What is Email Harassment?

Lori Smith

Email harassment is usually understood to be a form of stalking in which one or more people send consistent, unwanted, and often threatening electronic messages to someone else. There isn’t always an exact definition of what an message has to look or sound like in order to be harassing. It’s usually a matter of circumstance, since what one person finds offensive or harmful may not actually come off that way to someone else. This sort of harassment is frequently fueled by soured romance, workplace gossip, or school bullying, and is often only amplified through social media networks and connections. Some places have laws against email harassment, but not all do, and even in localities where these sorts of messages are illegal the threshold is usually very high. Simply sending unwanted mail isn’t usually something that can be punished, but a continued pattern of threats or menacing messages sometimes can be.

Email harassment consists of electronic communication that is unwanted and often composed with malicious intent.
Email harassment consists of electronic communication that is unwanted and often composed with malicious intent.

Basic Characteristics

What makes an unwanted email message “harassing” is often a matter of personal opinion and individual reaction, though in most cases this sort of mail is sent with the intention of intimidating, frightening, or otherwise bothering the recipient. Usually the contents are personal to the recipient, but they can also include things like inappropriate jokes or other offensive material that may be sexual in nature or otherwise discriminating. While this form of harassment is frequently a repetitive act, it can sometimes result from a single transmission if it is sent with malicious intent or if the material is potentially damaging to the victim.

Email harassment can occur across electronic devices.
Email harassment can occur across electronic devices.

Common Causes

The most frequent instances of email harassment occur in domestic disputes, usually when one person leaves the relationship and the other becomes disgruntled. The rejected person may send a series of emails that are threatening, spiteful, and intimidating. Sometimes, though, even emails intended to entice the other person to return to the relationship can seem harassing even if they aren’t otherwise offensive in their content. In these cases, the biggest question is whether they cause significant distress to the recipient for any reason.

Most email services offer ways to block harassing messages.
Most email services offer ways to block harassing messages.

Correspondence in this category frequently vacillates between emotions. The scorned lover may pledge undying devotion in one email, which may be followed by violent statement or even threats of suicide in others. It’s also common for messages like this to be accompanied by other forms of intrusive behavior. Repeated phone calls, unwanted gifts, and visits to the target’s home or office may escalate feelings of impending danger or invasion of privacy.

Email harassment can be a form of online bullying.
Email harassment can be a form of online bullying.

This scenario can also stem from a desire to defame someone’s character. Inappropriate photographs or private information may be sent to a victim’s coworkers, peers, family, or friends in an effort to cause embarrassment or humiliation. This is particularly common in school settings, usually as a form of bullying. There have also been occasions in which a public online forum was used to entice others to make contact with the victim. In these cases, the culprit may post a phone number or other identifiable information about the target.

Teens might engage in email harassment.
Teens might engage in email harassment.

Impact of Social Media

Social networking websites are a frequent channel for a unique, often detrimental, form of electronic harassment. This doesn’t always come in the form of an email, but it sometimes does &mdash and the two often go hand in hand in any event. Sometimes, forged or bogus messages are sent to a recipient who believes the communication is actually coming from someone else. It often occurs to make the victim feel comfortable divulging personal information, in part because he or she thinks he or she is speaking to someone who is trusted. This form of harassment usually affects more than one person because both parties, the one who receives the email and the one whose identity is forged, are both victims.

Gossip may be spread as part of email harassment.
Gossip may be spread as part of email harassment.

Legal Ramifications and Consequences

Harassment, including email harassment, is illegal in many jurisdictions. Actually meeting the legal definition and threshold can be something of a challenge, though. Different states, countries, and localities have different definitions of cyberstalking and cyberharassment. Sometimes emails need to contain specific threats, and other times they need to reach a certain number or be ongoing for a set amount of time. Usually their content must be objectionable on a general level, too, not just offensive to the recipient.

In serious cases, online harassment can cause the victim to contemplate self-harm or suicide.
In serious cases, online harassment can cause the victim to contemplate self-harm or suicide.

People who want to stop receiving harassing emails don’t necessarily have to prove that the messages are in violation of the law in order to get them to stop, though. Many jurisdictions allow for restraining orders and no-contact orders that can work to effectively end the communications without actually calling those communications illegal in and of themselves.

