Online issues and worries: online sexual harassment
Online sexual harassment is any kind of unwanted sexual behaviour aimed at you that happens online.
What is online sexual harassment?
Online sexual harassment is any kind of unwanted sexual behaviour aimed at you that happens online. It can be tough to understand how to deal with it, especially when it's someone you know. Any behaviour of a sexual nature that is unfriendly, uncomfortable or makes you feel pressured, humiliated, unsafe or intimidated can be considered sexual harassment.
It can happen in public and private spaces online and include digital content like photos, videos, posts or messages.
Sexual harassment is usually aimed at women and girls, but people of all gender identities can be targeted. It can overlap with online bullying and online hate.
Types of online sexual harassment
There are many types of online sexual harassment, and often more than one type is used. This can include:
- making sexual jokes or comments
- making comments about someone's body, the way they dress or the way they look
- making sexual comments about someone in a photo
- taking and/or sharing intimate images or videos without consent. Sending or receiving a nude of someone under 18 is against the law
- asking or pressuring someone to share sexual images or nudes or take part in sexual behaviour
- making sexual threats, for example rape
- encouraging others online to commit sexual violence
- spreading gossip, rumours or lies about someone's sexual behaviour
- doxing – sharing personal information without consent to encourage sexual harassment
- catfishing – creating a fake profile to harass someone or to trick them into chatting intimately or sending nudes
- talking to someone about sex or porn
- 'outing' someone – revealing someone's sexual orientation or gender identity without their consent
Any type of online sexual behaviour you did not ask for or that makes you feel uncomfortable is harassment.
Who are the people that do this?
There isn't one type of person that sexually harasses people online. It could be someone you know in real life, like a friend or family member, someone in the community or a total stranger. They could be an adult, or they could be someone the same age as you.
Whatever the circumstances, and whoever the person is that sexually harasses you, it is not ok, and it is not your fault.
Sexual harassment (although you might not call it that) is common among young people. A part of growing up is learning boundaries and knowing what's right and what's wrong. It could be a form of bullying, or it might start off as banter, a bit of fun or flirting that crosses the line and becomes harassment instead. This is called peer-on-peer sexual harassment.
Because this type of sexual harassment is common among peers (people the same age), some young people have come to accept it as a normal part of life. If someone hasn't given their consent (agreed without being bullied or pressured) to be talked to, or treated like that, then it's not right. It's okay to say that this behaviour is unacceptable, whoever it is that's doing it.
Effects of online sexual harassment
Online sexual harassment can be upsetting and make you feel:
- exploited (being used)
- objectified (treated as an object or thing)
- discriminated against (treated differently)
People can react differently to online sexual harassment. It can have short-term or long-term effects. These can include having a negative effect on your mental health and wellbeing and having to live through it over and over if the content is re-shared.
Often, the people doing this are aware that it's sexual harassment but might not think about the consequences of their actions. If you think you may have sexually harassed someone online, consider the effects listed above. If you need help to stop this behaviour, talk to an adult you trust or contact an anonymous helpline like Meic that can give you support.
How to keep yourself safe
Here are some steps you can take to try and protect yourself from being sexually harassed online.
Change your settings
Set your social media accounts to private. Only accept friends or follow requests from people you know. Keep location settings turned off so people can't see where you are.
If someone behaves in a sexual way that makes you feel uncomfortable, or gives you unwanted sexual attention, block them.
If someone else's behaviour makes you feel unsafe, humiliated or objectified, it's important to speak to someone. Talk to an adult you trust, like a parent/carer or a teacher, or share your concerns with a friend. If you're not sure how to start a conversation with someone, here are some tips. If you don't feel comfortable talking to someone face to face, contact an anonymous helpline like Meic, which is there to listen and help.
What if it's already happened?
Here are some steps to take if you've been sexually harassed online.
Keep a record
Keep any evidence. This can be inappropriate texts, photos, videos or voice notes. Try your best to keep a record of times and places when this happened. This will help if you decide to report it later on.
Tell them to stop
Tell them that you want them to stop. They might not realise that what they are doing makes you feel uncomfortable or scared.
Stop all communication
If they refuse to stop, stop talking to them and block them on all online platforms.
Report it to your school
Sometimes it can be hard to tell people what's happening, but telling an adult you trust can help you cope with the situation. If the person doing this is someone from your school, report it to the school. If you don't think the teacher has taken you seriously, try another teacher, or contact a helpline like Meic which can help make sure your voice is heard.
Report it on social media
You can report online sexual harassment to the social media platform where it's happening. You can also block them so they can't send you more messages.
Report it to the police
If you are being threatened with violence or sexual assault, or if someone over the age of 18 is sexually harassing you online, then you can report this to the police by calling 101. If you are in immediate danger, call 999.
Where to go for help
If you’re looking for help or information, but you’re worried about starting a conversation with an adult, here are some tips.
- Police – report online sexual harassment to the police on 101. If you or anyone else is in immediate danger, call 999
- Citizens Advice – independent organisation that can give help and advice for free. Check out their sexual harassment section
- CrimeStoppers – report a crime anonymously on 0800 555 111 or on their website
- Report Harmful Content – how to report online abuse across different social media platforms
- CEOP Education - advice for 11-18 years on the internet and relationships
- Meic - free and confidential helpline for children and young people in Wales with advisers to help you find the support you need. Call 080880 23456, text 84001 or chat online
- Childline - free, private and confidential helpline for children and young people in the UK where you can talk about anything. Call 0800 1111. Check out their section on sexual harassment
- Victim Support – supporting victims of crime and traumatic incidents. Check out their section on sexual harassment
Take a look at this film from Project deShame and share with family members if you need help starting a conversation about online sexual harassment.