New technology and sexual violence

Media release - 7 February 2013

Technology such as social networking and mobile phones is part and parcel of young people’s lives, and can provide a range of opportunities for sexual violence, according to a research study released today by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).

AIFS researcher, Nicole Bluett-Boyd said that people who seek to offend can take advantage of an environment in which these communication tools are broadly available, and the lines between online and offline social life are blurred.

“It is important to understand that the technology is not the cause of sexual violence” she said.

“Underlying causes of sexual violence - such as rigid beliefs in relationship stereotypes and gender inequality – are not changed by communication technology.

The research identified a spectrum of behaviours involving new technologies, ranging from consensual to coercive and violent.

“Online behaviours such as trolling, blackmail grooming and the use of multiple online profiles are tools which might be used by someone who seeks to offend.”

Ms Bluett-Boyd said these forms of communication could facilitate sexual violence before, during and after offences.

“By using network linkages, offenders have been able to connect with people with whom they may not otherwise have a direct relationship.

“Before a sexually violent act, social networking can provide a false sense of connection between offender and victim, for instance by ‘friending’ someone who might not be presenting an accurate online identity.

“During acts of sexual violence, technology was identified as being involved in the recording of sexual assaults, threats to distribute images or videos without consent and the carrying out of those threats.

“Afteran act of either consensual or non-consensual sexual activity, offenders are able to distribute images or use the technology to threaten or further abuse victims.

The report presents the findings of an 18-month research project by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, part of AIFS, involving interviews with 46 professionals including police and prosecutions, education and sexual assault services.

The report found that it is important to recognise the context in which the offending behaviour occurs and the influence of social acceptance of harmful behaviours such as pressuring and coercing people.

Ms Bluett-Boyd said the findings pointed to the importance of ethical digital citizenship.

“While the law has a role to play in addressing such behaviours, appropriate conduct for using technologies is better addressed through the promotion of inter-personal ethics and respect” she said.

AIFS Research Report No. 23: The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

For background on sexual assault and information on ethical reporting on sexual assault, please see ACSSA’s media backgrounder: Reporting on sexual assault

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