“I’d lick your sweat.”

It was the middle of the day, I was eating my lunch and I found myself staring at my phone in total shock. What had I just read? Did I mistake it for something else? I clicked backwards on Instagram Stories to double check, and I was mortified to see that I wasn’t mistaken.

A moment ago, I had been applauding a video of my friend Talitha having successfully achieved a pull-up challenge milestone. Lifting your bodyweight once is a very impressive feat for anyone, let alone multiple times. Straight after her video was a screenshot of a message from an unknown follower, however, what she had been rewarded with wasn’t congratulations, but rather an invasive, vulgar and very direct message written in a disturbingly aggressive sexual tone.

Talitha Tan is a popular personality and a successful singer with passions for both fitness and food. Talitha’s popularity is not hard to understand seeing she is blessed with an endearing personality briming with positive vibes. If you visit her Instagram page, you will be met with her infectious smile and a variety of posts with one thing in common – they are all enthusiastic and encouraging in nature, whether in the form of delicious meals to try, new songs for our enjoyment or inspiring workout habits. However, what she exports in feel-good factor is not always reciprocated, instead she is an uncomfortably regular victim of Internet harassment.

I get a lot”, she revealed as I tried to develop an understanding of what I was seeing unfold far too regularly on my Instagram stories. “And I think I could say the same for 99% of girls on social media. They send me a bunch of dick pics or random porn GIFS. I ignore them, but sometimes it’s just never-ending spam”. I was truly taken aback, however, what really saddened me was her revelation that she was used to it, in fact she had “just kind of came to terms with how humans are just horrible creatures”. For a young lady, who dedicates so much of her free time to creating feel-good factors for others to enjoy, to become so desensitized by sexual harassment seems desperately unfair.

As time passed I learnt that Talitha wasn’t the only friend I had suffering from such abuse, with more and more alarming screenshots appearing on my social media feed. PR guru, DJ and trendsetter Ira Roslan posted an inappropriate and unwarranted message she received from one of her followers.  I was surprised it was an all too regular occurrence that left her feeling “disrespected, disgusted and shocked!”, she shared. “It feels like the sender has no respect for my person, my boundaries”. The fact that innocent women were being disturbed during their day-to-day life is disgusting, and even though the senders don’t get a response from the women they stalk, it doesn’t stop them. “The persistence of these senders is shocking considering their attempts are always ignored”, Ira sighed.

Over a third of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment, with the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) reporting an increase in online sexual harassment during the movement control order (MCO). Despite the cases I have cited mostly arising from Instagram, it is not alone as a medium facilitating abuse. Wild Ginger’s Editor, Aida Azrin, recently shared that the Reddit group r/MalaysGoneWild, which was exposed for sharing leaked intimate images of local women and underaged girls without their consent, had still not been taken down. She was shocked to find a subreddit with men she had never met asking each other for her pictures, but was even more appalled that after reporting it, Reddit had said it didn’t violate their Content Policy. “It’s terrifying to know that such a big platform actually enables this predatory behaviour through their own policies. What kind of unsafe community guidelines do they have to still allow women to be violated?”, she said.

Social media companies have attempted to restrict access from strangers to their intended targets, with the presence of the secondary inbox allowing the recipient the chance to vet their messages from unknown entities. Images are blurred, offering a good filter from inappropriate senders. Yet there are still glaring incompetencies, such as the ability for users to mask their identities by using fake profiles, and limited controls to stop this from happening. AWAM has urged the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and police to take sterner action to protect women.

Whilst everyone I spoke to, who has experienced this harassment, revealed a joint sense of belief that the social media companies should keep increasing their efforts to combat such antisocial behaviour, what is more apparent is the general consensus that this isn’t a technological problem – the core issue is a human one, and it isn’t just limited to sexual harassment, it also overlaps into using social media to pass judgement onto others.  “There are just so many horrible human beings out there”, Talitha remarked, “people just feel like they have the right to tell us to be who they want us to be because it’s what they expect us to be, and we get sh*t on when we’re not what they want us to be”.

After hearing all of these stories from people I admired, I began feeling greatly unsettled on their behalf. If these online abusers felt so comfortable launching verbal abuse from the shadows of anonymity, what would stop them from gaining the courage to do so in public? Recently, media outlets in Kuala Lumpur reported harassment arising from organised police roadblocks.

Talitha admitted feeling fearful at times, “I do feel unsafe. As much as I want to be this independent strong woman, I really don’t know what people are capable of”. Ira pointed out that she no longer feels comfortable to post in real time, to avoid being traceable and easily located. “The effect of these messages makes me think about whether I am sharing too much on my account”, she stated, debating taking her profile private. The acts of these Internet bullies were diminishing the social aspect of the media.

Despite the undermining effects that these abuses have created for far too many, I was inspired to hear of the efforts that women were taking to protect each other from these vile and unwarranted aggressors. Ira hasn’t sat back and allowed the online deviants win. Along with her friends at Brand New Waves Running Club, they have taken proactive efforts to combat this unsettling feeling by creating a community environment for women to run within that feels safe. BNW is a collective that meet all over KL and allows individuals to enjoy the thrill of public exercise in a welcoming and encouraging environment – one that many women wouldn’t have engaged with before due to the fear of running alone, unwelcome victims of cat-calling, wolf-whistles and derogatory remarks.

During my time writing this article, I was alarmed at the prevalence of online sexual harassment, not just in general, but alarmingly amongst my own close friendship circle. Too many people were being inappropriately disturbed with messages with zero restraint, and it was concerning to witness its correlation to potential safety fears. I hope that in understanding that it exists, and that it is far from harmless, those on the receiving end will feel comfortable to speak up, and look for help from the social media companies, and indeed the law agencies, in a bid to clamp down and stop the perpetrators. Despite its shocking regularity, we cannot accept that this is ‘normal’, and the first step is to be aware that it is occurring, not allow it to simply exist in the background. As friends, we should offer a support structure to listen to those in need, and attempt to use our social circles to put a stop a very anti-social problem.