Cyber Sexual Harassment in Dating Relationships

The month of February is nationally recognized as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. When it comes to teen dating violence and sexual abuse within dating relationships, technology can be a often used tool in dating abuse. Sexual harassment after a bitter breakup has always existed in the schools but now post-breakup sexual harassment has jumped the physical barrier and has become an epidemic on social media websites. This harassment goes by multiple names: cyber bullying, social sexual shaming, cyber gender harassment, and even terms as graphic and demeaning as “revenge porn.”

Post-breakup cyber gender harassment is when a spurned “ex” posts graphic pictures and/or video of a former partner on the internet through websites like: Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and even hardcore porn websites, often times with full names, phone numbers, addresses, and explicit, malicious, and/or threatening  comments. In a recent interview with NPR’s Tom Ashbrook, Temitayo Fagbenle, a teen victim and reporter of “sexual shaming” describes how teens get away with posting these images:

It mostly happens at night because… because, I mean, people don’t want to get caught so they usually put it up at night and then they remove it afterwards, and that is what usually happens. It’s put up and then it’s removed and it’s kind of untraceable.

The Stalking Resource Center, a branch of the National Center for Victims of Crimes, reports that 60% of online harassment cases are between male attackers and female victims. Now that we realize this is happening, we must ask, “why is this happening?” Why do young men believe they have the right to post intimate pictures of their former girlfriends on social media? One reason young men do this is to gain or maintain a reputation as a “player” or as someone who is highly sexually active. Promiscuity in males has never been as discouraged or scandalous as it has been with females who have been with multiple partners. Even during puberty, males who physically mature earlier than average are often rewarded by being called men and are seen as highly masculine in the eyes of their peers. Whereas females who physically mature earlier than the average young woman are often belittled and labeled as promiscuous by both her male and female peers.

The second reason young men are participating in “cyber sexual shaming” is exactly for the reason of the name: to shame the partner that broke up with them. Posting an incredibly private picture on Facebook, or any other website, is a way to bring social shame upon the victim. Both male and female peers leave malicious comments on the posts, people at school harass the victim face-to-face, later in life the victim may not be able to get jobs or keep jobs due to these images, adults blame the victim for the photo in the first place. Shame rains down upon the victim from all sides and because it is on the internet it will never go away. When she is an adult she will still have people (or employers) confront her about the image. She has no control over who views the photo, may save it to their hard drive, and repost it somewhere else. Very quickly, that one photo can go “viral,” be seen by millions of people, and none of it was consensual. Most girls were not even aware their partner was taking a video or photo.

Sexual cyber bullying can have many harmful effects on a teenager. Many teens begin to miss school or skip classes so they do not have to face their peers or they are afraid for their safety. Their grades can begin to suffer. Some students are removed from school and enrolled in a new one but because the image is public the bullying often follows the student to the new school. Some students eventually drop out of school, never finishing their education.  Students can develop depression, anxiety, drug addiction, eating disorders and/or other mental health issues. Hate crime, rape, and suicide can also be effects of Sexual cyber shaming. Many victims will deal with the repercussions of the posted image for the rest of their lives. But there is hope!

Many state domestic violence/sexual assault coalitions are in conversations with law enforcement and the courts to push legislation through to help prosecute perpetrators of sexual cyber harassment. Local domestic violence/sexual assault agencies are providing trainings for parents, teachers, and administrators about the effects and dangers of cyber bullying as well as providing education for students on how to be safe. Schools are facing the issue of bullying and harassment on campuses head on, promoting bully free zones and strict policies for offenders. Victims can now get services from community resources like counseling and group therapy.

So what do we, as a community, do to help prevent this from happening to our children? The first thing is to teach young males this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Studies show that males need to learn the proper way to treat a woman with respect at an early age. Adult perpetrators of domestic violence often observed domestic violence in their homes as children. Fathers are the major role models males observe to learn how to be masculine and how to treat others (especially behaviors in relationships with females). To learn more about the positive role men can have in ending domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and rape please visit: A Call to Men

Secondly, parents can learn about how to help keep their children safe when they are on the internet and how to help their children if cyber bullying happens. Parents become the first line of prevention when they sit down and have conversations with their children about cyber bullying and teach their children to not participate in bullying of any kind. Here is a resource for parents on cyber bullying: Protect Your Kids

Thirdly schools can educate students on cyber bullying and create no-tolerance bullying policies. If schools become vigilant about talking to students about this issue, eventually students will begin to understand the seriousness of this problem and the effects it can have. Teachers can make sure when students are given opportunities to access computers, students are blocked from social media websites and teachers are monitoring student’s activities closely. Schools also can also make sure their campuses are safe places for students who are victims and have services for those students.

Lastly the community can have a hugely positive impact on a person’s life when they do not blame a victim for her/his abuse but instead, support the victim to reclaim power over their lives. When our community sees cyber gender harassment as the serious problem it is we can grow towards building a safer community.

If you are interested in helping Cleveland County eradicate teen dating violence and prevent online gender harassment, please feel free to get in touch with our Community Response Coordinator at 704-487-9325 ext. 17 or you can email her at genaw@apcouncil.com. Gena teaches a curriculum called Safe Dates, which educates middle and high school students about the dangers of dating abuse and skills to build healthy dating relationships. Also, contact Tracy Curry with the Cleveland County Sherriff’s department to learn about cyber bullying training. You can reach him at 704-476-3042 or email him at tracy.curry@clevelandcounty.com.

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