From The Straits Times    |

April is World Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual assault can occur offline and online – recent surveys have revealed that more and more women are experiencing digital harms such as harassment, cyberstalking and revenge porn. In this two-part advice series on tackling sexual harassment in the digital space, Simran Toor, lawyer and CEO of SG Her Empowerment (“SHE”), shares how you can seek help.

Online harassment began with the advent of the internet itself, but there’s no doubt that the pervasive problem growing.

In 2017, a study from the Pew Research Center found women are twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment online.

A more recent poll conducted in 2022 by the Sunlight Alliance for Action to tackle online harms found that females aged 25 to 34 were the most likely age group to have experienced actions like sexual harassment, stalking and non-consensual distribution of intimate images. The poll also found that 61 per cent of women in Singapore were not aware of where to seek help.

Here, Simran Toor, lawyer and CEO of SG Her Empowerment (“SHE”), dispenses her advice on how you can seek help if you are being sexually harassed online, based on different scenarios.

My ex-boyfriend and I broke up more than two years ago. Ever since then, I have received threatening emails with intimate details that I never shared with anyone else. He even created multiple social media accounts to stalk me, and he harasses me by sending multiple messages with these accounts. I can’t prove that the account is his, however, as they are all anonymous – what should I do when such a person refuses to let me move on with my life?

This is a particularly challenging and traumatic situation, as it is a combination of harassment, cyberstalking, and what is sometimes called “sextortion”, and appears to be playing out over a protracted period of time. Sextortion is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t act in a certain way.

As there are many aspects to navigate, I would recommend seeking legal advice and assistance in such a scenario. The Protection from Harassment Act (“POHA”) makes it a crime to harass or stalk someone online, and a police report may be warranted if the facts disclose an offence. The POHA also allows victims of harassment to sue the perpetrator in the Protection from Harassment Courts, and this is an option you can consider together with your lawyer. On the sextortion aspect, this could amount to the criminal offence of threatening to distribute intimate photos/videos under Section 377BB of the Penal Code. This is an offence, even though the threat may ultimately never be performed.

The first step is always to collect evidence by taking screenshots, which reflect the dates and time-stamps of each point of contact. As a rule of thumb, it is always good to gather the evidence early, because it avoids the possibility of the offender catching wind that you are taking action, and then suddenly deleting his profile or blocking you, thereby causing you to lose access to your proof. 

As the harassment or staling has taken place over a long period of time, it is advisable to prepare a chronology of events that clearly demonstrates the ongoing nature or escalation of this negative conduct. This chronology will prove useful if you later wish to file a report with the online platform on which the conduct is taking place, or if you decide to take the case to court. If this seems a daunting task to compile, you can ask a trusted person or even your lawyer to help you.  Once you have collated all the evidence, you can take time to consider what next steps you want to take, or are comfortable taking

As this is likely to be a long journey, it is important to make sure that you have the emotional help and support you need. The counsellors at the SHECARES@SCWO centre are specially trained in trauma-informed care, and are an option to consider. That said, some of us are more comfortable confiding in a trusted friend or family member, which is also a great option. Ultimately, you must do what feels best to you, as this will put you in the best position to deal with the problem from a place of strength.

I recently received a message from an anonymous person who sent me a video of him masturbating and orgasming to a photo that I posted on Instagram. I feel extremely violated. Is there anything that I can do, given that the person is anonymous?

These days, the sending of unsolicited comments, obscene photos or videos, sometimes called “sexting” is more common than you might think, and tends to take place frequently on dating apps.

This is especially so for those who have set up their online social media, dating, messenger, or gaming profiles to allow anyone from the public to contact them.

The term “sexting” is not defined under the law, but in certain more aggravated situations such as the current example, it may amount to a criminal offence such as the distribution of obscene videos under the Films Act.

As always, the first step in dealing with such unwanted behaviour is to collect evidence by taking screenshots of the anonymous user’s profile, the video, and the time-stamp concerned. A report should then be lodged with the relevant platform or app. If the platform or app assesses that the video violates their policies, they may take action, including by disabling the anonymous user’s account.

If his account continues to remain live, you can consider using your in-app blocking function (if available) to block him yourself. Remember, however, to collect all the screenshot evidence against him before you block him, as you may no longer be able to access your message log with him once you’ve blocked him.

Of course, if the anonymous user is particularly persistent, he can set up another nameless account and continue to send you such messages. As a precautionary measure, it is advisable to update your online privacy settings to limit the people who are able to contact you, perhaps to only those in your trusted circle of friends.

SHECARES@SCWO CENTRE

The SHECARES@SCWO centre for online harms could be a resource if you are unsure what to do next. This is Singapore’s’ first one-stop centre for victims or survivors of online harms, which provides holistic victim support and a safe space for victims and survivors to turn to when they encounter online harms.

SheCares@SCWO provides the following services:

  1. A telephone helpline and textline Callers can speak to a trained counsellor, who will help determine if it will be helpful for you to attend a counselling session or a legal clinic at the centre.
  2. Counselling Counsellors trained in trauma- informed care will provide free counselling sessions for victims or survivors of online harms.
  3. Pro bono legal advice Legal volunteers will offer free assistance at legal clinics, to help you understand your legal rights and possible recourse avenues, including whether a police report can be filed. The lawyers can also provide help with filing in- app reports to the platform where the online harm in question is taking place, so that it can decide what action to take.

If you would like to seek assistance, please reach out to the centre’s hotline at 8001 01 4616 or e-mail shecares@scwo.org.sg.