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Cyberstalking: What is being done to support women who sell or exchange sex online?

Cyberstalking graphic

Shannon, the CLiCK Resource Worker, recently attended Action Against Stalking’s iPredator conference. Here, Shannon reflects on current policing and support approaches to cyberstalking behaviour, how relevant these approaches are to the lives of women who sell or exchange sex online, and what needs to be improved.

The line between our online and offline worlds is becoming increasingly blurred. This blurred line doesn’t just influence how we communicate with each other, but also presents new avenues for criminal behaviour. Figures from the 2017-18 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey highlight that cyberstalking – the repeated pursuit of an individual through electronic means (e.g. social media, email, text) – is becoming the most common form of stalking behaviour. Given that 65% of people who sell or exchange sex online have experienced persistent or repeated unwanted contact and harassment via social media, email, or text in the last 5 years – I was really keen to attend Action Against Stalking’s iPredator conference to find out more about what is being done to address cyberstalking and how relevant these approaches are to addressing the digital safety of women who sell or exchange sex online.


At the conference, Detective Chief Inspector Debbie Forrester from the Domestic Abuse Task Force gave an insight into Police Scotland’s approach to tackling stalking behaviour. Police Scotland define stalking behaviour as behaviour which is directed towards an individual on two or more occasions that causes the individual fear or alarm. DCI Forrester was very clear that stalking is a varied and dynamic behaviour that can include a number of different tactics, including: repeated unwanted contact, monitoring of someone’s phone or social media, sending or leaving unwanted gifts, and publishing material without consent. Although incidences of stalking have doubled between the period of 2012 to 2017-18, only 1 in 10 cases of stalking become known to the Police. In an effort to remove potential barriers to reporting, Police Scotland now provide an online Stalking Form where you – or a third-party on your behalf – can report stalking behaviour remotely.


Looking over the Stalking Form, I felt really frustrated. The form asks you to provide as much information as possible about the stalker such as their name, address, and whether they have access to car. Whilst this information may be known in some cases, what if you’re being repeatedly harassed online by someone who is a virtual stranger to you? What if you only know their username, never mind whether they have access to a car? Given that 41% of people don’t personally know their stalker, it is likely that many people find this form difficult to complete. Crucially, there’s nothing on the form to reassure you that the Police can still carry out an investigation even if you don’t know much about your stalker. For me, this lack of reassurance can act as a barrier to reporting stalking behaviour. However, there are other ways to help make collating evidence of stalking behaviour easier – regardless of whether this behaviour takes place online or offline – which may remove barriers to reporting. Scottish Women’s Rights Centre have developed the FollowItApp which allows you to record incidences of stalking behaviour on a secure server – meaning that you can then delete any screenshots, texts, or emails from your phone. Giving this log to the Police means they may be less likely to need access to your phone as part of their investigation, if you do decide to report.


Throughout the day, a lot of time was given to understanding the misuse of sexual images as forming part of cyberstalking behaviour. Dr Emma Short, Director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research, argues that what is illegal offline must also be illegal online. As a result, digital sexual offences need to be viewed as just that – sexual offences. Through her work with women with lived experience, Emma has highlighted that misuse of sexual images is often not taken seriously by Police, service providers, or women’s family and friends. Emma’s research got me thinking about cases where women have had their content stolen from platforms like OnlyFans and then streamed on free tube sites. Platforms like Pornhub are notoriously uncooperative when it comes to responding to requests to have pirated content removed. So, what support is out there for women? During workshops we raised concerns that women who sell or exchange sex online may have around online safety. I got chatting with Liam Harcourt from Risk Crew – a London based cybersecurity company – about potential issues around content piracy and what support the Police and legislation can provide to women facing this issue. Unfortunately, it appears that current legislation is not in tune with how the online sex industry operates.

The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 makes sharing sexual photos without consent, or threatening to share them, a crime. However, it is not illegal to share sexual photos that are already in the public domain. In other words, if you take a sexual photo of yourself and upload it to a public website, people who then share this would not be committing a crime. In addition, whilst the Act covers images or videos that have been photoshopped, it does not cover images or videos that have been computer generated. This is problematic as cyberstalking is already taking place in virtual, rather than digital, contexts. Deepfakes – convincing yet false videos which use artificial intelligence to show a real person doing or saying something they didn’t – are on the rise. Non-consensual pornography (e.g. pasting someone’s face onto someone else’s body to show them in a sexual act they weren’t actually involved in) accounts for 96% of deepfake videos online. Whilst Pornhub claims to have banned these videos, their approach is purely reactive and relies on users reporting this content. At the time of writing, deepfake videos of celebrities like Maisie Williams and Scarlett Johansson were easily available on Pornhub - purely by typing the word “fake” followed by their name.


As cyberstalking behaviours evolve, so must our approach to policing, legislation, and support. At the iPredator conference, Action Against Stalking announced that they have received £55,000 in funding from Scottish Government to develop and deliver training for services and organisations that work with people who have experienced stalking. CLiCK hopes this funding will be an exciting future opportunity to upskill our Women’s Workers and ensure that our approach to providing support around cyberstalking is up to date. As a first step in improving our approach, we have updated our safety tips to include advice around keeping safe online. However, your digital safety should not be your sole responsibility. On the 26th November, we are holding our first event for women that are involved in camming or private galleries to share their views on what support services and policymakers should be doing to support women’s digital safety. If you are not able to attend this event, we would still absolutely love to hear from you via our anonymous Your Voice platform! CLiCK are committed to taking your experiences, views, and opinions to the strategic level to ensure that Scotland’s approach to policing, legislation, and support is inclusive of women’s voices and fit for purpose in our increasingly digital world.