The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

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

2. Research design and methodology

This chapter describes the research approach we adopted for this project. Specifically, it addresses the:

  • purpose of the research;
  • research design;
  • data collection (including ethical considerations);
  • analytic approach; and
  • evaluation design.

Purpose of the research

As previously stated, the two key questions of this research relate to how emerging communication technologies facilitate sexual violence against young people and what challenges this presents for the Victorian criminal justice system. The lens through which we asked these questions was a sexual violence one. In other words, the object under investigation was sexual violence and how it interfaced with emerging communication technologies among a particular cohort (young people). Therefore, the evidence base needed to focus on the nature and extent of sexual violence, its key determinants, and what we know about perpetrator tactics. This is quite different from considering the questions through a technology lens, in which technology is the object to be understood.

In order to inform relevant industry groups on current and prospective responses within often intersecting fields, this project brought together a diverse range of legal and non-legal actors practising within and across the policing, judicial, educational, service provision and academic sectors.

The overall purpose of this research was to support legal and other relevant actors in responding to, and ultimately preventing, technology-facilitated sexual violence. Specifically, the project aimed to:

  • increase knowledge about the use of technologies in the facilitation of sexual violence against young people;
  • identify the challenges that the use of technologies present to the legal system's ability to investigate and prosecute sexual violence; and
  • identify possible strategies for addressing these challenges.

This an emerging and constantly changing area of research (Loader & Dutton, 2012; Lordan et al., 2007). Due to the shifting nature of communication through the Internet and various devices, there remains a lack of empirical research describing the various ways in which sexual violence interfaces with, and is facilitated by, such technology.

Research design

For this project, we used an inductive, qualitative research design to enrich current understandings about the role that social networking services and mobile phone technology play in sexual violence perpetration. The planned sources for collecting data on this issue included:

  • international literature on the use of social networking and mobile phone communication to perpetrate and promote violence, including legal scholarship on prosecuting these behaviours;
  • case studies;
  • stakeholder consultation, in the form of a roundtable discussion;
  • interviews with young people about their experiences of sexual violence involving communication technologies; and
  • interviews and focus groups with key informants.

Literature review

The areas of focus reflected the knowledge gaps within the research and policy literature concerning the use of technology in the facilitation of sexual violence. An initial literature review demonstrated that research relating to the use and experience of technology by young people is typically quantitative in nature, providing statistical descriptions of the frequency, location and narrowly defined experiences of young people.11 Absent from these large-scale studies are detailed discussions of the meanings that technology-based practices hold for young people, or any specific focus on the nature of the harm caused by the sexual violence facilitated by emerging technologies. Many larger scale studies concern only specific behaviours, defined by legal or social classification, and omit a number of other developing practices and experiences.12 In addition, little previous research has explicitly explored appropriate forms of redress in relation to technology-facilitated sexual violence.

Case studies

Thus, there exists a significant gap in the evidence base about how emerging communication technologies facilitate sexual violence. By the time research has been conducted and published, the dynamics of the technology has changed, meaning that what is documented is only ever partial and in retrospect (Finkelhor et al., 2000). To fill this knowledge gap in the national and international literature, a case study approach was used in this project to examine data on emerging technologies within the context of their use (Yin, 1984). The detailed qualitative accounts often produced in case studies not only help to explore or describe the data in real-life environments, but also help to explain the complexities of real-life situations that may not be captured through experimental or survey research (Zaidah, 2007). The collection of media case studies in this research was utilised to identify the myriad of behaviours and practices involving technology in the perpetration of sexual violence. Typically, these cases concerned reportable offences that were before the courts. Media reportage, opinion pieces and other available analyses were collected in relation to each case. In one case, researchers attended the sentencing of the offender.

Stakeholder consultations

Our research strategy involved establishing a reference group specifically for this project,13 comprising individuals from the research, youth, policy, criminal justice, and sexual assault service sectors.

In addition, a roundtable meeting of 23 stakeholders was held in the early stages of the project to assist us in identifying their information and research needs (see Appendix E). The participants in the roundtable were selected from a range of fields, including law enforcement, prosecutions, counsellor/advocates, academia, research and treatment. Roundtable participants were selected to provide a diverse and balanced range of experiences, professional roles and opinions. The purpose of the roundtable was to assist us in identifying the relevant information and research needs of stakeholder communities. We asked participants to consider the following:

  • Issues: What sort of issues are you seeing in relation to the use of emerging communication technologies in sexual assault?
  • Action: How are you responding to this?
  • Challenges: What are the key gaps or challenges in preventing or responding to the use of emerging communication technologies in sexual assault?
  • Information needs: What information would assist you in the work that you do?

