It wasn’t a “let’s fuck.” It was a fuck you. And most importantly, it felt like a threat.
“Unwanted sexual contact online—it’s something we take seriously,” said Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. The U.S. Department of Justice statistics suggest that 850,000 American adults—mostly women—are targets of cyber-stalking each year, and 40 percent of women have experienced dating violence delivered electronically. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found 40 percent of adult Internet users have experienced harassment online, with young women enduring particularly severe forms of it. Thirty-eight percent of women who had been harassed online reported the experience could be described as extremely or very upsetting to them. “When gender and severe harassment combine, the results are especially stark,” writes report author Maeve Duggan.
I was lucky. I deleted our contact history from my phone and blocked him. Case closed. But for thousands of women, and some men, the consequences of online actions have been dire. Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old from British Columbia, Canada, tragically ended her life, citing two years of online extortion and cyberbullying from a sexual predator as the cause of her depression. Opera singer Leandra Ramm said she devoted an entire decade of her life fighting a cyber-stalker. Most recently, Jennifer Lawrence told Vanity Fair that when a hacker stole nude photos from her phone and posted them online, she feared for her career and labeled it a sex crime.
But what, exactly, is the crime?
When our digital space is invaded with sexual harassment, violent messages, and threats; when our private data, information, and photographs are exposed, it feels like it should be against the law. “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime,” Jennifer Lawrence told Vanity Fair after her photos were leaked. “It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.”
Right now, there are a handful of ways victims can address their attackers through the legal system, both civilly and criminally. Unfortunately, many of them are costly and invasive, and combined with a lack of education and precedent, these channels don’t always offer the justice people are seeking. The law is notoriously slow to adapt to technology, but legal scholars say that if done right, the law can be used as a tool to stop this behavior.
At its most basic legal definition, “cyber-stalking is a repeated course of conduct that’s aimed at a person designed to cause emotional distress and fear of physical harm,” said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. Citron is an expert in the area of cyber-stalking, and recently published the book called Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Citron told me that cyber-stalking can include threats of violence (often sexual), spreading lies asserted as facts (like a person has herpes, a criminal record, or is a sexual predator), posting sensitive information online (whether that’s nude or compromising photos or social security numbers), and technological attacks (falsely shutting down a person’s social-media account). “Often, it’s a perfect storm of all these things,” she said.