When ‘Textual Harassment’ Goes Too Far

by Adrienne Vogt

Lauren* got home late one Friday night in March, feeling great after celebrating her friend’s birthday. She turned on her iPad as she got ready to relax in her Brooklyn apartment. But her feelings of happiness immediately turned to anxiety as she was bombarded with about 50 iMessages from her ex-boyfriend. He continued to text her the entire weekend.

This was far from the first time he’d harassed her in this way.

His messages veered wildly across the spectrum. He’d regularly say “You’re awful” or “You’re a fat bitch,” using any personal information she’d told him during their roughly three-year relationship to attack her on every level. When she didn't take the bait, he’d be apologetic in the next set of texts, telling her he was sorry and imploring her to delete the negative texts. “You’re amazing” and “I don’t deserve you,” he’d say.

Lauren, 25, and her ex had a roller-coaster relationship, she tells Bustle. During their on-again, off-again romance, they would fight, break up for extended periods of time, and not talk for about a month. Like clockwork, however, her ex would then barrage her phone and other devices with these types of messages — 50, 60, sometimes hundreds at a time — for days on end. She tried to ignore him, but it simply became unbearable.

So why couldn’t Lauren, who actually works in information technology, simply block her ex for harassing her? That’s the tricky part: Even though she could block his regular text messages on her iPhone, a loophole in Apple products didn’t allow for blocked iMessages.

But most people don't want to go straight to the police. Lauren didn't want to involve law enforcement because she says she realizes that cops have more pressing matters — there are much more dangerous forms of harassment, and "texting is not a crime." She didn't want to issue a restraining order because she never felt physically unsafe.

Her cellphone provider, AT&T, said it couldn’t block the iMessages, either, because they are technically not recognized as text messages. (Just to clarify, iMessage is like Apple's own instant-messaging service that works across all Apple devices, and it doesn't count toward any text-messaging plan limits. On an iPhone, iMessages have a blue background, while texts are green.) Lauren says customer service reps told her she had two options: Get a new phone number, or pay about $10 a month to block him. But even if she did cough up the money, she’d still be subjected to his iMessages anyway because they are classified as instant messages.

“Either way, I’m suffering the consequences,” she says.

The same technology that enabled his harassing behavior prevented her from doing anything about it. And she never thought his actions would get so extreme.

“You never think someone you love would ever do this to you,” Lauren says. “It’s my job to figure out solutions to technology; that’s what I do on a daily basis for all of [my company's clients] … I have to come up with solutions, and then in my own personal life, I can’t even figure this out. It’s very frustrating for me, and surprising that more people aren’t talking about or dealing with it.”

Because, unfortunately, Lauren’s story isn’t out of the ordinary. In the past few years, countless people complained on blogs and forums about problems with cyberstalking from unwanted people via iMessage. Apple Support communities informed frantic iMessage users that there was no easy way to block the instant messages. Prior to the iOS 7 update, there wasn't any simple "block" button for iMessage, and the most helpful suggestions on forums involved deleting your email or Apple ID.

Lauren was forced to jailbreak her phone and disable iMessage on all of her devices at one point. But it was an unfair burden on her, she says, and she ended up reinstating iMessage because she needed a fully functional phone and iMessage service for her job. Fortunately, with the latest update of iOS 7 in March, Lauren says the problem was finally resolved: She can finally block his number on all of her devices.

While it's commendable that Apple corrected the issue, Lauren says it's appalling that the iPhone has been out for seven years, and Apple just got around to fixing this flaw recently. "To me, it seems like blocking a text message shouldn’t be that hard," she says.

As of press time, Apple did not respond to request for comment.

So is there anything we can do to identify and prevent "textual harassment" before it begins? Granted, it's difficult for huge tech companies to understand the stress and anxiety of someone in Lauren's situation, especially because twentysomethings are supposed to be more mature than their cyberbullying teen counterparts. Activists, parents, and media outlets are so aware now of the risks associated with teen cyberbullying and sexting, yet it seems that data on textual harassment with older Millennials has taken a back seat.

According to a 2013 study on digital abuse from the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV, an increasing number of teens and young adults ages 14-24 believe digital abuse is a serious problem. Although the survey found that the number of people reporting digital abuse has declined slightly since 2011, about half of all teens and young adults in the U.S. have faced some form of digital abuse. Eleven percent of those surveyed have shared naked pictures online or via text, according to the report.

But there isn't much information about older twentysomethings who may be experiencing the same forms of digital harassment. Pamphlets Lauren saw were mainly about teen bullying, and she says forums weren't helpful for her particular situation. And even though Lauren says she had the support of her family and friends, she still questions whether they really took her seriously all of the time.

“Even my friends sometimes, I think, thought that I wasn’t really looking for a solution; that a part of me liked the fact he was still contacting me or that we were still connected in some way,” Lauren says.

It's hard to admit sometimes that someone you love or used to love would inflict emotional pain on you in any way. So how do you know if you're being harassed? According to the Stalking Resource Center, people subjected to stalking or harassment might commonly feel unsafe, anxious, stressed, and frustrated. About 6 million people report being stalked each year — and the rate for women is about three times as much as men. The Center encourages victims to not downplay threats, to contact a crisis center for guidance, keep phone or messaging records, and to contact local police if safety is an issue.

People have been arrested for sending harassing text messages, though the most widely reported cases are usually in conjunction with physical violence. In May 2013, a San Antonio man allegedly sent a former girlfriend 164 threatening text messages in one day and grabbed her when he saw her with another man. A Washington woman was arrested after she allegedly wouldn't stop calling and texting an ex-boyfriend in October 2013 who had issued a domestic violence protection order against her.

Text-message harassment is considered a misdemeanor in states like Virginia, Texas, and Georgia. (The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a great set of links on which states have enacted legislation against cyberstalking and cyberharassment. For many states, cyberharassment is now included in their traditional stalking or harassment laws.)

But most people don't want to go straight to the police. Lauren didn't want to involve law enforcement because she says she realizes that cops have more pressing matters — there are much more dangerous forms of harassment, and "texting is not a crime." She didn't want to issue a restraining order because she never felt physically unsafe.

So what do you do if, like Lauren, you are simply are looking for an easier solution to textual harassment? If a harasser won't leave you alone, phone companies like Verizon offer a call and message blocking service for free for 90 days. Though T-Mobile isn't able to block specific phone numbers in its network, the company says that many devices already include blocking capabilities on the phones themselves. Virgin Mobile doesn't support phone number blocking, but encourages users to download apps or refer to a specific phone's user guide for more information. New apps like Split and Cloak also use GPS technology to help avoid your ex — or anyone else you'd rather not run into.

Even though it's drastic, you may want to consider turning off your phone's location services, cellular data, or WI-Fi if you feel that someone may be following you, Australia's SmartSafe suggests.

These days, even with the new iOS update, Lauren still gets back from work every day and checks her iPad just to make sure her ex hasn't sent a barrage of texts. Anxiety looms over the technology that is supposed to give her some form of joy.

“What worries me is, everyday I get home, I think ‘Maybe it’s not really working,’" she says.

Lauren thinks that this kind of security should be brought up first in the technology design process. Apple already implements numerous security and crime-prevention apps, like Find My iPhone, so it seems like a no-brainer to have a similar number-blocking app.

Still, it's easy to block anyone on every single different social media platform, so why is it still so difficult on a phone, which people arguably use most often?

"Even though the technologies aren’t that new, we’re still trying to develop what it means to live in a world where harassment is no longer just being yelled at on the street," Lauren says.

*Name has been changed to protect the subject’s identity.