The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

A new legal frontier?

Nicole Bluett-Boyd, Bianca Fileborn, Antonia Quadara and Sharnee Moore

Research Report No. 23 — February 2013
The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

This research study investigates how communication technologies facilitate sexual violence against young people and what challenges this presents for the Victorian criminal justice system. Based on interviews with young people and professionals working with young people, it examines the effects of technology on the lives of young people, the interface between emerging communication technologies and experiences of sexual violence, and the factors that enable or hinder appropriate legal responses. Communication technologies such as online social networking sites and mobile phones are considered, and their use in identifying and grooming potential victims, blackmail and intimation, sexting, harassment, and pornography.

Some of the content in this report contains information that may cause distress to the reader.

If distressed, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Key messages

Young people's engagement with emerging communication technologies (such as social networking and mobile phone technology) is an essential method of socialisation. Given the constant accessibility offered by these technologies, and the blurring between online and offline social spheres, emerging communication technologies afford diverse opportunities for the perpetration of sexual violence.

The study found that emerging communication technologies help facilitate sexually violent acts, before, during and after an offence. Specifically, technologies help to increase the accessibility of potential victims:

  • Before a sexually violent act. Social networking in particular can provide a false sense of connection between offender and victim. For example, the act of 'friending' enhances the feeling of 'trust'.
  • During the act of sexual violence, technologies can be used to record non-consensual sexual activity. Threats to distribute this material can be used to further coerce and victimise.
  • After an act of either consensual or non-consensual sexual activity, offenders can distribute images to cause further harm to victims. Technologies are also used post-assault to contact, threaten or abuse victims.

A lack of clarity on how a range of online behaviours should be conceptualised has hampered the development of appropriate and effective responses to the issue. While the law has a role to play in addressing such issues, appropriate conduct for using technologies is better addressed through a primary prevention approach to the promotion of personal ethics and respect.

Authors and Acknowledgements

At the time of writing, Nicole Bluett-Boyd, Bianca Fileborn, Dr Antonia Quadara and Sharnee Moore were all at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

This research relied on the involvement of 46 legal practitioners, police officers, educators, policy experts, university academics, counsellors, advocates and other professionals who generously shared their expertise and experiences. We extend our sincere thanks for the contribution they have made to our knowledge about young people, technology and sexual violence.

The research grew from earlier work conducted by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA) (within the Australian Institute of Family Studies [AIFS]) and others, and we offer our thanks to the many researchers and practitioners who have assisted us to identify technology as a growing area of concern in the sexual assault field. We also gratefully acknowledge the contribution of former AIFS Senior Research Officer Deb Parkinson in devising the project and securing funding.

AIFS Research Officers Nicole Bluett-Boyd and Bianca Fileborn, and Research Fellow Sharnee Moore undertook the fieldwork for this project. Nicole Bluett-Boyd and Bianca Fileborn completed the analysis. AIFS Research Officer Cindy Tarczon created and maintained the online profiles of the project, including the project's Facebook page. Members of the research team - Cindy Tarczon, Mary Stathopoulos and Liz Wall - and other AIFS staff assisted throughout the project and added additional insights. Particular thanks also go to the AIFS Deputy Director (Research), Dr Daryl Higgins, for his support and intellectual guidance.

This project was conducted with the support of the CASA Forum, the peak body representing the 15 Centres Against Sexual Assault in Victoria. We thank Carolyn Worth in particular for her support. We are also especially grateful for the support, enthusiasm and insights offered by Juliet Summers. Thanks also to the other members of our project reference group - Robert Ridley, Ross Monaghan, Rosetta Moors, Gina Squatrito, Deborah Elkington, Tanya Andrusiak, Antoinette Ellul, and Steve Ballek - for their invaluable guidance and expertise.

Finally, we thank the Legal Services Board of Victoria for having the vision to fund this work.

Dr Antonia Quadara
Coordinator, Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault

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This work was funded by the Legal Services Board of Victoria. The Australian Institute of Family Studies is committed to the creation and dissemination of research-based information on family functioning and wellbeing. Views expressed in its publications are those of individual authors and may not reflect those of the Legal Services Board of Victoria, the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Government.

Publication details

Research Report
No. 23
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, February 2013.
100 pp.
Suggested citation:

Bluett-Boyd, N., Fileborn, B., Quadara, A., & Moore, S. (2013). The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence: A new legal frontier? (Research Report No. 23). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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