Celebrities are at risk for email harassment from critics.
Celebrities are at risk for email harassment from critics.

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Discussion Comments


I've been harassed by a man for over two years. The police did nothing until I got death threats. It was horrible and scary.


You have to understand where the harassment is coming from. People who are harassing someone are sick. In my case, it may not have been an obsession with a person but it was an obsession. Other people have the same problems. There is an obsession and ignoring them is not a good thing. The police have to cooperate and should not laugh at the harasser. They should go over and sit down and say its weird that your doing this and why are you doing this.

Do not ignore the harasser. Have someone else involved and take action.


I harassed someone via email. I have never done this before but I was angry at that person and the company so I sent really inappropriate emails to bother them and I even tried to receive a cease and desist letter. It's sad that this happened.

I would never attempt personal contact and I think that's the difference. People get angry at other people and do things they shouldn't. I was stopped by the police officer and arrested as I should have been. I have a strong case because of the manipulated emails I sent but I still think that there are always problems with the people who are doing it.

Had I been of a sound mind and had a quality life, then I probably wouldn't have resorted to that. The people doing this are probably sick! I know I am getting help but I was definitely sick and outraged by jealousy.


The case involves a 28 year old in a relationship, who sends explicit pictures to her boyfriend and he takes some himself. They break up and he posts the photos of his ex-girlfriend. She files a report with police, and they try to prosecute him. Can she get in trouble for providing the pictures? He makes up with her, so then she doesn't want him prosecuted. Can they both be charged?


@anamur: This is exactly what I'm dealing with. I've been very clear about wanting no contact, and still it continues. There is no respect or acknowledgment regarding my wishes and I feel upset and nervous and frustrated.

I don't know how to make it stop. I have only replied once to 20 of his (since asking him to stop) and it was to tell him again to stop and he is making me uncomfortable.


@sunshined - At least with your friend, she was the only one who was receiving the harassing emails.

I was in a similar situation, but my ex-boyfriend sent harassing and hurtful emails about me to everyone on my contact list.

Even though it made him look pretty bad, I still felt bad that all my friends and family had to keep getting these emails.

It is a lot easier for one person to change their email address than everyone in your address book.

Even though email accounts and social networking accounts have made our lives easier in some ways, when someone abuses these programs, it can be frustrating for everyone.


@alisha - That is very good advice about saving harassing and damaging emails you receive. One thing about someone sending messages like this, is it is easy to track and save the evidence.

I think people who use email harassment do so because it is a way for them to vent how they are feeling in a 'safe' environment.

If you ever need to use these messages as evidence, it can be pretty hard to dispute who sent them and who they were sent to.

One of my best friends went through this when she ended a relationship. She ended up getting a different email account, but saved every message she received from her old boyfriend as evidence.

Thankfully, he eventually quit sending all the harassing messages, but it really disrupted her life for awhile.


I had a problem a few years back with a member of my family who would copy and paste sections of the emails I sent to them and forward them along to other friends and family who would be hurt by what was said. This family member has always been a little, lets say unstable, and so I was not completely shocked when I started to get hurt phone calls.

Eventually I learned my lesson and just stopped e-mailing this person. But the damage was already done. It's so easy to take someone else's words and broadcast them out there for everyone to see. People don't keep things private the way they used to.


@matthewc23 - Good points. I think it is really a combination of all the things you mentioned. I guess the internet didn't really become widespread in everyone's homes until I was 10 or so, and we didn't have social media or anything, so I have been right in the middle of it as it has grown and evolved. I can definitely see how the internet has changed things from the past.

I have never been a big fan of using social media, but I still have a Facebook account and see how people use it. It doesn't even have to be social media, the same things happen in forums and in the comments on Youtube. With the anonymity of the internet, people are much more likely to say and act like they really feel instead of monitoring themselves like they would have to do face to face.

This really escalates the problem when you have young kids sending messages to their peers without any form of "regulation" whether it be parents or teachers or whoever. That being said, I don't think they shouldn't be allowed to communicate through social media, I just think parents should spend more time teaching kids how to act online as well as how to deal with those issues.


