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What is online sexual harassment?

While the recent debate about sexual harassment has focused mostly on workplace incidents, harassment can also take place online in the form of emails, texts and social media messages. Even though it does not occur in person, online sexual harassment can be just as mentally and emotionally damaging for its victims.

This form of harassment is increasingly common in our digital age. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, about 20 percent of women ages 18 to 29 have experienced online sexual harassment. But despite its prevalence, many people do not know as much about online sexual harassment as they do about workplace or other face-to-face sexual harassment.

Understanding online sexual harassment

Online sexual harassment entails a wide spectrum of activities. It can range from sending unwanted inappropriate material, pressuring someone for explicit pictures of themselves or posting offensive, sexual content about someone online. Some people believe that online sexual harassment is less serious than face-to-face incidents, but this is not true. It can still cause serious emotional damage to its victims and result in legal consequences for offenders.

Just a few examples of online sexual harassment include:

  • Sending unwanted, sexually explicit material or images
  • Using an employer's computer to view pornograpy
  • Demanding explicit photographs from someone else
  • Texting or emailing explicit messages
  • Referring to someone with inappropriate nicknames
  • Spying on someone through their computer's camera

Face-to-face incidents of sexual harassment can be difficult to prosecute because the allegations may lack substantive evidence. Online harassment, however, often leaves an electronic footprint that can be used against the defendant in court. Depending on the offense, sexually harassing someone over the internet can result in serious criminal charges like harassment and stalking.

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