Women Are Getting Blamed for Their Own Online Harassment

Influencers have been accused of inviting stalking and abuse due to their online presence. Welcome to the digital short skirt phenomenon.
A young woman is live-streaming her dancing performance on social media.
Photo: recep-bg/

Abby Furness is a micro-influencer. Her Instagram is a colourful grid filled with photos of herself – a glamorous look at her life as a fire dancer, singer and performer. Her smile is engaging and infectious; her blonde hair is shiny. But behind this glossy facade, Furness is likely panicking about her safety or too scared to pick up her phone. Why? She was a victim of one of the worst known stalkers in UK history. 


Furness, who has 14,000 Instagram followers, shared her story on Can I Tell you a Secret?, a new Guardian true crime podcast that unpacks the case of prolific cyberstalker Mathew Hardy, who targeted multiple women over the course of a decade and was given nine years in prison – later reduced to eight –  for stalking.

Hardy’s assault on Furness’s life began in the summer of 2019, when he anonymously messaged her on Instagram despite having never met her, threatening to tell a new group of friends that she had hooked up with one of their boyfriends. Soon, he created fake profiles of her on Instagram and told everyone in her life – her boyfriend, friends and family – that she had slept with people she hadn’t. The abuse culminated with him accessing nude images of her and distributing these to two people she had professional relationships with. 

“For like two years of my life I felt like I'd been kidnapped, put into Matthew's basement; he’d taken my voice box and my skin, and just gone out into the world making awful decisions,” she tells VICE. But what made this horrific situation even worse was the response to her harassment. 

Abby Furness in a white shirt and jeans

Abby Furness. Photo: courtesy of subject

It’s called the “digital short skirt phenomenon”, as coined by podcast host Sirin Kale. Furness was not the only young and attractive influencer targeted by Hardy. But like Furness, their experiences were discredited by authorities and even loved ones because of their digital profile. In the same way sexual assault victims are blamed for their clothing and told they were “asking for it”, uploading bikini photos or having a large online presence was seen to make these women culpable for whatever harassment they received.  


Furness knows this phenomenon all too well. Once her family became the targets of Hardy’s harassment – he’d falsely claimed she had slept with her uncle – her aunt had an extreme response in their family WhatsApp group. 

“You need to work out who it is,” she wrote. “I'm going to block you on everything. I don't want your drama brought into the family. It’s your fault. Take yourself off of Instagram.” 

“I got upset because it really wasn’t me,” Furness says when remembering her relative’s words. “I wasn’t trying to bring this drama to the family. It really hurt my bond with my auntie.” 

When she reported the harassment, she wasn’t treated any better. On one occasion, the police even told her to make Furness page private or stop posting. 

Emma Short, a London Metropolitan University academic who teaches a module on cyber psychology, says that experiences like Furness’ have “clearly become so ubiquitous that we’ve got a name for it now”.

Short, who is part of an academic network with the National Police Chief's Council examining stalking research, says: “When I have looked at interview data, collected over the years from people who've been stalked, the advice is often very inconsistent or unhelpful, like, ‘well, just come offline or just don't post’, which means the burden of the offence is placed on the victims of the offence.” 


Wider societal misogyny is behind this, she explains. “We very quickly go to blaming women for being obviously women, or being attractive women.”

In Furness’ view, asking women to go offline is the equivalent of telling someone to quit their job after reporting a workplace threat or harassment. “If I didn't have my Instagram, I wouldn't have any income,” she explains. “That's how people find me; that’s how I get jobs. It was heart-wrenching for people to say ‘come off social media’ because I didn’t want to and I couldn’t.”

Zoe, who asked not to share her real name for safety reasons, is another victim of harassment and stalking. The 28-year-old based in east London is active on Twitter and Instagram, regularly posting selfies and dating stories, and also has an OnlyFans. 

On one occasion she was recognised near her home by a subscriber, and was messaged by them soon after suggesting sex in exchange for content. “It felt like a huge invasion of my privacy and has made me quite nervous to be around my area now,” she says.

Zoe was previously stalked by her Tinder date, who harassed her on every form of social media, including LinkedIn, repeatedly called her number, and threatened to kill himself after she called it off. Police made the perpetrator sign a statement saying that he would leave her alone, but she has since heard from him twice.  


But she fears that any harassment or stalking she reports will be less likely to be believed, thanks to her online presence. “Now with having an OnlyFans, I especially would be less likely to report anything for fear of being judged or blamed.”

Experts say there is no grey area when it comes to stalking. “Stalking is a crime of psychological terror which can impact victims in long lasting and traumatic ways, whether perpetrated online or offline,” says Violet Alvarez, who works on the policy and campaigns team at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

“It is not uncommon for police to give unhelpful or dangerous advice to victims who have been targeted online, such as blocking the perpetrator or minimising their online presence; it is also not uncommon for the officer to misjudge the level of risk identified with the case, and put it down to ‘misdirected romance’.”

Ultimately, Alvarez says, “the onus should never be on the woman to change her behaviour, whether online or offline”. 

The internet wasn’t created yesterday. The "digital short skirt” identifies an experience women have been going through for years and points to society’s failure to protect these women or support them.

Furness was once “carefree and chirpy and happy”, she says. “Just like a really fun 20-year old”. But that’s all changed. She’s “paranoid”, suffers from anxiety and depression. What Hardy did was “completely soul-destroying”. 

She recently showed her aunt the podcast episode detailing her years-long harassment and was finally unblocked. “I just wish,” Furness says, “that people believed me when I was in that moment of need.”