A digital screen is the symbol of the 21st century. Its power and potential are endless: we’re able to learn and buy anything, connect to millions of people and find love with a swipe. But it’s also presented a new weapon for harassment.
“I’ve had it happen time and time again. I’ll break up with an ex and they continue to call, message, email or pass by my house at random hours. I block them, but they always find a way,” a 34-year-old woman said.
In Lovin Malta’s anonymous sexual harassment survey, nearly all of the 1,000 respondents said they had experienced abused online.
This is the seventh part of a multi-article series shedding light on victims’ stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the country – from rape to abuse on transport and clubs, threats and digital abuse. Here are the stories of harassment people in Malta felt online.
Some respondents had their boundaries crossed on dating apps.
“I met a Libyan guy on Grindr. We met up for a kissing session but that was it. He kept making remarks on how he’d like to fuck me – which I firmly said no to. It never went beyond remarks at least,” an 18-year-old Maltese man recalled.
“However, he did at one point stalk me online and even message me saying that he’d tell my dad we fucked if I didn’t meet him again. He didn’t know my family but, nowadays, you can find anything. I deleted the app after.”
One Maltese woman, 18, said she was pressured into a one-night-stand with a Tinder date.
“I specifically remember going out with someone who said: ‘If you don’t have sex with me right now, I’ll download Tinder again and find someone else’,” she said.
“He kept saying that it was all a joke, but I felt forced to have sex with him even though I did not feel like it.”
“I was stalked for months by a guy I met on Tinder,” another woman, 55, said.
None of them reported the threats to police, an occurrence all too common with people who experience such treatment.
Others met their abusers online.
“A very long time ago I stupidly met a guy I got to know on Facebook. We went for a drive and he forced me to perform sexual acts on him. Afterwards, he called me ugly and blocked me,” a 25-year-old woman said.
“Recently, a friend’s ex-boyfriend messaged me on Facebook. He had been poking and messaging me at all hours of the night for a few years now, trying to get my attention. This time, he tried to call and sent a message about my breasts,” another 25-year-old recalled.
When the constant messaging stopped grabbing her attention, he began sending her explicit, unsolicited photos of his body.
“He began sending nudes in encrypted secret messages so that when I opened them, they’re deleted in a few seconds. Instead of ignoring him as I have done these past few years, I confronted him.”
She threatened to share the photos just to make him stop.
“He proceeded to block me, but I don’t feel like I’ve ‘won’. I’m afraid of the retaliation,” she said. After the incident, she informed her friends about him.
An 18-year-old’s abuser would use her nude photos as a currency of threat.
“When I was 16 I was set up through mutual online friends with a guy who I dated for a month. He was physically aggressive all the time – pinching me, name-calling and pulling my hair when I didn’t give him attention.”
“He even shared his ex’s nudes to make fun of her and would threaten to leak mine if I left.”
Some online abusers even found their victims offline.
“A salesperson added me on Facebook after taking my details from credit card,” a 19-year-old woman said.
She decided to keep it to herself, in fear of causing them trouble at work.
Meanwhile, a 25-year-old woman’s details were taken during a prison visit.
“I once went to visit a friend of mine in prison … I realised that the guard was checking me out and passing sexual comments. The next day I received a message on Facebook from this guy who I realised was the guard who was checking me out,” she said.
“This guy basically remembered my name from when I gave him my ID to go in.”
Even more shockingly, the prison guard began to send her sexual threats.
“The guy went on to send me constant messages, sexual comments and even hinting that if I don’t play nice, he will do something to my friend who was on the inside.”
Once again, she didn’t think her case merited a police report because “it would be useless”.
Hiding behind a screen often allows abusers to feel invincible. It’s even more damning when the power dynamics of the workplace come into play.
“A prominent theatre maker has in the past systematically messaged several underage and teenage girls participating in his productions,” a woman in her 20s said.
“He would pester us on Messenger or over text with sexually explicit questions and coercion to be alone in the rehearsal space with him. His behaviour is an open secret, although we hope his habits have now ceased.”
A 35-year-old Estonian woman would receive sexual messages from her co-worker regularly.
“A work colleague kept trying to get close, touching me and texting me with inappropriate stuff, even if I ignored him.”
