While sexual harassment on social media is not a recent phenomenon, the growth in TikTok’s popularity during the pandemic has led to a massive increase in such incidents women experience on this platform.
“As time goes on, we are seeing videos that have become increasingly exaggerated, blatant, crude, shocking and scary,” explains B (who declined to give her name). “I mostly just block those users or ignore the comments and move on.”
Recently, however, a number of women who use TikTok decided to end their silence and are carrying out a protest against the harassment. This past September, a number of American women who use TikTok began sharing some of the disturbing messages from men that include the hashtag #everypieceofme, with Billie Eilish’s song “Bored” from 2017 playing in the background.
“One of the teens who is an activist at Kulan [a feminist organization leading a grassroots struggle to eradicate rape culture] saw an American TikTok user share this video and decided to translate it into Hebrew and upload this new Israeli version,” says Kulan social media director Margalit Lank.
“She received a tremendous amount of exposure, and the hashtag has really taken off. It wasn’t planned – it just happened, since there are so many teens and young women who’ve received incredibly demeaning comments, and they felt the need to share their story and make their voice heard.”
Some of the women participating in this protest are posting pictures of themselves with the disparaging comments appearing in the background. Others are posting messages with the popular hashtags (in Hebrew) #harrassmentisnolaughingmatter or #raiseawareness.
“I’ve been experiencing harassment on social media for years, going all the way back to my Facebook days, which I don’t use anymore. I currently use TikTok and Instagram,” recounts B, who has joined the protest.
“Most of the TikTok videos I make are of me dancing or singing, but once I heard about this important subject, I decided to join the protest and post my own TikTok that is quite different from my usual videos. No one asked me to make it – it just felt like the right thing to do.
“If we all remain silent, things will just get worse. These comments might start on TikTok, but they end up leading to actual rape attacks in the real world. We are not here to act as playthings for men’s pleasure, and no one has the right to treat us as such.”
Do you think this TikTok protest will lead to actual change?
“I’d like to think so. We are seeing how much TikTok influences public opinion and leads to these types of incidents. That’s why it’s so important for us to speak up and make an effort to bring about an end to this harassment.”
Since the pandemic broke out, there’s been a huge increase in traffic on leading social media sites, such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. Just a few years ago, TikTok was popular only among children and teens, but as entire sections of the world went into lockdown, it gained more popularity among people of all ages.
“TikTok has become the most popular social media choice for getting messages out to users’ large audiences, since it’s a great platform for telling their story, for better or for worse,” says Lank.
“There are many ‘Yarin Sherf types’ [Sherf was charged with raping a 13-year-old girl at a corona hotel, and had posted numerous misogynistic videos on his TikTok page] with hundreds of thousands of followers on their TikTok pages,” continues Lank. “These videos show men harassing women and girls, accompanied by lots of comments praising these actions.
“Even before the Yarin Sherf story became public, we saw many of his TikTok videos in which he harasses women and girls, makes jokes about rape and laughs at feminists,” explains Lank. “We tried to warn people, but no one took us seriously. The prosecutors wanted to convict him for a forbidden consensual relationship with a minor, and so we began protesting on the streets and launched a social media protest. This public outcry, including posts on TikTok, led to the upgrading of the charge to rape.”
TikTok videos also played a role in exposing the case of Yotam Okon, a teacher from Tel Aviv indicted for the rape of a minor. The case was opened following the posting of a video on TikTok by one of his former students, who claimed that he had sexually harassed her, which was followed by similar claims by other victims.
Joining in this protest is T, who has been posting on TikTok for 18 months. “All of my friends get these types of messages all the time on TikTok, Instagram and Tinder, but were too embarrassed to discuss this phenomenon with people,” she recalls. “Most of the time, they just block these users.”
What kind of messages have you received recently?
“Well, I still get lots of ‘dick pics’ and awful voice messages saying things like, ‘I’m so horny for you’ and ‘Why aren’t you sending me back a nude photo of yourself?’ For a while, this just annoyed me, but I’ve had enough and I really can’t stand it anymore.”
Why did you choose to join the protest?
“A bunch of my friends had already joined and I saw that they’d received tremendous support. I figured maybe this would help put an end to this phenomenon and it would result in a decrease in the amount of harassment. It’s time to speak up and stop letting people get away with this.”
“The harassers can be 12- or 13-year-old children, or men in their 30s or older,” Lank says. “Harassers can be any age. The one thing they have in common is that they think they have the right to speak to women in a very disparaging manner.”
“I must say that this undermines my trust in men. You can’t always know who the people behind the TikTok messages are since they can be sent from fictitious accounts, and that’s scary,” explains S. “Moreover, there has been an uptick in the amount of harassment taking place online since the outbreak of COVID-19, and these messages can lead to actual violence.”
What do you do when you receive such messages?
“I simply block the user or ignore them.”
How did you hear about the TikTok protest?
“A friend of mine told me about it. It sounded like an important event, and I wanted to contribute what I could. TikTok is a great platform to share these messages with a large number of people.”
How do you think this will impact people?
“We don’t really have control over what people post, but I think that some men will definitely become a little more afraid as a result of this protest, and they might think twice before posting disparaging comments in the future,” Lank says.
“Women have been getting harassed non-stop on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok since the early days of social media. I hope that as a result of our activism and the participation of Israeli women in the ‘Slutwalk’ protest, which took place on October 15, Israeli women and teens will feel more comfortable talking about the sexual harassment we experience.
“It’s time we stood up for ourselves – otherwise the harassment will never stop. We need to straighten our backs, raise our chins and declare that nothing we do warrants violence, and we certainly don’t need to be embarrassed to talk about the harassment we experience. The people who send these awful messages are the ones who should be feeling shame.”
These protest videos have brought in millions of views, tens of thousands of which have been shared and commented upon.
“I’m not afraid to publicize the name of the men who’ve harassed me, but since there are so many of them, I don’t think this is an effective method for solving the problem,” notes B. “The goal of the protest, for me at least, is to show the public that we’re not just talking about one or two annoying guys. What we’re dealing with is a noxious climate in which harassment is the norm.
“But we have the ability to change and improve these societal norms,” B asserts. “Every woman who experiences sexual harassment is harmed and carries scars with her for the rest of her life. Every single harasser should be punished, but first we need to deal with this problem from its roots.
“This protest is a great place to start. Seeing how many people have joined our campaign really gives me hope that we’re going to succeed in bringing about real change. And hopefully, now men will realize that they can’t get away with this harassment and so they will stop.
“This will help improve our entire society, not just individual women’s lives.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.