How To Deal With Email Harassment

Numerous women I know, in recent weeks, have had to deal with unwanted communications in email form (yes, from men). It's ranged from the vaguely uncomfortable to the deeply upsetting and invasive, but in every instance it's been pretty sh*tty to witness. Harassment, as it turns out, is not "something that happens to other people;" it can happen to you. So what do you do if you're receiving harassing electronic communications? Block them? Put it on social media for everybody to see? Turn your laptop off, take three deep breaths, and then proceed as if nothing had happened?

Definitions of harassment in law tend to be pretty broad. One definition is that "harassing conduct was targeted at an individual, was calculated to alarm or cause him/her distress, and was oppressive and unreasonable" — but you can see how vast all those terms can be. Another definition is based on your own reaction: "when someone behaves in a way which makes you feel distressed, intimidated or offended," that can be harassment. If you're in this situation, your legal options may seem obscure, but there are good and rational ways to deal with this particular problem, and they don't involve being nice, polite, or sitting quietly on your hands waiting for it to go away.

Here are seven ways to deal with email-based harassment. No, none of them involve writing a scathing series of limericks in response, though that may well make you feel better.

1. Preserve All Evidence In Multiple Forms

Screenshot everything. This is a good rule for anything in emails or social media that may have future legal bearing, but it's also a vital back-up for evidence of this kind. Don't put it on your desktop or anywhere you have to see it, but file it away somewhere clearly marked with the date and the full messages and communications. Print it out as well, photocopy it, put it somewhere safe. This constitutes concrete evidence for any third party you choose to involve, whether it be the police, an employer, a lawyer, or anybody else.

2. Know That Harassment Can Still Seem "Nice"

One of my friends currently battling email harassment is being boggled by the fact that the harassing messages are coming from a dude who insists he's just doing it out of kindness and concern. Somebody disregarding your boundaries may well believe they're not doing anything untoward, or that they have the perfect right to treat you this way, but if they're making you uncomfortable and distressed, you have the right to call time.

All kinds of things can count as harassment. (For example, one man has just been struck off the medical register in England after sending a colleague an erotic story about otters designed to make her leave her partner.) If you feel unsafe, upset, targeted, threatened, unsettled, or seriously uncomfortable, don't ignore it.

3. Remember You Are Under No Obligation To Be Charming Or Explain

This can be a tricky concept to get across to people. One man, when I put it out there, said that surely everybody should be courteous and civil to one another; shouldn't the person being harassed just "send the emails to the Spam folder" and be nice? Nope. If you're in a position where you feel creeped out or seriously compromised by somebody, you're under no obligation to be polite in expressing that.

You're also under no obligation to give them reasons for asking them not to contact you or not replying. You do not owe them engagement with their treatment, if you don't want to give it. Women in particular are often expected to "play nice" in response to invasions and injustices; but if they broke the social contract of mutual politeness by making you feel like this, you don't have to honor it either.

4. Consider Establishing A Boundary

This is entirely up to you. If you'd prefer to cut off all contact, not respond, or not deal with them directly in any way, that is entirely your prerogative. If, however, you want to do something that communicates your wishes to them, consider establishing a cease-and-desist boundary, something that makes it entirely clear that what they're doing is unwanted and uncool. No room for misinterpretation.

I'll talk more about legal options later, but this may be the time to take some inspiration from cease and desist letters in the case of legal action over harassment, for their language and tone. If you do choose to communicate your wishes to your harasser, explain them once and once only, preferably keep it short, and make it clear that there will be consequences if they violate your wishes.

5. Notify The Email Service

The Huffington Post's exploration of email harassment contains the interesting nugget that you can and should target the medium by which you're receiving your letters. Gmail, for instance, has a policy to deal with harassing communications, and details on how to contact them and what things to provide are available to users of their services. If it's a professional service like your work email, contact the administrators at the IT department to help you deal with the problem. Be aware that they may not be able to offer you many options, but they can at least be made aware of the problem.

6. Consider Your Legal Options

Legal repercussions are complicated. Harassment laws are complex and vary wildly from state to state, though there's a distinct law about "malicious communications" that could be used to your advantage. However, harassment cases about emails are in their infancy; The Atlantic, in a piece on online harassment in 2014, found that there are few states with specific laws about Internet-based stalking and harassment, law cases in civil and criminal courts about these issues are prohibitively expensive, and police are often not sufficiently educated about how to respond adequately to complaints.

However, a lawyer may be able to help you with certain aspects of your approach: sketching out a cease & desist letter, for instance, and compiling evidence should you choose to take the matter elsewhere (to your employers, say, if you're employed by the same company). Find one who specializes in harassment law; WHOA, Working to Halt Online Abuse, has a partial list of lawyer referrals who have experience in this particular area, divided by state.

7. Look For Support

This is a fraught situation and is likely going to leave you with a lot of residual feelings about your own safety, boundaries, and rights. It's important to realize that, as you're dealing with the impacts and deciding your course like a Very Grown-Up Adult, you're also at root somebody who's had something not-right happen to them, and that it needs to be addressed on an emotional level.

Consider contacting a general harassment support network, one that's focused on both physical and online experiences. And remember that it's real and that your feelings are valid: just because it happened behind a screen doesn't mean that you didn't experience fear, stress, anger, isolation, intimidation, or a sense of personal destabilization. Even if it only manifested as a few upsetting moments, it's still a good idea to talk to somebody about it, not just put it in a box and get on with your life.

Images: Pixabay; Giphy