“My sexual harassment experience happened at work. He was my office manager. He used to text me nearly every single day, even after working hours,” another 26-year-old woman from Malta said.
“He used to visit gentlemen clubs both in Malta and abroad and he used to find girls who looked like me and obviously do things with them. The next day he used to text me all the details.”
Her boss would also send her “nasty pictures and videos”. However, she didn’t feel like she could get justice.
“He used to send me nasty pictures and videos. He used to threaten me and I was afraid of him as he had so much power within the institution!”
Some respondents reported being vociferously stalked.
“I dated a man for about a month. I told him that I didn’t want to continue, and he took it really bad,” a woman in her 20s explained.
He proceeded to beg, call her every day and hurl insults until she was coerced into meeting him for some form of closure.
“We got to my flat, I got upset and started crying. I explained that I was very depressed at the time. He decided that that was a good moment to have sex with me. I didn’t stop him. I was too upset and that made me stop crying.”
After that night, she tried to cut off contact, but he wouldn’t allow it.
“I ended up blocking him but he made new profiles on multiple platforms. He would show up at my workplace, fully knowing that I didn’t want to have contact with him. He would message me telling me that my behaviour, was rude and causing him paranoia.
“I was guilt-tripped, gas-lighted, and honestly, plain abused and harassed by this man for nearly a year. It stopped being so bad when I went to the police. He still tries to contact me.”
While she did report to the police, she says only a restraining order would bring her peace.
“But you need to go to court for a restraining order. I don’t want to explain to strangers what consent is.”
And while the nightmare has finally come to an end, she still feels a lingering sense of paranoia.
“I feel scared. He knows where I live and I’ve heard similar stories about him. I never consented, I actually said no. And me not pushing him off of me and yelling at him is his shield against me telling him that what he did to me was harassment,” she continued.
“It sucks. I don’t want ever to hate anyone, but I hate him with a passion, and I hate myself for feeling sorry for him for a while.”
A 25-year-old Greek woman faced a similar scenario of stalking.
“A person I met two times, could not accept the fact that I was busy with work and my own life, and started stalking me, threatening to write my name on walls around the area I live, and even came to my job looking for me,” she said.
“When I completely stopped talking to him online, he started calling me constantly, sending hundreds of messages, cursing me and calling me a number of inappropriate things. Even though I completely blocked him, he occasionally calls me from other numbers.”
The image of her stalker, she added, still haunts her today.
“I hope to God I never come across him a day. I’ve had to visit a psychologist to deal with anxiety.”
Stories on online harassment have captures headlines for years. Besides severe cases of sexual violence, name-calling; sending nonconsensual sexual images and derogatory threats have not only characterised the online realm but have also become normalised.
But online sexual harassment is just as much a crime as “in-person” sexual harassment. It can still cause pain that can leave lasting trauma on a victim, even if there’s never a physical confrontation.
The issue has reared its ugly head in recent months after a young Maltese woman’s X-rated video was leaked and circulated, even making it to a big screen on a local restaurant to tables of laughing men. And while police are investigating, it’s a drop in the ocean of online abuse.
Harassment is rampant on every kind of online platform: social media, forums, emails and message systems, where abusers often feel protected on the other side of a screen. It’s a phenomenon that, while it mostly affects women, also affects men. In Europe, 80% of people reported being affected by cyber harassment, while one in three people were subjected to inappropriate material online.
In order to crack down on the issue, we need to empower people to know their rights and know what constitutes a crime. This article can help you understand what sexual harassment is and what behaviour is punishable by law.
Next, we must encourage people ad nauseam to report abuse and send a clear message to perpetrators that their actions have consequences.
On the other side of the coin, any time bars put on sexual crimes should be lifted. In Malta, victims are forced to confront their aggressors in a set time period, when often complex issues like trauma, shame and fear stops them from getting justice.
Together, we can make turn the internet into a place that protects victims, instead of acting like a shield for sexual abusers.
If you have suffered sexual assault, whether it was recently or not, and would like free, professional emotional support or legal assistance, get in touch with Victim Support Malta on + 356 2122 8333 or send an email to [email protected].
These are just some of the hundreds of personal, anonymous testimonies of sexual harassment victims have experienced in Malta. This series aims to give a voice to victims and empower them to break their silence to kick-start action.
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