Online Death Threats and Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe: What Are Your Cyber-Harassment Rights?


Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe on the “Men Tell All” episode on July 20. (Photo: ABC)

Bachelorette star Kaitlyn Bristowe made headlines in May after it was revealed that she slept with a contestant early on in the show — that is, before the Fantasy Suite dates.

The 30-year-old immediately received backlash online, by (mostly anonymous) people who labeled her as “sleazy” and a “whore.”

Bristowe was seemingly unfazed by the attention, telling Entertainment Tonight, “I don’t think that’s a crazy thing to sleep with somebody when you’re trying to be in a relationship with them.”

That harsh feedback resurfaced again in June, after it was revealed that the contestant Bristowe had slept with was Nick Viall, the controversial runner-up from the previous season of The Bachelorette.

During last night’s Bachelorette: The Men Tell All, show host Chris Harrison read a few of the harsh tweets and emails Bristowe has received, including one from a mother who called her a “selfish whore” who should “crawl in a hole and die.”

Related: The Bachelorette Vilified for Casual Sex: Why Are We Still So Quick to Shame?

“I’m so fine with people disagreeing with me or having their opinions — that’s OK,” Bristowe said during the episode. “The hardest part is it affects my family. I like to think that it doesn’t matter what people think about me … but when it’s thousands and thousands [of comments] just pouring in of people hating … I get death threats.”

It’s no secret that cyber-harassment (the term used for adults who are victims of cyber-bullying) is prevalent in the U.S. But death threats? Isn’t there anything that can be done about that?

Absolutely, says Internet privacy and security lawyer Parry Aftab, executive director and founder of, who works with many stars who are attacked online. “Death threats are a reasonable crime, and you have to take them seriously,” she tells Yahoo Health. “A death threat — online or offline — is criminal.”


Kaitlyn Bristowe and Chris Harrison hug on the “Men Tell All” episode of The Bachelorette. (Photo: ABC)

Laws governing what is and isn’t OK in terms of cyber-harassment, as well as punishment, typically fall under the jurisdiction of local and state authorities, she explains, and laws vary by district. (The National Conference of State Legislatures has a breakdown of state laws on cyber-harassment here.)

Cyber-harassment is the use of obscenities and derogatory comments against a person, and it can take many forms. One common manifestation is cyber-stalking, in which a person uses the Internet to stalk or repeatedly harass a person or group. Federal law protects against cyber-stalking when it happens across state lines: U.S. Code states that anyone who uses an “interactive computer service” to “engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to that person or places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to” the victim or a member of the victim’s family, has committed a crime.

Cyber-stalking was also added to the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.

Related: ‘This Was The Beginning Of My Fear’: 8 Truths About Stalking You Need To Know

Despite the laws, it’s still challenging to go after cyber-harassers, says Justin Patchin, PhD, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “I would argue that it’s easier to deal with cyberbullying with kids because the schools become involved,” he tells Yahoo Health. “With adults, it’s a lot harder because you’re going to have to get police and lawyers involved.”

Unfortunately, Bristowe’s harassment isn’t uncommon. According to Pew Research Center data, nearly 75 percent of American adults say they’ve been harassed online. While the majority say they’ve been the victims of “less severe” (but still harmful) forms of online harassment, such as being called names or being embarrassed, 18 percent say they’ve experienced “more severe” forms of cyber harassment.

Of those 18 percent, 8 percent say they’ve been physically threatened like Bristowe, 8 percent report being stalked, 7 percent have been harassed “for a sustained period,” and 6 percent have been sexually harassed.

But most victims of cyber-harassment don’t realize they have rights. If you’ve received death threats online, or someone has threatened someone close to you or your personal property, Aftab says to call the police immediately.

And, while it may seem like it’s difficult to catch cyber-harassers, Aftab says they’re prosecuted for their crimes “all the time.”

“They all think that by creating fake email accounts that they can hide who they are, but [email providers] and social media websites keep very good records of who is communicating with them and how,” she says.

People who are prosecuted may face a fine or jail time, and will typically have their digital devices confiscated as well.

While tempting, Aftab says you shouldn’t fight back online against cyber harassment since it typically can escalate attacks: “If you handle it wrong, it’s only going to get worse.”

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