In order for a victim of stalking to obtain a restraining order from their harasser, the victim is required to go to family court and prove a previous intimate relationship with the accused. But in the digital age, stalking has evolved — as virtual and often anonymous predators resort to digitized means of harassment such as the posting of revenge porn and the doxxing of sensitive information on social media channels — leaving many unprotected from online harassment if they can’t prove an intimate relationship with their harasser.
A new bill introduced by Bronx Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez and New York State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (of Brooklyn) seeks to modernize the state’s anti-stalking laws so that victims of online harassment can more easily obtain restraining orders without having to provide an intimate relationship with their harasser by expanding family court jurisdiction.
Under the proposed 21st Century Anti-Stalking Act, courts would be able to grant orders of protection for more modernized circumstances of stalking to include digital and online harassment. Additionally, advocates of the bill say that victims of online stalking will be able to obtain orders of protection faster, without having to undergo a police investigation and arraignment process in criminal court.
“If we want to truly tackle all forms of sexual harassment, we need to account for the realities of 21st-century abuse,” said Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez, whose district includes the Allerton, Pelham Gardens and Morris Park sections. “I’m proud to join Sen. Gounardes in introducing the 21st Century Stalking Act, which would increase family court jurisdiction and expand protections for victims of sexual harassment. The issue of online sexual harassment is personal to me as it is to many — and I’ll keep fighting alongside community advocates, activists and fellow survivors whose voices are critical in creating structures for real accountability and protection.”
In 2021 about 41% of adults had experienced forms of sexual harassment online, and 60% of those victims are women, according to Pew Research. Frequently, victims of online stalking and harassment do not have a “real-life” relationship with their harasser; in a 2013 study conducted by Working to Halt Online Abuse, 47% of online stalking victims were found to have had no prior relationship with their harasser.
Stalking is also a crime that disproportionately affects women, women of color and minorities, and reasons for unwanted attention from cyberstalkers can vary from gender to politics.
Among women who have been harassed online, according to Pew, 47% cited gender as the reason, while 42% said it was due to politics. In 2017, 35% of people who experienced online harassment said it was due to their political beliefs. That number skyrocketed 15 percentage points in 2020, as the political climate grew more antagonistic.
Roughly 56% of white targets said their online harassment was for their political views, but only 17% said they were harassed due to their race or ethnicity, a figure that balloons to 54% of Black online harassment targets and 47% of Hispanic online harassment targets.
“Everybody who is stalked or harassed — online and offline — should be empowered to get a court order telling that person to leave them alone,” said Carrie Goldberg, survivors’ rights attorney and founder of Carrie Goldberg LLC. “Urgent safety from individuals who are harassing and stalking you should not hinge on whether you and the offender are related or have had sex. Some of the most dangerous stalkers we’ve seen are former roommates, retaliatory co-workers, people rejected on dating apps, or the ex of a romantic interest. Journalists, models, politicians, content creators and other public figures also are frequently the target of obsessive and dangerous individuals they have never even met.”
Reach Robbie Sequeira at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.