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Digital Safety: Women’s Toxic Experiences with Online Sexual Harassment

By Osongo Akinyi

On 7th February every year, the world celebrates Safer Internet Day. This year, like all the years, we celebrated the day. However, the question still remains, how safe is online space for women?

The digital world is a wild and unregulated space. This feature makes it possible for millions of people to be subjected to online abuse and harassment. The Pew Research Center notes that online abuse mostly takes place on social media, affecting both men and women. However, the study found out that women are twice as likely as men to experience online sexual harassment. The Pew Research Center also discovered that women are more upset by online sexual harassment and see it as a bigger issue than men do. Due to the high levels of insecurity and online sexual harassment, some women resort to self-censoring in digital spaces, withdrawal from online interactions, and general avoidance of interactions with audiences.

In online spaces, women face high sexual harassment as they are targeted simply because they are women. Sexual harassment comes in many forms, including sexualized and misogynistic attacks that focus on the body of women. Other types of sexual harassment that exist in the online space are revenge porn, performing non-consensual sexual acts, sending unwanted nude photos, and unwelcome comments based on sex.  Sexual harassment damages women physically, emotionally, and mentally, which leaves them with a horrific experience of the digital world. Unless safe online spaces are created where women can also engage freely, then women will leave the internet due to the enormous harassment they face online.  Women do not have to delete their social accounts and lose touch with their networks in order to protect themselves from online sexual harassment. We need online platforms where everyone, including women, feels safe. Achieving online safety calls for the development of platform-specific features that can be used to keep everybody safe.

What is Safer Internet Day?

Safer Internet Day is celebrated in February each year to promote the safer and more responsible use of online technology. The celebrations are held on each year on the second day of the second week of February. This year’s celebration was held on 7 February 2023. This year’s slogan for Safer Internet Day is “Together for a better internet,” which calls for everyone to use the internet responsibly, respectfully, critically, and creatively. Indeed, making online spaces safe for women will require everyone to use the internet in a respectful and responsible manner. It is through the safe and positive use of digital technologies that we can build safe digital spaces for women where they can interact freely without fear of online sexual harassment.

Let’s Hear Women’s Experience on the Internet

Women are vulnerable to online sexual abuse in many forms, including threats, cyberstalking, revenge porn, and sexual harassment. On a daily basis, women have to persevere through online sexual harassment if they want to remain on digital platforms. Several women have spoken out about unsolicited pictures of male private parts that are constantly sent to their inboxes. Marion describes her experience on Facebook as harrowing due to the graphic sexual and pornographic images she received when she joined the platform. “Asking these men to stop sending these unsolicited pictures did not work, so I ended up blocking them,” says Marion. For Rose, blocking did not work, as some men would pop up with new accounts and send pornographic descriptions of what they wanted to do to her. “I ended up making my account private and checking before approving any followers and friend requests,” says Rose. Existing as a woman on the internet is a minefield, as other women have reported dealing with harrowing death and rape threats. “I have reported cases where men have sent rape and death threats due to my strong feminist stands, but Instagram does not seem to do anything,” says Ann, a vocal feminist on social media. Ann adds that online sexual harassment can easily translate to stalking and physical harm, including the emotional damage it causes to women. “Online sexual harassment hurts. I know it is something I have to accept as part of the internet, but I wish it did not have to be this way. It makes many women doubt themselves and leave them feeling very low,” concludes Ann. These women’s experiences show that online sexual abuse and harassment is an uncomfortable occurrences women go through on the internet, and it needs to stop.

How can women protect themselves on the internet?

Women have to protect themselves on the internet because the government and online service providers are doing a poor job of creating safety measures. Governments globally and online service providers such as Facebook (currently known as Meta) are divided on how to balance concerns over safety with the desire to encourage free and open speech. As the two bodies debate on digital safety, women keep experiencing online sexual harassment because offensive content that targets women on social media is dismissed too easily. Unfortunately, the responsibility to maintain digital safety ends up in the hands of women instead of the government and creators of these digital spaces. So, how can women protect themselves from sexual harassment and abuse on the internet?

First, women can start by making their social media profiles private, as most online sexual abuse happens on social. It is possible to make your social accounts, such as Twitter, private by changing the privacy settings. With a private social media account, you can choose who follows you, views your content, and engages with you. This privacy setting makes it easier to follow people you know, ignore known online abusers, and protect yourself from interacting with possible online abusers and harassers.

Secondly, in case you do not want to have a private social media account either on Twitter or Facebook, you can easily report and block abusers. It is important to note that Twitter and Facebook have been under fire for not doing as much as they could to restrict reported online sexual abusers from using their platforms. So, reporting online sexual abusers may be of little help, but blocking them prevents them from engaging with you any further. However, in critical cases of revenge porn, where vindicative former partners post your intimate pictures online, you have the right and power to report them so that the social media platforms, be it Facebook, Instagram, or any other social, can take it down. Reporting and blocking is mostly the effective way of addressing online sexual abuse, including the ugly epidemic of revenge porn.

Thirdly, when sharing pictures online, ensure you do not reveal your current location. Online sexual abusers have been known to turn to stalkers, and tagging your location on posts or pictures is an easy way to let stalkers know where you are. It is a trending thing for women to show popular restaurants and vacation places they visit. The best way to share your experiences and maintain safety is by posting your posts or pictures with a tagged location after you have left the place, which gives no room for possible stalkers to find you.

With little being done by the government and creators and owners of digital platforms, these crucial tips are intended to help women navigate the internet without fear.

Evidently, placing the responsibility of tackling online sexual abuse and harassment on women’s shoulders is unfair and unrealistic. Governments need to put pressure on creators and owners of digital platforms to do more to minimize online sexual abuse and harassment targeting women. For instance, they should act quickly and justly on restricting reported accounts from their platforms, including people known to be online sexual abusers. The government also needs to create laws on online sexual abuse as this step will put an emphasis on the fact that online sexual abuse against women is a form of violence against women. Women’s online experiences can no longer be differentiated from online lives as they both pose a serious danger to the mental, physical, and emotional health of women.

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