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Picture: Franco Dal Molin

I can remember the first time I was harassed by a man like it was yesterday. I was 14, I had just put on my first lipstick (in typical mid-90’s fashion it was a brown shade) and was riding public transit from the downtown core of my city back to the suburbs where I lived. I was sitting across a group of men in their early 20’s. One of them tried to start a conversation with me, however, I was not going to take the bait. After all, I was no fool. Warnings about unsolicited attention from men had been drilled into me since early childhood. Concepts like “stranger danger” and “my body’s nobody’s body but mine” were a regular part of elementary school education.  I remained silent.

The heckling began and got loud. These men were upset that I refused to play their game. They began to move closer and ask questions like “are you still a virgin?” “Has anyone touched your tits?” It got so uncomfortable that I got off the train early just to save myself from this completely unwarranted attention. I was very shaken and hoped that if I just didn’t take the train at that time on that day again, perhaps that would never happen again. You are thinking that perhaps this happened late at night? Nope. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a bright day in April, 1995.

Over the years, like most women, I have amassed a bevy of such stories. However, since getting married and wearing a very obvious wedding band and engagement ring, I am not hit on as much, which is fantastic . . . until I joined some of the Finland Expat forums.

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I would post about such innocuous things such as “anyone know where to find some chai tea in Helsinki?” or “I have some extra moving boxes; they can be picked up at X street at this time.” Invariably, there would be a cache of Facebook private messages that would let me know that I was the lucky winner of X’s affections and that I would make X a good wife. Or did I think X was sexy and did I like the picture of his penis that he sent me? Or just a simple proposition for meaningless sex.

[alert type=red ]Invariably, there would be a cache of Facebook private messages that would let me know that I was the lucky winner of X’s affections.[/alert]

I had a feeling that this wasn’t an isolated incident so I took to one of the more popular expat forums asking women to share their stories of online sexual harassment. I certainly kicked the hornet’s nest. Firstly, what I noticed was the intense wave of victim blaming coming from white, middle-aged males. Comments that suggesting leaving one’s profile picture blank and why I was even bringing attention to this problem were posted within minutes of my initial request for input from WOMEN. Then came the apologists. It’s a compliment, shouldn’t I be flattered? Then there was more victim blaming asking me why I was stirring up trouble? It’s Facebook, change some privacy preferences and you don’t have to deal with this any longer.

The attitude of “taking it as a compliment” is a dangerous one. Should women feel “complimented” as rape victims as well? After all, we did make another man feel sexually charged to a violent degree. Isn’t that the highest compliment of all?

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Finally, some women posted. I was correct in my assumption that I wasn’t alone. Similar tales of dick pics, offers of sex and marriage were on the regular. And this was following posts of women asking for assistance finding a product or selling an item. Not asking for dates, male companionship or husbands.

When I asked my group of friends on Facebook away from the Finland forums about online harassment, I got many stories, but two I will share.

A friend who I shall simply call “T” receives such unsolicited messages every other day. They range from offers of marriage (“I want a wide wife”), to “wanting to know what [she] looks like from the inside, but not in a serial killer way.” Most of them revolve around the size of her chest and the desire to have sex. These come from just being active on Facebook.

[alert type=red ]They range from offers of marriage (“I want a wide wife”), to “wanting to know what [she] looks like from the inside, but not in a serial killer way.”[/alert]

Another friend, “H”, was receiving dozens of friend requests and messages from a male that claimed that they shared a class in university. He became frighteningly insistent with posts every few hours just saying “add me”, “add me.”

Then came the victim blaming statement of “hey y u dont u add me you let me msg u obviously didnt block me 100%” As if her silence was a tease. “H” summed up my feelings on this matter very succinctly: in order for someone to respect my wishes and leave me alone I literally have to forcibly make it impossible for them to contact me.

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We need to come together as women and to shine a light on this behavior. Exchange information, warn others. Not keep quiet. Silence is deafening. As a society, we globally need to teach men to genuinely respect women and their right to privacy over their desire for sexual attention.

And no, feeling unsafe isn’t a compliment.