Women View Online Harassment Differently Than Men

"When it comes to online harassment, there’s no one-size-fits-all option."

On July 11, the Pew Research Center released an in-depth report detailing how Americans both view and experience online harassment. The results, some of which illustrated a major gender divide, were eye-opening.

Among the nine key findings from the survey, which collected data from more than 4,000 U.S. adults, 41 percent of responders say they have experienced some form of online harassment, and an even larger portion — 66 percent — say they have seen it happen to others. For the purposes of the study, online harassment is defined as "offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, sexual harassment or stalking."

The study's author, Maeve Duggan, said one difficulty she encountered in conducting the survey was the subjective nature of online harassment, which people define and react to very differently. "When it comes to online harassment, there's no one-size-fits-all option," she explained.

Not surprisingly, the nature of the harassment varied based on gender. Though men are somewhat more likely than women to be harassed online (44 percent vs. 37 percent) women — particularly younger women — are more frequently the targets of sexual harassment online. 21 percent of women ages 18 to 29 say they have been sexually harassed online, and more than half of women in that same demo say they have been sent explicit images that they didn't ask for.


That figure in and of itself is concerning, but the more problematic issue at hand is that most men (64 percent, to be exact) say offensive content on the web is taken too seriously. The majority of men also value free speech online over safety and comfort, which is what most women place in higher regard. According to the statistics, men are more likely than women to say it is more important for people to be able to speak their minds freely online (56 percent vs. 36 percent), while women are more inclined than men (63 percent vs. 43 percent) to say it's more important for people to feel welcome and safe in online spaces.

Though the Pew Research Center shies away from really interpreting the data, the survey's results seem to suggest that because most men aren't being sexually harassed online, they aren't terribly concerned about it. On the other hand, because women are more likely to be sexually harassed online, they prioritize the notion that people should feel safe and secure.

Since the online landscape is ever-evolving, it's been difficult to police things like sexual harassment, stalking, and the unauthorized sharing of explicit images, but legislation is beginning to catch up. As ThinkProgress reports, just last month Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) introduced bipartisan legislation in the House in an effort to address extreme online threats that frequently target women, girls, LGBTQ people, and people of color. The bill — known as H.R.3067 —would establish "clear federal statutes and increase existing penalties for several dangerous, and increasingly common, online threats."

Rep. Clark and Rep. Joe Kennedy pose for One Campaign's #WithStrongGirls initiative.

But, as the survey proves, policy makers and law enforcement still have a ways to go. 43 percent of U.S. adults say law enforcement does not take incidents of online harassment seriously enough, and that figure changes depending on your particular vantage point. In other words, while nearly half of those who have experienced some type of harassing behavior — including 55 percent of those who have experienced severe types of harassment — feel law enforcement doesn't take online harassment incidents seriously enough, the number drops to 37 percent among those who have not experienced any type of online harassment firsthand.

Cover image via Shutterstock / pathdoc / Anatoliy Karlyuk.


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