Marked by the UN, there is now a call for 16 days of activism to raise awareness about violence against women and girls, and what we can do to prevent and respond to it.
As the campaign states, such violence against women remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it.
Childnet’s work in Project deSHAME
As Childnet, we are carrying out work through Project deSHAME on online sexual harassment. We define online sexual harassment as unwanted sexual conduct on any digital platform. Our aim is to increase reporting and support professionals to effectively and sensitively prevent and respond to this behaviour.
Project deSHAME focuses on online sexual harassment taking place in a peer-based context, where young people sexually harass other young people online. It’s important to look at gender as a significant and overarching factor with regards to online sexual harassment. Whilst boys can and do experience online sexual harassment, the outcomes and experiences for girls are disproportionately negative.
Our research has found that girls are usually more likely to be targeted with online sexual harassment than boys, particularly some forms. For example, 31% of girls, in comparison to 11% of boys, have received unwanted sexual messages or images in the last year.
Incidents of online sexual harassment often also result in more negative consequences for girls. The issues of ‘slut shaming’ and victim blaming are not unique to teens or to online sexual harassment, but like all forms of sexual violence they play a central role in determining how it is experienced. For example, 66% of 13-17s we surveyed thought that people will think badly about a girl if her nude or nearly nude image was posted online, in comparison to 45% thinking this if it happened to a boy.
Other intersecting factors including race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality or sexual identity can also create further marginalisation of how young people experience online sexual harassment. Young people in these groups may face unique forms of online sexual harassment, resulting in a more negative impact in both the short and long term, as well as multiple barriers that can prevent them from accessing support or from reporting.
What types of behaviour are happening?
Online sexual harassment encompasses a wider range of behaviours that use digital content (images, videos, posts, messages, pages) and on a variety of different platforms, including both private or public.
We have categorised these behaviours into four main types. These are often experienced simultaneously and can overlap with offline experiences of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, bullying, relationship abuse and stalking. These behaviours include:
Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos where a person’s sexual images and videos are taken or shared without their consent. This includes a range behaviours, such as:
- Sexual images/videos taken without consent (‘creep shots’ or 'upskirting')
- Sexual images/videos taken consensually but shared without consent (‘revenge porn’)
- Non-consensual sexual acts (e.g., rape) recorded digitally (and potentially shared)
Exploitation, coercion and threats where a person receiving sexual threats, being coerced to participate in sexual behaviour online, or blackmailed with sexual content. This includes a range behaviours, such as:
- Harassing or pressuring someone online to share sexual images of themselves or engage in sexual behaviour online (or offline)
- Using the threat of publishing sexual content (images, videos, rumours) to threaten, coerce or blackmail someone (‘sextortion’)
- Online threats of a sexual nature (e.g., rape threats)
- Inciting others online to commit sexual violence
- Inciting someone to participate in sexual behaviour and then sharing evidence of it
Sexualised bullying where a person being targeted by, and systematically excluded from, a group or community with the use of sexual content that humiliates, upsets or discriminates against them. This can include:
- Gossip, rumours or lies about sexual behaviour posted online either naming someone directly or indirectly alluding to someone
- Offensive or discriminatory sexual language and name calling online
- Impersonating someone and damaging their reputation by sharing sexual content or sexually harassing others
- Personal information shared non-consensually online to encourage sexual harassment (‘doxing’)
- Being bullied because of actual or perceived gender and/or sexual orientation
- Body shaming
- ‘Outing’ someone where their individual’s sexuality or gender identity is publicly announced online without their consent
Unwanted sexualisation where a person receives unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content, such as:
- Sexualised comments (e.g., on photos)
- Sexualised viral campaigns that pressurise people to participate
- Sending someone sexual content (images, emojis, messages) without them consenting
- Unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favours
- 'Jokes’ of a sexual nature
- Rating peers on attractiveness/sexual activity
- Altering images of a person to make them sexual
Why tackling online sexual harassment is so important
Sexual harassment is not new, but the ‘audience’ and ‘evidence’ provided by digital technology facilitates it and has opened the door for new forms of sexual harassment to take place. Although this harassment is taking place online, this does not lessen the offline impact that it can have on those experiencing it. As one 13 year old girl said:
“I was being pressurised into sending sexual photos and videos of myself and was threatened if I didn’t. They would go on and on at me when I said no but would carry out with the threats. It made me feel worthless and that I was just being used which felt horrible and that I was a target. I felt that I couldn’t do anything or tell anyone so I carried on with it and hope it would be over soon.”
Her story tells the deep and lasting impact it has on those experiencing online sexual harassment, and the many barriers there are to reporting.
All young people have the right to be safe and free to express themselves in digital spaces. We cannot advise young people to turn away from the technology they are using to stay safe, instead we have to work together to make that space safe for them.
Almost double the amount of 13-17 girls in the UK (41%), said that they sometimes don’t post images because they are worried about body shaming in comparison to boys (22%). The immediate and long-term effect of girls not becoming involved in public digital life due to fear of sexual harassment is real and worrying.
What Project deSHAME is doing
In order to address this issue, Project deSHAME is currently piloting a range of practical resources in schools that we have created. We are aiming to launch these resources publically in March 2019.
We need to educate young people to understand and have practical strategies on issues of consent, respect and healthy relationships online. Our resources aim to do this by being created in consultation with young people and professionals. The resources include:
- Lesson plans, assemblies, posters and films for school to deliver about online sexual harassment, how to identify and report it and creating a safe culture at school
- Guidance for teachers delivering the educational materials, including handouts, signposting and webinars
- Guidance for teachers on how to support young people who are carrying out online sexual harassment
- Guidance for Senior Management at schools to deliver an effective whole school approach, foster a safe and respectful school culture and work with other agencies
- Police guidance on how to respond to instances where online sexual harassment may break the law and how to work with schools and other key stakeholders.
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