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Earlier this month, Lisa Davey became the target of online harassment after she posted a petition urging the University of Montana not to rehire Coach Bobby Hauck. In response, hateful and threatening comments towards Davey were posted in an online forum, and her home address was shared publically. When questioned about his actions, the perpetrator of the harassment minimized its significance, stating, “Whatever, that’s what we do on message boards.”

While this dismissive attitude towards online abuse is upsetting, it is, unfortunately, one that seems to be echoed on a larger level. Online violence and harassment is increasing, and yet it often doesn’t receive the response it warrants — socially or legally.

Online abuse is reported and prosecuted less often than other forms of violence, despite its prevalence. In a national survey conducted with over 300 domestic violence service providers, 97 percent identified that those seeking their services experienced some form of technology abuse.

At the YWCA, we also see a range of online and technology-related abuse, often involving social media. It happens on a daily basis, though few instances make the news.

Online abuse is real abuse; it’s not just “message board talk” or “boys being boys.” In fact, online harassment, threats or doxxing — when private information, such as a home address or phone number, is made public online — can have serious impacts. It can lead to psychological and emotional harm, invasion of privacy and even financial loss, as victims may be forced to take time off work or leave their homes in order to protect their safety.

This is a gender issue. Anyone can experience online abuse, but women are more often the target, and with attacks that are more violent. An Australian research study found that women received twice as many online death threats and threats of sexual violence as men. A study conducted at the University of Maryland discovered that chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit messages than participants with male or gender ambiguous names.

Young women, in particular, are much more likely to experience severe forms of online harassment, including stalking and sustained harassment, sexual harassment and physical threats, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Women of color and members of the LGBTQ community are also at an increased for technology-related abuse.

With the recent rise of public figures being called out for sexual assault, and TIME naming the Silence Breakers as Person of the Year, it is critical to continue supporting those who speak out against abuse and harassment. YWCA Missoula is dedicated to promoting women’s health and safety through direct services, education and advocacy, and we stand with Silence Breakers — on both a national level and in our community. We also recognize that not all forms of abuse are responded to equally, and that some survivors face additional barriers in accessing resources and support.

So what should be done? Believe survivors and validate their experiences of online abuse or harassment. That is the first step. Next, advocate for increased community education around technology-related abuse and for public policy that protects women from this form of violence.

For example, legal policies and procedures related to orders of protection could be reviewed and updated to reflect current and constantly changing technology. Statutes relating to online abuse should be clarified, in order to help law enforcement respond to these issues.

Finally, recognize that online harassment threatens countless women every day and it needs to be taken seriously.

The roar of online hate is loud, but women’s voices, and survivors’ voices, need to be heard over it.

-- Becky Margolis is communications coordinator and Cindy Weese is executive director of YWCA Missoula.


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