Section: 5.0 Online harassment and abuse

Online harassment and abuse

Online harassment is a common experience for women and girls

The literature review shows that women face misogynistic abuse in their everyday lives, workplaces and in online environments. This abuse manifests itself in different ways, with some replicating traditional forms and patterns of misogyny such as gendered or ‘sexist’ hate, online sexual harassment and stalking, threats, and verbal abuse. Meanwhile, the internet and social media have allowed for new forms of misogynistic abuse to emerge such as gendertrolling, doxing and Zoombombing. Research also shows that women’s experiences of abuse and discrimination go beyond gender alone.

Intersectional misogyny refers to the ways in which women experience compounded forms of discrimination based on factors such as race or ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or disability.

Online harassment of women and girls

A 2018 report1 by Amnesty International conducted over 16 months focused on the experiences of women facing violence and abuse on Twitter (now X), particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. The research involved interviews with 86 women, including politicians, journalists, activists, and others, along with discussions with experts in women’s rights, technology, and anti-discrimination. Additionally, the study collaborated with organisations and individuals to form recommendations for Twitter. The study also included an Ipsos MORI poll2 conducted in November 2017 in eight countries which assessed women's general experiences of online abuse.

The study revealed that women faced various forms of abuse, including direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence, discriminatory abuse based on aspects of a woman's identity, targeted harassment, and privacy violations such as doxing or the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

The 2017 Ipsos MORI poll2 which included women from New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom and United States, found that approximately 23% of women surveyed had experienced online abuse or harassment at least twice in their lifetime, with rates varying from 16% in Italy to 33% in the US. Additionally, approximately half (46%) of the women who experienced abuse or harassment mentioned that it included sexist or misogynistic comments, with 53% in the US and 47% in the UK reporting such incidents. Fifty-eight percent of survey participants across all countries who had experienced abuse or harassment said it had included racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.

The poll found that women had experienced a variety of abuse and harassment on social media platforms, including Twitter (now known as X). Among the women surveyed, 29% in the US and 27% in the UK reported receiving threats of physical or sexual violence on Twitter. Nearly half of the women (46%) experienced fears for their physical safety as a result. Across the eight countries, 76% of women who had experienced online attacks changed their internet use, with 32% saying they stopped posting their opinions on issues.

According to the Amnesty International 2017 poll, 23% of the women polled said they experienced abuse or harassment online. In the US, New Zealand and Sweden, almost one in three women stated they had experienced online abuse or harassment.

In New Zealand, a third of the women surveyed reported experiencing online abuse and harassment, such as doxing, and threats of physical and sexual violence. These threats included detailed and graphic descriptions of rape and domestic violence. Seventy-five percent reported not being able to sleep as a result of online abuse and harassment while 49% were afraid for their physical safety. Additionally, 70% experienced lower self-esteem and 62% experienced panic attacks, anxiety, or stress as a direct result of the online abuse. Across all countries polled, including New Zealand, nearly half of the survey respondents stated that they used social media less or stopped altogether as a result of the online harassment.

When asked about social media platforms’ responses to online abuse and harassment, 24% of NZ women considered them adequate while 45% said they weren’t. Regarding the New Zealand government response to online harassment, 25% believed that the government policies to respond to online abuse and harassment were adequate, while 34% felt they were inadequate. It’s important to note here that while respondents might not necessarily have a clear understanding of specific policies in place, this finding offers insight into their general view of the adequacy of the response.

Evidence suggests that levels of abuse have escalated in the following years. A 2020 Plan International study3 across 31 countries with over 14,000 girls and young women found that more than half (58%) of the girls surveyed had experienced online abuse, with most of the harassment and abuse happening on Facebook (39%) and Instagram (23%).

Of those who reported harassment, 24% felt physically unsafe, 42% experienced mental or emotional stress, and 18% encountered problems at school as a result. The findings also highlighted that about half of the respondents faced more harassment online than on the streets.

Thirty-seven percent of girls from ethnic minorities who had experienced harassment attributed it to their racial background and 42% of LGBTIQ+ girls who faced harassment reported that their sexual orientation or gender identity was the reason for the abuse.

A 2021 study from the UK4 by Refuge, which surveyed 2,264 UK adults, conducted semi-structured interviews with 18 survivors of domestic abuse and found that online abuse and harassment are frequently used as tools of domestic abuse. They found that 36% of UK women had experienced online abuse on social media or other online platforms at some point in their lives, with 16% of these women experiencing the abuse from a partner or an ex-partner. This research highlighted both the scale of violence and abuse women and girls encounter online, and its disproportionate effect on particular groups of women. For example, more than 36% of all women reported experiencing at least one behaviour suggestive of online abuse or harassment, a figure which rises to 62% among young women aged 18 to 34.

