Protect Yourself From Revenge Porn And Online Sexual Harassment

The harms of sex tech websites that have no means to prove the authenticity of user profiles.

Photo by Aidan Hancock on Unsplash.

It began with a trickle of text messages. They soon grew into a river of unsolicited requests for sex from random men. Melissa shrugged them off, thinking they were spam. When men started showing up at her home requesting sexual services, Melissa knew something was seriously wrong.

An acquaintance revealed the source of her nightmare shortly afterwards: an unknown aggressor had posted Melissa’s photo and personal information on an escort service website. Recounting her story to CBC News, she describes how her life was turned upside-down long after the website removed the fraudulent posting. Police investigating her complaint appear to have little power to uncover who made the fake escort profile or prevent a similar event from happening again.

Incidents of cyber harassment that are sexual in nature are growing and disproportionately target women. In addition to fake posts on online sex trade and dating platforms, incidents of “revenge porn” have recently come to public attention. Here, vengeful ex-partners post online intimate photos of their former lovers as means to humiliate them and tarnish their reputation. Once in cyberspace, these photos can be shared with ease, causing some to become victims of cyber stalking and bullying.

Unknown a decade ago, the new threat of online sexual harassment and revenge porn show the dark side of sex in the digital era. The advent of these digital crimes also poses a significant challenge to the sex tech industry. Companies in the sector optimize their websites and apps for ease of use so that anyone can set up an account, like a dating profile, with little effort. Our abilities to control the sharing of personal information and assure the authenticity of these profiles remain a work in progress.

The growth of digital technologies and the sex tech industry is explosive. Governments are thus hard pressed to keep in step with passing laws that protect the public from cyber crimes made possible by technological innovation. New regulations are coming to light, but often requires years to enforce (see here and here for examples). Until then, we can learn from Mellissa’s unfortunate situation and take steps to protect ourselves.

We all can take action to fight online sexual harassment

Report it

  • The vast majority of incidents of sexual harassment and assault remain hidden from public eye. Silence enables these crimes to continue and spiral out of control. The first step towards countering online sexual harassment is to report it immediately to the police and any web platform that hosts offensive images and fake profiles.

Record it

  • To help police investigate incidents of cyber crime, be sure to keep a detailed record of evidence. Save all text messages and emails; using a spreadsheet, keep track of all dates, times, phone numbers, profile names and web addresses for each incident. Be sure to take screenshots of offensive images and text before you request to have them removed.

Talk about it

  • Being the target of cyber sexual harassment — as a man or a woman — is not your fault and you should seek support from loved ones to help fight off feelings of shame. Feel confident talking about your situation to the media and those close to you. Know that you are not alone in this problem. Raising awareness about your situation will encourage other victims to come forward; sometimes this helps reveal a pattern of harassment within your social networks, which in turn, can identify the source of the harassment.

Avoid it

  • Sharing intimate photos and messages can be fun and exciting; however, think twice about sharing intimate material with new partners and people you cannot trust. At times, we can be impulsive when we share information in cyber space; avoid this by thinking in the long term about how information you share online may linger.

Fight it

  • If you know of people sharing unsolicited sexual images on online forums, inform them that the source of these photos may be from revenge porn. Rather than get in a heated argument, take time to explain to them the problem of online sexual harassment and how sharing content may seem harmless but in fact can have devastating consequences.

Read more about Melissa’s situation as described in her interview with CBC journalist, Kate McKenna, which inspired this complementary article: