The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

A new legal frontier?
Research Report No. 23 – February 2013

1. Introduction


The prevalence of unwanted sexual interaction, sexual violence and sexual abuse among young people1 is significant. Young people, particularly young women, comprise an "at-risk" demographic in relation to sexual violence.2 The ever-increasing use of communication technologies3 such as the Internet (particularly online social networking sites) and mobile phones in the commission or promotion of sexual assault has emerged as a challenging issue for support services, criminal justice agencies, and - with the ubiquity of technology in young people's lives - schools, educators and parents.

The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA) is funded by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and housed within the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). It aims to improve access to information on sexual assault for the key sectors in the sexual assault field. As part of the work of ACSSA, AIFS hosted a forum titled Young People, Technologies and Promoting Respectful Sexual Citizenship, which brought together diverse stakeholders.4 A key discussion point was the role of the legal system in responding to what could be called "technology-facilitated" sexual violence.

To explore this issue, we applied for and received a research grant through the Legal Services Board of Victoria Grants Program. Two key questions guided the research:

  • How do emerging communication technologies facilitate sexual violence against young Australians?
  • What challenges does this present for the Victorian criminal justice system?

Using qualitative research methods, we sought to speak with representatives from relevant sectors, such as Victoria Police, sexual assault services, the Office of Public Prosecutions, the judiciary, and the research and policy sectors.5 The research presented here is based on in-depth interviews with 46 key representatives who spoke about the kind of behaviours they were seeing in the interface between technology and young people's experience of sexual violence. In addition, participants were asked about the barriers they faced when responding to such experiences, and potential improvements to the current response.

Scope of the project

While there is a growing body of literature examining the extent to which the Internet and social media is used by young people (Australian Communications and Media Authority [ACMA], 2009), the prevalence of unwanted online interaction (Finkelhor, Mitchell & Wolak, 2000; Ybarra, Mitchell, Wolak & Finklehor, 2006), and the privacy risks of social networking (Taraszow, Aristodemou, Shitta, Laouris, & Arsoy, 2010), there is little that specifically explores the interface between emerging communication technologies and sexual violence experienced by young people. This is due partly to the emergent nature of communication technologies, meaning that the evidence base tends to be retrospective and not representative of current trends. Additionally, such research often finds difficulty in determining the parameters and focus of inquiry. Below, we briefly set out how the boundaries of this project were determined.

Defining the parameters of inquiry

The focus on sexual violence

From a public policy and public debate perspective, it is "sexting" that has gained considerable traction in the latter part of this decade following a national survey commissioned by CosmoGirl magazine in the US (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2008). That survey found that one in five teens had sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves via mobile telephones and/or social networking services. Researchers have noted flaws in this study; the most recent iteration of the Youth Internet Safety Survey found that just under 10% of young people had appeared in, created or received a nude or nearly nude image in the last year (Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012). In the Australian context, key sectors agree that there are no reliable data on the incidence or prevalence of sexting among young people (National Children's and Youth Law Centre, 2012; South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault, 2012; Victoria Police, 2012; Women's Health Grampians, 2012; Women's Health West, 2012).

The broad focus of current efforts has been to educate young people about the potential risks - legal, emotional and "reputational" - of producing and distributing sexually explicit images. However, as a research centre that focuses on sexual assault, it was not clear to us that sexting of itself comprised sexual violence, as it remains poorly defined.6 In this report, our use of the word "sexting" refers to:

the consensual taking and consensual sharing of semi-nude/nude/explicit images with the intended recipients.

Anything beyond this constitutes a form of sexual violence. For our purposes, "sexual violence" includes:

  • interaction of a sexual nature (such as sexual intercourse, attempted intercourse, sexual touching or groping, or sexual exposure) in circumstances of non-consent and/or force, threat, incapacitation or blackmail;7
  • the threat of such interactions occurring;8 and
  • sexualised bullying, harassment or abuse.

Early consultation with sexual assault services, police and legal actors suggested that communication technologies are used in a variety of ways to facilitate sexual assault, such as:

  • the use of social networking sites to invite women to meet in the physical domain - police have described how sites may be flooded with invitations from an individual, increasing their chances of a meeting, then the woman is sexually assaulted, and multiple perpetrators may be involved;
  • situations where adults cultivate an Internet relationship with a young person and arrange to meet them for sex;9
  • using social networking sites to promote sexual violence or vilify victims of sexual assault who have reported the assault to police;
  • giving unwanted exposure to sexually violent images by saturating unrelated sites with pornographic images; and
  • circulating sexually explicit or suggestive images taken on mobile phones, using multimedia messaging service (MMS) between phones or uploading the image on social networking sites. They may be images taken consensually or non-consensually, or document non-consensual sexual activity.