Challenges women and girls face online

Women are more likely to experience harassment than men.

Two studies from the Pew Research Center highlight the challenges women and girls face online. A 2020 study5 on young women’s experiences on online dating sites and apps found that they were more likely to experience various forms of harassment compared to men. For example, 44% of young women had been called offensive names, compared to 23% of young men. Additionally, 19% faced threats of physical harm, nearly double the 9% of young male users who reported the same. When it comes to unsolicited sexually explicit messages or images, 57% of female users between the ages of 18 and 34 had received them, in contrast to 28% of their male counterparts. Moreover, women in this age group were twice as likely as men to report experiencing sexual harassment online, with rates of 20% versus 9%.

A subsequent 2021 study6 on the state of online harassment found that roughly four in 10 Americans had experienced online harassment. However, women were more likely than men to report sexual harassment (16% vs 5%) and stalking online (13% vs 9%). Both reports56 highlighted that young women under 35 were particularly vulnerable, with 20% in 2020 and 33% in 2021 reporting sexual harassment. Across both studies,56 women who experienced harassment online were more inclined to believe it was due to their gender, with 29% in 2020 and 47% in 2021 holding this view. Moreover, women were more likely than men to be extremely or very upset by these experiences (34% vs 14%).

Similar trends were also observed in the Ipsos International Women’s Day 2022 global survey,7 which involved 20,524 adults from 30 countries. The survey revealed that nearly half of the women surveyed (45%) reported experiencing online abuse or sexist content in the previous two years. Gender-based violence was identified as the most important issue facing women and girls, with specific concerns about sexual harassment (29%), sexual violence (25%) and intimate partner violence (23%). When asked about institutional bias, social media received the worst scores and was the only institution where respondents were most likely to think women were treated worse than men, or about the same (37% vs 35%).

Findings from the 2024 Open University Scotland survey reveal that women who have experienced or witnessed online violence are more likely to attribute such violence to explicitly gender-based factors, such as misogyny, the sexualisation of women, and gender inequality. These reasons are distinct from more general factors like online anonymity, which are often linked to broader online issues like microaggressions.

The Open University Scotland published the UK’s largest ever study8 in 2024 into societal attitudes and experiences of online violence against women and girls across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The study, conducted by YouGov in February 2023, surveyed 7,500 respondents aged 16 and over, including 4,000 women and girls and 3,500 men and boys.

Taking Scotland as an example, one in six women reported online violence. Across the UK, Scottish women and girls were the most exposed, with 35% witnessing online violence, compared to 27% in Wales and Northern Ireland, and 30% in England. Eleven percent of Scottish respondents who faced online threats also experienced real-world harm. The study identified online anonymity (54%), perceived impunity (47%), and misogyny (46%) as major reasons for online violence against women.9

A significant majority of Scottish participants viewed various online behaviours as forms of online violence against women and girls (OVAWG). These include image-based sexual abuse (93%), text-based abuse (89%), upskirting (89%), cyberstalking (89%), cyberbullying (88%), and cyberflashing (87%). Additionally, 77% recognise online misogyny as OVAWG, with higher acknowledgment among older individuals (55+) and women (83% vs 71% men).

Other forms of online abuse are also widely acknowledged by Scottish respondents: 81% of participants see trolling and flaming as OVAWG, though this is less recognised among the youngest adults aged 16 to 24 at 69%. Impersonation is identified as OVAWG by 74% of participants, with lower recognition among young people aged 16 to 24 and men, both at 68%.

There's a strong call for legal action in Scotland, with 73% of women and 55% of men supporting criminalisation of online violence, and over 75% backing new laws addressing this issue. However, there's a gender gap in perceptions. Seventeen percent of Scottish men, compared to 8% of women, feared that such laws might curb their freedom of expression. Also, men (19%) were more confident than women (14%) in the government's efforts to combat online violence.8910

According to the survey, trust in the system is low. Only 4% of affected Scottish women would report to the police, preferring to confide in friends. Sixty-four percent believed the police weren't adequately equipped to handle online violence, and of those who did report, 76% were dissatisfied with the outcome. Eighty-five percent of victims in Scotland felt affected, with 61% stating it harmed their mental health and wellbeing.8910

Further reading

Studies and reports: Online harassment and abuse