Cyber Harassment Survivor’s Kit – STORIES OF SURVIVORS
How Speaking Up Stopped My Harasser
Should I have spoken up?
Speaking up started it. Speaking up ended it.
I was always a quiet student. It seemed to me that if you kept your head down and your grades up, you never ran into any trouble.
It was during my college psychology class that a target was first placed on my head. My class was discussing Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development when a classmate named Seng Lee started making a number of extremely sexist remarks. A particular comment was enough to trigger me. Breaking away from my usual habit of refraining from speaking my mind, I told Seng Lee to stop making such ridiculous and offensive remarks.
“Wow, someone actually speaks!” he replied. The class sniggered. I felt my face go red.
The comment that had pulled the straw was “penises rule the world”. Not because it was a particularly outrageous or offensive remark, but because I was beginning to believe it was true.
That seemed like the end of it, although the embarrassment I had felt still echoed in my mind. I felt I’d learnt my lesson: Head down. Grades up. Stay out of trouble. Two weeks later I was still sticking to this mentality.
With the deadline for the paper I had been working on for weeks fast approaching, I found a quiet classroom to work on the finishing touches. It was then that I made the mistake of briefly leaving the classroom with my laptop still open on the desk. I returned after about ten minutes, and to my horror, found all evidence of my weeks’ worth of work completely gone. Somebody had deleted it.
How could I be so stupid? Why had I left my laptop unguarded? Why hadn’t I backed up my work? It was only then that I realised that this wasn’t my fault. Someone had deleted my work, and only that person was to blame.
I asked around to see if anyone had seen who had come into the classroom, but to no avail. Not giving up, I asked to review the security footage that recorded the hallway outside the classroom. And there he was. Seng Lee, caught on camera, going into the classroom. Was I going to keep quiet? Keep my head down? No, I confronted him.
I didn’t see Seng Lee for two days, but when I did, I went straight up to him and told him that I knew what he’d done. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Regret? An apology? At the very least acknowledgement that I had found out.
He of course denied everything, and said that I’d have no way of proving my accusations. He was right. There was nothing I could do. Nothing to get my work back, to make Seng Lee own up to what he’d done, to ensure nothing like this happened again.
Why was I so terrified when the threat was only carried out online?
Frustrated but refusing to be silenced, I made the decision to run for class president. In the coming weeks Seng Lee seemed to have decided to leave me alone. It was then, as I was beginning to gain some confidence, things went from bad to worse.
It started with a threat. After creating a post on my psychology class Facebook page with a reminder for the upcoming deadline, I arrived in class the next day with the sense that everybody’s eyes were on me. I sat down and my friend turned to me and asked if I had seen what Seng Lee had commented on my post. I hadn’t. Aware that he had probably blocked me, I asked my friend to show me.
“Just tell her not to bother me. She’ll never see the accident coming. She better watch her mouth or she won’t be using it.”
I recoiled. My heart started pounding. My palms started sweating. Shocked and confused by the blatant threat of violence, I slowly turned around to see if Seng Lee was sitting in his usual spot at the back of the room. Sure enough, there he was, staring back at me. I quickly turned away, unsure what to make of his unapologetic gaze. I didn’t know what he wanted and I definitely didn’t know why he was targeting me, but one thing I was sure of: Seng Lee terrified me.
Was I being stalked?
Things went from worse to worst. I soon started receiving frequent messages from an anonymous twitter account. Little comments about my appearance, my weight, my hair, my skin. “Ugly.” “Fat.” “Disgusting ugly bitch.” Each comment taken on its own would be unable to shake me, but together had me spiralling deeper into anxiety. I felt trapped. The more I ignored the comments, the worse they got. Comments shifted from my appearance to intimate private information. “Slut.” “Whore.” “I know what you used to do with your ex.”
When I read that last comment, I couldn’t breathe. I knew Seng Lee was friends with my previous boyfriend, and the fact that he now had the power to expose intimate private information about us terrified me.
The impact of these messages grew and grew. They affected me not only when I was at home on my computer, but throughout all aspects of my life. They followed me around when I was with my family, with my friends, and when I tried to sleep. And at college he was always there, just staring at me. But it was always me who would feel ashamed and turn away.
My life had fallen into turmoil. Unable to prove that it was Seng Lee behind these online attacks, and with no way of reporting and preventing them anyway, I felt I had no choice but to deactivate all of my social media accounts.
But the anonymous abuse persisted. I began receiving abusive and threatening calls from a blocked number. Along with the feelings of anxiety and isolation came fear for my safety. I felt helpless and alone, with no way of getting any help.
Have I made a difference?
Eventually, my fear turned into frustration. Enough was enough. It was time to speak up. When I was asked to make a presentation for my English as a Second Language class, I immediately knew what I wanted to discuss: cyber harassment.
Cyber harassment. The topic that had infiltrated my life over the past few months. I shared my experience with my class, and went as far as showing screenshots of the abusive comments and threats I had received. While I didn’t reveal Seng Lee as my harasser, it was clear that my classmates and my lecturer could guess it was him.
Shortly after, the college intervened and the harassment stopped once and for all. I never received the apology I deserved, but sharing my experience gave me the closure I needed. Moving forward, I hope that those experiencing something similar to what I went through will read this and feel a little less alone. At the time I didn’t seek help from anyone as I honestly didn’t think it would make a difference. But through this experience I have learnt that the only way things will change is to speak up.
I’m speaking up for changing the law in Malaysia. The Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 is supposed to help prevent victims from experiencing what I did. With the increase of the use of social media, the younger generation in particular is becoming more and more vulnerable to being victims of cyber harassment.
Speak up. Spread awareness on cyber harassment.
*Inspired by a real survivor’s account