Nothing Virtual About Cyber Harassment

It was 2007, and I was at a loud party with friends. My phone had been ringing incessantly and they were all numbers I didn’t recognize so at first I chose to ignore the calls. Finally, about seven calls later, I decided to figure out what was going on and answered my phone. A male voice answered, sounding expectant of a more enthusiastic response. I asked him why he was calling me, to which he hung up. Barely a second later, the phone rang again, another unfamiliar number flashing on the screen. I answered again, only to have another awkward male voice ask me what I was doing, to which I could only say “Who are you and what do you want?”  He hung up without another word, and that is when I began to panic. When the phone rang again, I didn’t wait for the person on the other line to say a word – I burst out “Who are you people? Where did you get my number?” He sounded confused and said, “Didn’t you put your number on an adult personals forum?”

I remember feeling like the room was spinning, that all the blood had been drained from my body, and in that moment I couldn’t move. I just stood rooted to that spot, stuttering “What?” – angry, confused, shocked, and feeling completely violated.  My personal information was on an X-rated discussion forum, inviting strangers to call me for sex. I knew exactly who was behind it, a former “friend” who now lived in another state. Our relationship had soured a while ago, and in addition to blocking him on all social media websites, I had been ignoring his many text messages and phone calls. The text messages had gone from apologetic to aggressive, but I continued to ignore him. And that led to the events of this evening. It was his way of showing control and that he had the power to make me pay attention to him.

I was unable to log into the site, so I don’t know what happened there, but I did ask the callers to do one good deed and mark the post with my information for ‘deletion’ and ‘abuse’ (assuming there was even such an option). For the rest of the evening, and the weekend, I switched my phone off. I was told I should just change my phone number, but I only saw that as giving him power. I remember feeling determined that I would not let him get away with this. However, this was 2007; not only he did get away with posting my information on that website, he reveled in sending me emails, voicemails, and text messages where he mocked my inability to do anything to stop him. I spoke with the police, both in DC and his state, who told me they couldn’t take action because he hadn’t physically threatened me. They made me speak to a detective who listened to my story, and then as if to verify my statement, ask the offender about it. It was not a surprise that this former “friend” denied every word of my story, and the detective proceeded to close the case. Later, this “friend” called me on my birthday, not on my cellphone but this time on my phone at work, a private number I only shared with select close friends. He later boasted about tracking that number down, and also my address, while also wishing me happy birthday. He sent me pictures to tell me he was in town, to which all I could do was inform building security and immediately file a restraining order. I continued to hear from him but he never physically appeared before me, and his taunts were ‘limited’ to phone and email. Eventually, he left the country and it has been about two years since I last heard from him. It is still unfathomable to me that an individual who considered me a friend could resolve to upset my life in such a cruel manner. But cyber stalking and cyber harassment is a very real, effective, and now increasingly common, strategy for those who wish to express aggression against another individual.

Cyberstalking and Cyberbullies

A January 2009 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that more than 1 in 4 stalking victims reported that some form of cyber stalking was used, such as e-mail (83%) or instant messaging (35%). Furthermore, the report noted that 26.7% of victims considered their victimization a personal matter, and did not report it to police. Meanwhile, the instances of cyber harassment have only increased, and both law enforcement and the targets of the harassment find to their dismay, even today, that there is little they can do.  For instance, even though many states have enacted cyber harassment laws, the perpetrators can only be held accountable by the law when there are threats of physical harm. The FBI has expanded their cyber crimes unit, acknowledging that this is becoming a growing problem that state jurisdiction alone cannot handle.

I find myself aghast with stories of other women, men, and youth who endure the humiliation of having their personal life and personal information carelessly exposed, and their online identity being so thoughtlessly and maliciously tarnished. And for young adults, it doesn’t just end there. Over 42 percent of youth who reported being cyberbullied also reported being bullied at school. The suicides of Megan Meier, Erin Gallagher, Jessica Laney, Jamey Rodmeyer, Amanda Todd are painful reminders of the extremely dark side of the Internet social interactions, and vulnerability for today’s youth.

It’s Just a Game?

Then, there’s the case of feminist media critic and blogger Anita Sarkeesian, whose Kickstarter project to analyze women in video games made her the target of relentless online violence. She faced multiple attempts to bring her website down, was threatened with physical and online violence (a video game was made where players could ‘punch’ her repeatedly, filling her face with virtual bruises and cuts till the screen turned completely bloody). She recently spoke about her experience at TEDxWomen held in Washington D.C:

“Even more disturbing, if that’s even possible, than this overt display of misogyny on a grand scale, is that the perpetrators openly referred to this harassment campaign and their abuse as a ‘game.’  They referred to their abuse as a game.”

Yet, there was a silver lining – these attempts only furthered her commitment to the project, and she also found a supportive community online that was able to help her raise 25 times the original funding goal for her project.

Part of this phenomenon is the eager and vicious cyber-audience that participate in and encourage malicious online activity. Why else would revenge-porn sites, where individuals can send in nude pictures of their exes or anyone else they wish to humiliate, exist? One of the most infamous of these websites was recently taken down, only to have the website founder recently announce that he was going to launch a new website that not only featured user-submitted naked pictures but also the addresses of those individuals profiled. Unbashed and unapologetic, he has told reporters that he doesn’t “feel it’s sleazy at all… Somebody was gonna monetize this, and I was the person to do it.”



Photo credit: Johan Larsson via photopin cc

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