This informed the development of an interview and focus group methodology aimed at garnering the insight of key informants working in the relevant sectors. Chapter 4 describes the substance of these discussions in detail.

Interviews with young people

Significant challenges arose for us in recruiting a key group - young people - and we made revisions to the methodology where appropriate. Asking younger people to speak directly about their experiences of sexual violence can be difficult.

In relation to interviews with young people about their experiences, recruitment started in May 2011 - once we had received approval from the AIFS Human Research Ethics Committee - with an initial recruitment period of 6 months. This was extended until February 2012. Recruitment information was distributed through youth-oriented networks such as Youth Affairs Council, Victoria, the Inspire Foundation, Reach Out, YouthLaw, and Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic, in addition to the CASA networks.

This strategy received little response, and at the advice of the Reference Group, researchers established a roundtable for young people. The language used in the roundtable recruitment flyer was adapted to reflect this change in approach.14 This flyer was also distributed through all available networks. The response received was again minimal and it was decided that the small number of participants seeking to participate in the roundtable could not achieve the aim of providing insights into the experiences of young people with reference to technology-facilitated sexual violence. For this reason, and in light of the approaching conclusion to the project, the researchers decided not to proceed with this methodology.15

We subsequently looked to the transcripts of key informants for specific instances of where technology interfaced with sexual violence.

Focus groups

In relation to the data from key informants, we undertook qualitative analysis of the interview focus group transcripts as they became available. This enabled the researchers to refine the areas of inquiry as iterative and recurring themes emerged. These themes are described in Chapters 5, 6 and 7.

Data collection

Recruitment and sampling

The selection and recruitment of interview participants proceeded in a number of stages. Initially, a flyer seeking key informant participants was distributed through the networks of reference group members and ACSSA stakeholders (using mailing lists and ACSSA email alerts) (see Appendix C). A project-specific Facebook page16 and website17 were developed, which provided information about recruitment. Preliminary analysis of information garnered at the roundtable informed both the selection of relevant key informant interview participants and the development of the content of the interviews and focus groups. A purposive sampling strategy was employed to ensure that these participants reflected the range of experiences of and approaches to technology-facilitated sexual violence.18 The selection of specific focus group and interview participants also reflects an evolving method of data collection, whereby reference group members, roundtable participants and fellow interviewees recommended participants for the duration of the data collection phase of the project.19

Ethical considerations

This project was subject to two distinct ethics approval processes. In the first instance, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) Human Research Ethics Committee considered the overall project methodology, including participant recruitment and participant materials, in accordance with the requirements of the National Health and Medical Research Council's (NHMRC; 2007) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans. Once the AIFS Human Research Ethics Committee granted approval for the project to proceed, we sought approval through the Victorian Department of Justice Human Ethics Research Committee, which covers all justice personnel (such as sworn Victoria Police officers and staff from the Office of Public Prosecutions). The external ethics approval was obtained in March 2012.

As part of the ethics approval process, and in accordance with the principle of promoting a safe and supportive environment for focus group and interview participants, the following steps were taken:

  • Participants' free and informed consent: A plain language statement was made available to all potential participants and key informants. The statement explained the precise nature of the research, its purpose and what the research would be used for. The contact details of the project manager were included should anyone have had questions or concerns about the research. Participants and key informants were told that they could withdraw from the project at any time (up until the transcript de-identification and analysis process), stop the interview as needed, and refuse to answer any question. All participants and key informants signed a consent form, which repeated these points. The project was required to use an alternate consent form and plain language statement for key informants from Victoria Police, which contained some additional information as required by the Victoria Police Research Coordinating Committee (see Appendices A and B).
  • Participants' anonymity: All participants' details were de-identified in the transcription, analysis, and writing up and dissemination of research results. As is standard practice, where extracts are quoted, a pseudonym has been assigned. De-identification involved the removal of information that could identify the individual participant, the specific unit or organisation in which they worked,20 or third parties referenced in the course of the interview or focus group. Any other personal information that could potentially identify the individuals involved (the participants and/or the offender, or any other person involved), such as locations, were removed or altered.

Scope and structure of interviews

At the conclusion of the recruitment period, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with key informants from the law enforcement, judicial, educational, service provision and policy sectors (n = 17). In addition, five focus groups with counsellor/advocates, prosecutors and educators were conducted, involving a total of 29 participants (ranging from four to nine participants in each focus group). The decision to conduct focus groups in some instances related to both the paucity of available time of a number of professionals and the revelatory nature of this particular method. Liamputtong and Ezzy (2005) stated that "the most visible strength of focus groups is their emphasis on interaction in the group to produce information. Participants compare and contrast experience and views" (p. 96). Given the nature of the work being discussed, the focus groups conducted in this research facilitated a sharing of insights among professionals working in the same field. A representation of the sectors in which each participant was employed is found in Table 1.

