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Who Is Liable for Sexual Abuse That Happens Online?

With everything from work to school to holiday gatherings moving online in the past year, there has been an upswing in internet-mediated sexual harassment and abuse. Though online misconduct does not involve physical contact, individuals can still harm others and make them feel unsafe with their words, actions (especially on video calls), and content they share.

Digital consent is one of the major themes of this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which has been named “We Can Build” and focuses on what everyone can do to create safe spaces online.

Unfortunately, some predators relish the access the internet gives them to others’ private lives; others use online tools to hide their identity, so no one can tell who is behind the sexual abuse or harassment. Tools for blocking these attacks are entirely dependent on platforms and, in many cases, severely lacking.

However, there is another option: Holding an abuser accountable by filing a civil lawsuit. If you have struggled due to online sexual harassment or abuse, here’s what you should know about your legal rights.

What Does Online Sexual Abuse Look Like?

Given the multiple modes of online communication available to us today, harassment can take many forms. Online sexual abuse may entail:

  • Making derogatory or unwelcome comments based on someone’s sex, gender, or gender identity
  • Sending unwanted requests for nude photos or videos
  • Sending nude photos or videos to someone who has neither asked for nor consented to receiving them
  • Sharing intimate images or videos of a third party who has not consented (revenge porn)
  • Sharing inappropriate sexual links, photos, or videos in an inappropriate setting or a place where not everyone has consented to receiving such content
  • Performing sexual acts or indecently exposing oneself in an inappropriate setting or a place where not everyone has consented to receiving such content

Texting or messaging platforms, email, phone/video chats, and social media are all used by online predators to attack or harass others. When it comes to online sexual abuse, the type of communication does not matter—it is the content that is important.

Workplace and Institutional Accountability for Online Sexual Abuse

Employers, schools, and other organizations have turned to technologies like Zoom, Slack, and other online tools and platforms to enable both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and communication over the past year. By taking the initiative to create and administrate these spaces, these institutions become liable for any behaviors conducted within them. A Zoom work meeting is no different than an in-person meeting when it comes to an employee’s right to protection against discrimination and harassment.

While platform administrators may not have unlimited access to employee interactions, their ability to view “shared spaces” like Slack channels means they should easily be able to spot and intervene in cases of sexual abuse. Where abuse happens through more private communications, like Slack direct messages, an employer may not have access to the messages by default. However, if you receive inappropriate or abusive communications, you have every right to take screenshots or otherwise make a record of them and share them with the appropriate authority figures.

Harassment or Abuse on Other Online Platforms

Even if someone from your job approaches you on a non-professional platform, your employer may still be liable for harassment. You likely cannot bring a claim unless you have alerted your boss or another manager about the issue, because it would be unreasonable to expect an employer to keep tabs on workers’ activity outside of work platforms. However, if your relationship with someone is dependent on your employment—i.e., you would not know them but for your job—and their activities outside of the workplace might contribute to a hostile environment, your employer is responsible for enforcing proper conduct.

This means you may be able to bring a claim against your workplace if a co-worker or manager harasses or abuses you by:

  • Using social media to send inappropriate messages or leave unwelcome comments
  • Initiating unwelcome phone calls or video chats, even if they are not via work platforms
  • Using fake accounts created under a pseudonym for inappropriate communications

Filing a Claim for Online Sexual Abuse

Sexual harassment and abuse claims can be filed not only against the perpetrator but also against anyone who enabled this individual by looking the other way or covering up their actions. If you intend to file a claim against your employer, university, or another organization you consider responsible for the abuse, you may need to follow a certain reporting process before you can start a lawsuit. This will vary by location, and your attorney can help you determine whether you have done everything necessary to make you eligible to file.

Online sex abuse claims may come with challenges such as trying to identify a pseudonymous attacker. A lawyer can also help you handle these obstacles. True anonymity is hard to achieve online, especially against experienced legal investigators. Therefore, speaking to a sex abuse lawyer can help you identify options you may not have known about. We offer free consultations to help individuals who have been abused or harassed determine how they can take action.

Protecting Your Right to Safety Online

Ashcraft & Gerel is proud to do our part this Sexual Assault Awareness Month by helping the survivors of online misconduct find justice. As capabilities for internet communications grow, methods of harassment and abuse will continue to develop as well. Our lawyers know how to use existing laws to tackle technology-driven abuse and continue to advocate for legislation that protects individuals against new threats.

Taking action against someone who has harassed and abused you takes strength, but it can help you access the resources you need to move forward. Your claim can also help you find closure and bring wrongful behavior to light, warning others away from a dangerous individual.

Call Ashcraft & Gerel at (800) 674-9725 to speak with one of our lawyers about filing a claim for online sexual abuse or harassment. Your consultation is absolutely free and 100% confidential.

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