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Understanding Online Sexual Harassment

Harassment does not have to occur in a face-to-face confrontation between two people. Harassing behavior can occur over a telephone line, in writing, and, thanks to modern technology, over the Internet. The following is a primer on online harassment and steps that can be taken to avoid it.

Some Facts

  • Online harassment can be divided into two large categories: materials received by a victim and materials posted about a victim.

  • While at work, only use your employer's computer system for appropriate purposes. While you may not be prevented from viewing on-line pornography while at home, your employer can insist that you do not carry that activity into the workplace. If you view pornographic or sexually offensive online sites while at work, or if you download materials from those sites, print off materials from those sites, or allow anyone else to see you viewing it, not only could you face severe disciplinary action, but you could also find yourself the target of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

    Note: Improper and unprofessional office Internet use is not limited merely to sexual or pornographic materials. If you use a work computer to access racially harassing materials, religiously harassing materials, or materials that are harassing to any other class or characteristic of individuals you can find yourself in similar hot water.

  • Offensive e-mails can also be harassing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently sued an employer for, among other things, not taking prompt or remedial action after an employee sent a department-wide e-mail that contained racially offensive jokes about "Ebonics."

What To Do if You are Being Harassed On-Line

  • Consider installing a filtering system on your computer that automatically screens and discards e-mail messages from identified individuals or subject matters. With this type of technology, you can effectively prevent your computer from "showing you" items sent from particular people or items concerning certain topics or subjects.

  • In real-time discussion forums, direct your computer to block messages being sent from any other user whom you find offensive or who you feel is harassing you.

  • If you are being harassed, report the behavior to the host of the website. You may be able to successfully have the harasser banned from that website.

  • Protect yourself from involuntarily having to view materials that you may find offensive when you are performing an on-line search for information. Many computers have Internet access controls that are designed primarily for parents to keep their children out of inappropriate sites. But who says you can't use those controls for yourself, so that you don't have to see offensive or "adult" on-ine material, either?

  • If you are an employer, consider putting into place a computer program that can perform a cursory examination of e-mails within your system and which can target and block e-mails that contain offensive or inappropriate "keywords."

  • Invest in an anti-"spam" program. Spam is another word for unsolicited on-line advertisements, many of which you may consider offensive or inappropriate. Programs are available that can read and interpret material as spam and prevent it from reaching you.

  • Exercise caution in deciding what type of information about yourself you put into cyberspace. Don't give on-line harassers a target! For example, if you have your own website which you have created so that family and friends can keep track of your hectic lifestyle, you may wish to either create a site that allows entry by only designated users, or you may wish to refrain from placing photographs of yourself on a website that any person can access. Unfortunately, there have been reported instances of on-line harassers creating "rating" systems based on looks or sex appeal and providing links to photographs of other individuals found on personal websites or homepages.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney
to make sure your rights are protected.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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