Women share messages of sexual harassment on Instagram to provoke discussion

The Finnish Instagram account depicting messages that women receive from men through social media already has over 20,000 followers.

Online sexual harassment has increased during Covid. Image: Hilma Toivonen / Yle

"Hiiii, you super hot, sexy [name redacted] Remember me? You're probably more than just a hot girl. I will get to know you and you can't do anything about it. How is it going?? [Three hours later] You're still a f***ing ugly cow."

"Can I clog your exhaust pipe with my potato?"

"Don't be like that. Will you go down on me? If you don't, just say so. Let me ask this another way. Do you want to satisfy me with your mouth?"

"Of course I understand boundaries and no means no. But you already promised."

"What are you looking for on tinder? Ooh, you're hot. Come to Tampere. Give me some pussy. Aren't you an incredible kitty. Why can't you answer me?"

These are examples of the unsolicited messages being posted by a new Instagram account called Viestejä Miehiltä (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (Messages from Men).

In just over two weeks since the Instagram account was set up at the end of July, it has accumulated more than 20,000 followers. The account shares screenshots of obscene messages that mostly women have received from men on social media.

For the most part, the recipients of the messages face sexual harassment, such as suggestive messages, the listing of sexual fantasies, and derogatory abuse.

The account publishes messages anonymously.

"Surprised and not surprised"

According to the group's founder Ida Lehtinen, more than a hundred screenshots are sent to the account every day, or between five and ten messages every hour, and the queue to post them is nearly four days long.

Just a few days after launching the account, Lehtinen had to ask a friend to help her manage the deluge of messages. Due to its high popularity, about one-sixth of all received screenshots will now be posted.

Lehtinen had been talking with her friends about the lewd messages she had been receiving for years. Often these messages are subject to ridicule, but some trigger anxiety.

She decided to see if other women’s phones were also inundated with the kind of content she had received over the years.

"I’m simultaneously surprised and not surprised at all by the popularity of this account," Lehtinen says.

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Screen grab from Viestejä Miehiltä Instagram account Image: Viestejä miehiltä (Messages from Men) Instagram account

Based on screenshots of the Instagram account, the content of these messages is direct and often antagonising. Messages can be received from the same person on a regular basis, even if the recipient doesn’t react to them at all.

According to Lehtinen, a negative response to the sender can lead to threats, insults and slut shaming.

"It is outrageous how some people see this as an acceptable way of communicating," she says.

Account aims to provoke discussion

Lehtinen has not been able to establish a particular profile for the kind of person that sends obscene messages. These messages come from men both old and young, regardless of cultural background.

Lehtinen does not place Viestejä Miehiltä in the same category as the Punkstoo account, which brought to light cases of abuse and sexual harassment within the Finnish punk scene, because in the Messages from Men account, messages are published anonymously. According to Lehtinen, the purpose of the account is not to look for specific culprits but to provoke discussion about the subject.

The account does not publish the most offensive screenshots, such as intimidation, because it is up to the police to investigate such matters.

Lehtinen has received a lot of encouraging messages from people saying that they are shocked by the content of the obscene messages. Lehtinen, herself, received her first obscene messages at the turn of the century, on Irc-Gallery and MSN Messenger.

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Screen grab from Viestejä Miehiltä Instagram account. Image: Viestejä miehiltä (Messages from Men) Instagram account

With the proliferation of smartphones and social media platforms, this kind of communication has become much more regular.

"For some reason, I get most of these messages on Sundays. That's usually when six or seven men, that I don’t know, might send smut messages containing sexual harassment," Lehtinen says.

Becoming numb to online harassment

Lehtinen is concerned about becoming numb to lewd messages over time. Many of the messages are so absurd that the first reaction is often confusion and laughter.

"This is so commonplace now. When I get the message, I dismiss it and shrug it off. If someone said these things on the street or in a restaurant, the reaction would be completely different," she says.

Senders of smut messages may bombard the recipient for a long time, even if they receive no response. According to Lehtinen, any initial amusement will soon turn into irritation and anxiety.

"It is hard to understand the end-goal of the person sending the messages. They don’t get a response and they don’t get to meet these women that they so desire, but they still keep firing off these messages. The obscenity continues even if it doesn’t work," she says.

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Screen grab from Viestejä Miehiltä Instagram account Image: Viestejä miehiltä (Messages from Men) Instagram account

Lehtinen hopes that the account will also lead to an open discussion about the Internet's culture of communication – what is appropriate and what is not.

"Maybe someone who sees these messages feels a sting to their heart and stops sending obscene messages to women," she says.

Online sexual harassment increasing

The amount of abusive behaviour directed towards women online seems to have increased during Covid, according to Satu Venäläinen, a social psychology researcher at the University of Helsinki who specialises in the area of sexual harassment.

Conclusive research data from the pandemic period is however yet to be obtained.

"Online harassment is common, especially among young women and gender and sexual minorities. The phenomenon is international," Venäläinen says, adding that harassment and lewd content online can affect the recipient's perception of security and sexuality.

Young people may try to solve the problem by staying away from social media, but social media is an essential means of communication for them and part of everyday life.

"This can be very traumatising. Obscene messages can trigger helplessness, affect relationships and the ability to trust another person," Venäläinen says.

She adds that the benefit of an Instagram account like Viestejä Miehiltä is that it shines a light on the scope of the phenomenon and the intense nature of the content, making it more tangible.