MADRID (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – During her first job as a receptionist, Sara Garcia Antunez got a lot of unwanted attention from a postboy who began to stalk her online.
“This guy got obsessed with me and wouldn’t leave me alone … he only knew my first and last name but with that information you can find out a lot online,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Madrid.
Scared and powerless at being stalked online, Antunez decided to do something about the growing problem of digital sex abuse after she qualified as a criminal barrister.
She founded Stop Haters in 2017, a Madrid-based association that offers free legal and psychological support to victims of online abuse.
Antunez is one of an increasing number of lawyers and campaigners calling for urgent changes to laws around the world to help protect women from digital sex abuses like cyber-flashing, sextortion, cyberstalking and upskirting.
Digital sex abuse with the proliferation of smartphones and greater web access is “spreading really rapidly … in every country of the world,” said Heather Barr, co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
These types of abuses are increasingly becoming a “standard component” of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence cases, and legal systems are responding “terribly”, she said.
A nationwide survey in the United States in 2017 by the non-profit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative found that nearly 13% of about 3,000 participants had been threatened by or victims of revenge porn, the distribution of sexually graphic images of them without their consent.
In Britain, more than 40% of millennial women have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s private parts usually using iPhone AirDrop, according to a YouGov poll in 2017.
South Korea has become the global epicentre of spycam – the use of hidden cameras to film victims naked or mid-sex.
Nearly one in four women who has been harassed or secretly filmed has thought about suicide, according to an October survey of 2,000 victims by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, a government think tank.
However data on the number of victims of digital sex abuse is patchy and barely existent in some parts of the world.
The legal position on digital sex abuse varies considerably around the world and according to the type of abuse.
Singapore, the US state of Texas and Scotland have introduced specific legislation to deal with cyber-flashing, which is when a man sends a photo of his penis via a digital device.
Britain and France have introduced specific legislation to make upskirting – the surreptitious taking of photos or videos under women’s clothing – a criminal offence, but critics say that more countries need to take action.
Hanna Seidel, a film student who has become a prominent campaigner to ban upskirting in Germany, said international laws desperately need modernizing.
“There are so many ways [to abuse women] now with small cameras so we really need to do something about it in Europe and around the world,” said Seidel, 29, herself a victim of upskirting twice.
Ryan Whelan, a lawyer who partnered with campaigner Gina Martin to make upskirting a criminal offence in Britain last year, said upskirting was an “utterly grotesque violation”.
“Perpetrators must be identified and brought to justice,” he said. “If other countries have gaps in the law that mean upskirting cannot be prosecuted then right thinking people – voters – will no doubt expect action from those in government.”
Women around the world have increasingly raised concerns about online behaviour and content that is harmful, misogynistic and violent, the United Nations warned in a 2018 report.
Founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, voiced concerns this month that growing online abuse of women and girls was threatening progress toward gender equality.
Yet law enforcement bodies often “trivialize online violence against women”, the UN warned.
Antunez said the authorities do not treat online abuse seriously enough, meaning victims sometimes lack legal protection, for instance in Spain when nude photos of someone are shared online without their consent.
“If a partner or ex partner does something like this, it falls under gender violence laws … it’s fast, efficient, the victim is safe or at least has lots of guarantees,” she said.
Yet if someone met online is responsible for the abuse then it would not be considered a gender violence case and could take up to 18 months to go to court, which deters many from reporting it, she said.
Despite the German government’s plans to criminalize upskirting, it is still a “tough topic” to discuss and many are still too embarrassed to report it, said Seidel, calling for more female police officers.
Antunez said states and governments everywhere are still not doing enough to raise awareness, partly because politicians may not realise the gravity of the abuse.
“Online abuse is like a taboo here, as if it didn’t exist,” she said. “In Spain when a story comes out about this, it looks like an isolated case … but it’s happening every day.”
(Reporting by Sophie Davies; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Thanks also to Thomson Reuters Foundation)