Although this seems to be talking more about email harassment to do with dating or harassment in the workplace, I think people harassing others through social media is starting to be a much bigger problem.

I guess the media probably brings to the forefront every instance where it happens, but it seems like there have been a lot of cases recently where kids have killed or hurt themselves or others because of things that were said over social media.

I always think it is fascinating, because when I was growing up without the internet, we always found ways to sort out our problems without people getting hurt. I really don't know who should be held responsible for the problems either. Are the parents not teaching their kids how to react? Are kids more sensitive to these things now? Are the insults much worse than they were when I was growing up? I really don't know, but I think it's an interesting question to look at.


@Emilski - I think I would have to agree with you there. Most normal relationships don't end with the other person stalking and harassing the other person. Maybe I just watch too much TV, but if I were in that situation, I would be afraid that the person would escalate the problem from email to showing up at my house or trying to confront me in person. That is when real problems can develop, so it's best to nip it in the bud.

I know in the office where I work, there is a strict policy about what can and can't be sent to coworkers through email. Everything is technically supposed to be work related, but our email isn't regularly monitored, so if someone finds a funny joke or picture that relates to work, they'll usually send it around to lighten the mood.

We had one person, though, who clearly didn't understand the office norms and thought it would be funny to send around a couple of offensive emails one day. A group of us got together and talked to the HR representative, and he went ahead and removed the problem.


@anamur - I'm pretty sure any type of message that a person sends that are unwanted would be considered harassment, assuming you've let him know that you don't appreciate getting the emails.

I don't know how long this has been going on, but since ignoring the problem doesn't seem to be fixing I would let him know that if he keeps sending the messages, you will report him to the authorities. If that doesn't stop it, I think you'd have no other choice than to talk to the police about it.

If it has just been a recent thing, maybe you could wait a little while and see if he just gives up finally, but if this has been going on a while, I would take action. The fact that he would keep sending you messages means that there is clearly something he doesn't understand about the situation between you two.


I think email and cyber harassment is on the rise because it gives people a new way to confront others and harass them without coming face to face. It happened to one of my coworkers who was receiving racist jokes and other offensive material in his email from another coworker. He tried to confront this person who acted like nothing had happened but continued to email offensive material.

Thankfully we have a very sensitive and professional director who had a talk with this person when he came to know about the harassment. I believe he was told that he would be fired at the next incident of harassment. He has been very respectful towards my coworker since then and has not emailed him again.

I think if we know harassment laws and stand-up for our rights, we can prevent these situations from getting out of hand.


I'm going through this right now with my ex-boyfriend. He's not threatening to harm me or anything but he keeps calling, messaging and emailing me trying to convince me to be with him again. Sometimes he even sends messages and emails that have nothing to do with anything. He will send a very casual email basically saying "hey, how are you doing?" But I never respond and he then emails me again this time saying that I'm a bad and thoughtless person.

I'm not sure what qualifies as harassment or not, but I just know that I'm really frustrated and upset with this situation. It's not nice to hear someone putting you down and constantly trying to reach you when you don't want to talk to them.

I don't plan on reporting him as I think that would be too harsh a response. But I don't know what to do to make him stop and leave me alone either.

Has anyone been in this situation before? What do you think I should do?


I was a victim of email harassment when I was in college. I went on a couple of dates with a guy and decided I was not interested. He did not take it too well however and started emailing me almost on a daily basis.

Most of his emails were threats about what he would do to me for not dating him and not liking him. He felt that I gave him a lot of hope and played with his feelings even though I had no such intention. After about a month of these emails, I went to campus police for a harassment complaint. A police officer went to his home and warned him not to contact me again. The officer also told me to save copies of all emails he sent to me because I had deleted several in the beginning.

Some time later, I received flowers and a gift at my workplace from the harasser and directly went to the campus police with his gifts. The officer decided to arrest him since he didn't appear to be backing off. He was arrested and this finally worked as I never heard from him again.

I learned then that it's important to save evidence of harassment and to go to the authorities as soon as possible. It's better to be safe than sorry.

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