Woman holding up her phone in distress

Sexual assault on social media: how to deal with it

Almost half of women have been sexually assaulted online, according to UK research. Here’s what you can do about it.

John just sent you a friend request on Facebook. You’ve never met, but you have a bunch of friends in common and figure there’s probably a reason he wants to connect. You accept the request and begin to chat. It starts out pleasantly enough but soon you start to feel uncomfortable. He goes from asking you if you have a boyfriend to asking for pictures of you naked. No way, you say, and two seconds later a photo of his penis pops up in messenger.

This is online sexual assault, and these kinds of experiences – a request for a naked photo and an unwanted dick pic – are among the most common forms it takes. At least, in the UK, because this is based on a study in the UK presented at the British Psychological Society’s 30th Psychology of Women Conference in July.

Victimisation and threats

In the research, over 250 women between the ages of 13 and 72 filled in an anonymous online survey about their experiences with sexual assault over the internet.

Almost half of the women had experienced some form of online sexual assault, the surveys showed. A further 40 per cent had felt threatened in some way, for example by receiving offensive messages, and 38 per cent had been humiliated. For 15 per cent of the women surveyed, all three forms of online victimisation were a reality.

Feeling bad but playing it down

‘These results suggest that cyber-violence via social media is a problem for female social media users, across various social media platforms and has lasting offline consequences,’ says researcher Megan Kenny.

The offline consequences for the women in the study involved feelings of negativity – both towards themselves and the man assaulting them.

As a result, the women developed coping strategies like having a sense of humour about the situation or minimising what was going on.


But back to the story of John. So, he won’t leave you alone and continues to send harassing messages. You’re through with making jokes about him to your friends; coping strategies won’t solve this problem. So what do you do?

Here are Megan Kenny’s tips:

  • Document everything, using screenshots. Make a note of the dates.
  • Report the person to the platform you’re using. (If it’s Facebook, check out ‘How to Report Things’. Remember, this will be anonymous, he won’t know you’ve reported him.)
  • If you’re seriously concerned about your safety, take all the information you’ve documented to the police.

Reference: Nearly half of women who use social media say they have been sexually victimised. The British Psychological Society.

Have you suffered sexual harassment online? Need to share or ask advice? Head for our forum, Let’s Talk.


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