Many of us watched the vindication of Moe, a ”lawyer in the states” in real-time after weeks of harassment and an onslaught of online abuse because her assertiveness upset a man on the internet. After an exchange between both parties on Twitter, this man sought to have her disbarred. As if that was not enough, he continued to antagonise her constantly and many other men followed suit, eager to be part of the “humbling” experience.
Similarly, in what can best be described as an unhinged display, rapper Talib Kweli continued to harass a woman online until Twitter permanently suspended his account. Even then, his cronies continued to harass her, going as far as posting personal information about her and her family online.
How do you even know if you’ve been or are being harassed (in the legal sense at least; it’s usually pretty glaring)?
- If the assailant causes a credible threat to the safety of the victim and/or their family;
- If the actions were intentional and repetitive and intended to humiliate, scare or offend the victim;
- If the harasser spreads falsehood intended to damage the image of the victim or spreads private information that they should not be privy to and that is not of public concern;
Then that’s harassment.
The medium through which the perpetrator does it is inconsequential. Unfortunately, harassment is as hard to curb online as it is offline and online protection against it is lacklustre at best and non-existent at worst.
Women in the public eye are particularly susceptible to online harassment. It is clearly wrong when women are stalked, bullied, and baselessly trolled online, isn’t it? However, there is no clear cut legal recognition of or remedy for the problem. Lack of physical access can be a limiter to harassment in person but those barriers don’t really exist online. Though a clear violation has occurred, where does it fall under the law?
Jennifer Lawrence told Vanity Fair after a hacker stole private photos of her from her phone and posted them online; “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting.” The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.”
As harassment, stalking and gender-based violence adapt to online spaces, laws and other judicial instruments for tackling GBV need to adapt as well. Unfortunately, legal systems around the world are notoriously flawed and slow to adapt.
In the event of physical harassment, women can opt for restraining orders; a remedy whose violation may result in criminal punishment. This is not to say that restraining orders prevent harassment, but the existence of the option increases the chances of safety for women in these situations.
Other remedies exist but pursuing them is wrought with difficulty because they are expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining. Additionally, the gravity of harassment is lost on many, even those in the legal system. A lawsuit, should the victim be able to pursue one, does not guarantee a favourable resolution.
Victims can sue on the grounds of defamation, harassment, and public disclosure of private fact, intentional infliction of emotional distress or any other applicable or relatable tort or crime. Barriers to justice like arduous legal processes and trivialisation of the problem need to be dealt with for both the physical and online context.
For further reading: What the Law Can (and Can’t) Do About Online Harassment