Our primary focus is on sexual violence and how emerging communication technologies facilitate and interface with it.

The focus on technology

As indicated above, we were interested both in how emerging communication technologies facilitated sexual violence and the implications of this for criminal justice responses. There are two conceptual difficulties with this. The first is that beneath the question of the challenges such technologies present for the law is another, more difficult one: Is the use of technologies such as social networking services and data-enabled, multimedia mobile phones a new phenomenon altogether or simply new vehicles for old behaviours? Although this question was not the focus of our project, it is important to note that the answer to it conditions how the role of the law is viewed.

A second difficulty related to the technology is defining the object of inquiry. As Urbas and Choo (2008) noted, there is no consistent terminology to describe "technology-enabled" crime.10 Initially, we focused on "social networking services and mobile phone technology". However, this excludes chat rooms (e.g., Chatroullette, Omegle), which emphasise meeting random individuals; Internet relay chat (IRC) channels, which provide forums dedicated to the posting of images such as non-nude teens or "jailbait"; discussion boards; newsrooms; and social media sites such as YouTube. Focusing on the online component though would ignore the role of mobile phones. Then there are information and communication technologies (ICTs), which refer to a whole range of devices and applications that facilitate communication (such as the radio).

For this project, we elected to use "emerging communication technologies" to capture both the dynamic nature of this space and the fluidity that exists between mobile phone devices, laptops, tablets, social networking services and other social media sites. The point, it seemed to us, was partly about how the Internet enables communication across distance and physical relationships, but also how it enables diffuse, viral communication from one platform to another, and from one individual to another.

Structure of the report

This report comprises eight chapters. The next chapter reviews the relevant literature across research and policy as well as the current legislative provisions. Chapter 3 describes the research design and methodology used for this project. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 reflect on the key themes and issues raised by participants. Specifically:

  • Chapter 4 focuses on how informants in law enforcement, prosecutions, education and youth policy, and services saw the general effects of emerging communication technologies;
  • Chapter 5 describes the trends and behaviours they were responding to in relation to emerging communication technologies and sexual violence; and
  • Chapter 6 explores how sectors were responding to the behaviours outlined in Chapter 5, and what factors they thought helped or hindered them from doing so.

In Chapter 7 we bring together the key themes and issues discussed and consider their implications for the original research questions. Finally, in Chapter 8 we share some of the lessons learned in undertaking the research project.


1 For the purposes of this research report, we are defining "young people" as those being between 12 and 25 years of age. Stakeholders and reference group members felt that the issues were particularly salient for the younger bracket of approximately 13-16 years.

2 "Sexual violence" broadly refers to unwanted sexual interaction, or threats of such interaction (such as sexual intercourse, sexual touching or sexual exposure), in circumstances of non-consent and/or force, threat, incapacitation or blackmail. Conversely, "sexual abuse" refers to any sexual activity between a child and an adult or older person (five or more years older). Additionally, research with young people often uses "sexual coercion" to describe unwanted sexual behaviour in dating relationships.

3 Generally, the term "communication technologies" refers to any technological device, service or program that facilitates communication. For a glossary of the technologies referred to throughout this report, see Appendix H.

4 Stakeholders included police, prosecutors, prevention educators, sexual assault workers, teachers, youth workers and advocates, and those working in policy development.

5 In addition, we sought to speak with young people about their experiences of sexual assault involving online or mobile phone technologies. For reasons that we explain in Chapter 8, we were unable to undertake interviews with young people, despite extending the recruitment period. We acknowledge this represents a significant gap for the project, particularly in light of the first research question.

6 The Inquiry Into Sexting by the Victorian Parliament Law Reform Committee (2011) defined "sexting" as "the creating, sharing or posting of sexually explicit messages or images via the internet, mobile phones, or other electronic devices by people, especially young people". YouthLaw (2010) defined it as "sending photos by phone or over the internet of young people who are naked or posing in a sexual manner", and ACMA (2012) defined it as "the sending of provocative or sexual photos, messages, or videos, generally using a mobile phone [or] posting this type of material online".

7 Throughout this report, the term "sexual assault" is used specifically to refer to the act of penetration in circumstances of non-consent.

8 These two definitions reflect behaviours defined as "sexual violence" in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2006).

9 For example, men in their early 20s pursue (and are pursued by) girls of 13 to 15 years of age (Lordan, Finklhor, Ybarra, Lenhart, & Boyd, 2007)

10 Urbas and Choo (2008) provide an excellent glossary of key terms (see pp. 79-88). A glossary of terminology and explanation of the technologies, services and sites identified throughout this report can be found in Appendix H.