened harm to you if you do, report the threat to law enforcement immediately; with their guidance, determine if/when to block your harasser. Because online content moderation can be inconsistent, reports can, at times, go unnoticed or without action. As frustrating as this might be, keep at it – continue reporting any evidence of harassment, with as much context as you can possibly include (e.g. “These photos were distributed without my consent.”).
#3. Document any and all evidence of harassment: why? Well, if you report the content, and it does get taken down, you’ll lose evidence of the harassment, evidence you might need if you do ultimately get in touch with law enforcement. So document away. Take screenshots, save emails and voicemails, take pictures, etc. If you’re being repeatedly harassed, try to document the pattern of abuse. This gives you important leverage and again, key information that you might need later, should you take legal action.
#4. Seek support from family and friends: If you feel comfortable – and especially if you’re a minor – I strongly encourage you to seek support from especially your family and your friends. Tell them what’s happening: “You might see some photos on Instagram. I’m being harassed; it’s awful. I really need your help and support.” You can also try to get ahead of the damage online by acknowledging the harassment on your social media accounts. You can post a message like: “I’m being sexually harassed online. You might see me tagged in some explicit content – please help me by reporting it. I really appreciate your support.” Not only can this help limit the damage, it’ll help you build a community of allies, rallying to your cause.
#5. Take care of yourself, and remember, it’s not your fault: Being a victim of online sexual harassment is a stressful and traumatic experience – which is why it’s so important to take care of yourself. Surround yourself with loved ones. Eat, drink water, and sleep regularly. If you’re struggling with difficult or dark thoughts, seek help. In the moment, it might feel like the situation will never end, but I promise, it will. The situation does not define you. Finally, and I cannot stress this enough – remember that the situation is never your fault. Your harasser might try to make you feel guilty, responsible, ashamed, or worthless, but remember that your harasser is the only person responsible for the situation, and the only person at fault.
Thank you so much to the Ask Trish community for engaging with this important topic – both those folks brave enough to ask these questions, and folks just tuning in to learn more. As sad and scary as the issue might be, the reality is that online sexual harassment is very prevalent – even if you’re not affected, there’s a good chance you’ll have a friend or family member struggle with this problem. I hope you offer them these and other tips and resources – and remind them: the internet’s worst evils could never define them. They should never feel ashamed or worthless. As difficult as it can be “to pick up the pieces,” they can and will, and be okay. And they’ll have the full support of Ask Trish.
To that end, for those of you dealing with online sexual harassment, please know that I’m sending you strength, support, and a big hug 💙 You are important, you are loved, and you don’t deserve this. You’ll get through it, I promise.
If this post has you wondering about a similar – or very different – question about the internet, don’t hesitate to send in your note, question, or thoughts here (I’m looking forward to hearing from you). Your topic just might be the focus of an upcoming TikTok/blog post! Remember: anything you want to chat about is fair game – no matter the topic, I’ll always be here to offer some advice and support. And this community will always be here for you. 💙
Until next Tuesday,