Not a week goes by that I don’t get a creeper sliding into my DMs on Instagram. It’s become so commonplace to open my inbox to find a) a message trying to get me to exchange sexual texts, b) an unsolicited picture of some dude’s genitals, c) an overly familiar comment about my body and requests for naked pictures or d) all of the above. And yet, no matter how many times it happens, my reaction is the same. It’s like someone had dumped a bucket of icy cold swamp water over my head. I feel disgusted and I know that I’m going to be upset and angry for a good portion of the day.
I know that my status as a Woman Who Talks About Sex On The Internet probably attracts a higher than average volume of sleazy DMs. I also know that not a single one of my female friends has been lucky enough to have her inbox unsullied from dick pics from gross dudes online. This type of predatory behaviour is sexual harassment, and something that some social media platforms are shockingly Ok with.
Without a doubt, the overwhelming majority of the harassing messages I get come from Instagram. I’ve had the odd one from Twitter and a few directly on my blog, but Instagram is the biggest culprit. And I believe that the reason men are using Instagram to harass women in this way is that Instagram make it easy for them.
When I get a dick pic, there are a few things that I can do. The first thing is respond to the sender. I usually make it very clear that the message that they’ve sent is unwelcome and offensive. Next, I can choose to block the sender, so that they can’t contact me again or see anything I post in the future. Finally, I can report the sender to Instagram.
And herein lie the issues. To report a person, Instagram requires you to produce a link to their account, their posts or their messages. All of these things disappear when you block somebody. So if you choose to block somebody, while they won’t be able to message you again there also won’t be any consequences for that person. They get to skip away and find some other woman to harass, while I’m left feeling disgusted and angry.
If I choose to report someone who is sexually harassing me, it rarely goes well. Firstly, Instagram’s reporting system is very limited. It’s basically a tick-box system where you select the type of behaviour that you want to report and why it doesn’t belong on Instagram. Although there are boxes for things like “pornography” and “hate speech”, there’s no box for sexual harassment. And when I checked Instagram’s Community Guidelines, there is nothing there at all about sexual harassment. While it’s prohibited to post nudity or pornography, Instagram is silent when it comes to sexual harassment. And my experience reflects this, because even though I’ve reported at least forty different men for harassing me in my direct messages, every single report has come back with the line “This content does not violate our community guidelines”.
Furthermore, a lot of the time before you can actually complete a report, the man in question will quickly delete his account (and with it all evidence of his harassment) and then create a new one. I’ve been repeatedly harassed by a few men who have made multiple accounts and sent me the same nude pictures from each one. And in each instance, I haven’t been able to report them because their account disappears before I can file a complaint with Instagram. It’s like trying to trap water in a sieve.
What I’m saying here is that there are no consequence for men who sexually harass women on Instagram. There’s nothing to stop them from sending pictures of their genitals to women who don’t want to see them, or propositioning women who aren’t interested, or pestering women who have told them to go away. This kind of behaviour is sexual harassment and it’s abusive and illegal. And Instagram makes it very easy for their platform to be used for this purpose.
Ironically, Instagram has been militant about shutting down accounts that have any degree of sexual content since the SESTA-FOSTA bill passed in the US. I know of a number of models who have had their accounts deleted because they posted pictures of themselves in lingerie. Instagram has also policed the use of certain “sexual” hashtags, including #lingerie #kissing and #woman. Yes, #woman is a banned hashtag on Instagram. The use of these banned hashtags can get your account blocked or shadowbanned. Instagram doles out harsher penalties for women posting pictures of themselves in lingerie than for sexual predators. And that’s messed up.
Instagram’s main advice for women who are being harassed is “if you don’t like it, block them”, which sounds an awful lot like “If you just ignore the problem, it will go away”. Except that the problem doesn’t go away. That man will just run off to show his dick to some other poor Instagram user. And next week there’ll be a different asshat sending me sleazy messages via Instagram. And that’s not good enough. Instagram needs to do something about this, and I have a few suggestions:
- Include sexual harassment in the Community Guidelines. Add Sexual Harassment and unsolicited nudes to the list of reportable behaviours to show that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.
- Put a hold on accounts after a person has chosen to delete them. Make the content on that account available for 24 hours after a person deletes their account, to deter “flash and dash” users who send unsolicited nudes and then delete their account to avoid punishment.
- Flag people who sign up for multiple accounts, or who use the same email address over and over when creating Instagram accounts.
- Allow users to report entire DM conversations, rather than just single messages. Often, it isn’t just one message that’s cause an upset, it’s a whole conversation. In Australia, sexual harassment can be classified as a “pattern of behaviour” and allowing a user to report a conversation in it’s entirety would recognise that often harassment isn’t based on a single instance, but rather a series of messages.
- Have actual consequences for men who sexually harass women. Delete their accounts, bar them from creating new accounts and report them to law enforcement.
Unsolicited dick pics and sleazy messages are a horrible side effect of being a woman on the internet. It’s upsetting that so few platforms take reports seriously, and that the problem is allowed to grow and worsen. Instagram needs to recognise that this is a huge issue with their platform, and begin taking steps to take responsibility and make it more difficult for men to abuse women through direct messages. As it stands at the moment, it’s quite clear that Instagram simply doesn’t care about sexual harassment, and would rather ignore the problem than try to do anything about it.