Table 1: Distribution of research participants across sectors
  Police Judicial a Counsellor/ advocate Policy Education Academic Total
Interview participants b 6 4 0 4 1 2 17
Focus group participants c 0 12 12 0 5 0 29
Totals 6 16 12 4 6 2 46

Notes: a The term "judicial" incorporates members of the Bench, the Office of Public Prosecutions and employees of Police Prosecution Units. b Seventeen individual interviews were conducted. c Five focus groups were conducted.

The interview discussions comprised both broad, context-related questions and more specific questions based on the information that emerged during the individual interview process (Bryman, 2004) (see Appendix D). All interviews and focus groups were audio-recorded by consent, and each interview was approximately one hour in duration. The decision to audio-record the interviews related to the semi-structured nature of the interview, in which narratives were allowed to develop and the participant was active in constructing the content and direction of the interview itself.21 Each interview and focus group was subsequently transcribed by a transcription service, undergoing a process of de-identification prior to analysis.

Analytic approach

The initial method of analysis involved coding qualitative data in terms of emergent categories and collating important and recurring themes within the most widely applicable categories (see Presser, 2005). Prior to the commencement of analysis, the researchers discussed a broad thematic framework, based on experiences during the conduct of the interviews and focus groups. The subsequent thematic analysis was conducted by two researchers and involved reading the transcripts and producing a map of emergent themes in spreadsheets. This approach effectively brought themes from across the transcripts together in a systematic and replicable way. Importantly, the determination of thematic categories remained reflexive throughout this process, adapting to emergent connections and sub-themes within the transcripts. In addition to the thematic analysis, the transcripts were read for clear and detailed narratives that would provide descriptions of experiences of young people and professional insights into responding to technology-facilitated sexual violence. This secondary reading was viewed as essential in capturing the diversity of behaviours and experiences occurring in this space.

A note on reading the data

In the analysis that follows, all datasets described above are incorporated. While thematic data garnered from the interview and focus group participants form the structural basis of the analysis, case studies (both from the media and those that emerged in the interviews) are utilised to highlight specific experiences, behaviours and forms of legal redress.

In addition, information arising from the roundtables is summarised throughout to provide a broader context to many of the themes explored. Where these views are described, participants are described as "roundtable participants" in order to distinguish between the views expressed at the roundtable and those articulated by individual interview participants.

Evaluation design

Evaluation is an essential activity for all Legal Services Board grantees. Evaluating the effectiveness of research is difficult, particularly in the context of primary research that is geared towards discovery ("basic research"; see Creswell, 1994). Research uptake and changes to practice is a slow process affected by organisational, material and systemic barriers that are beyond the control of researchers or their research objectives (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2003). However, it is possible to assess the relevance and usability of the research. To this end, a further roundtable will be held subsequent to the release of this report. The purpose of this roundtable will be to gauge the accuracy and utility of this report for a range of professionals.


11 For sound examples in the Australian context, see ACMA (2007, 2009). Internationally, see European Network and Information Security Agency (2011), Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, and Zickuhr (2010), and Crimes Against Children Research Centre (2007).

12 For instance, Zwart, Lindsay, Henderson, and Phillips (2011) provided a comprehensive analysis of the use of technology by young people in relation to legal risks; analysing resulting harms with reference to victimisation, as defined by law. Wyn, Cuervo, Woodman, and Stokes (2005) examined harm caused by use of technology in relation to social constructions, including disengagement, isolation and lack of access.

13 ACSSA already has a reference group comprising representatives from the sexual assault service sector, mental health, public policy, public health, Indigenous wellbeing, research and criminal justice.

14 Specifically, the nature of the roundtable was considered to be different to that of the interviews, which sought to understand specific experiences of technology-facilitated sexual violence. The roundtable was conceived of as a space for young people to speak about any experience (negative or positive) with technology. The language in the roundtable recruitment flyer reflected this shift, removing references to victimisation or harm.

15 The difficulties encountered with this stage of recruitment are expanded upon in the final chapter of this report.

16 See the project's Facebook page at <>. Note: In October 2013 the New Legal Frontier project's Facebook page was removed.

17 See the project's website at <>.

18 Berg (1995) stated that purposive sampling involves the use of specialised knowledge or expertise about a group or subject area to select participants reflective of the target population.

19 An evolving method of data collection is one in which a series of "phases" of data collection is performed, with each stage informing the one that follows.

20 As an additional measure prior to the commencement of the interview, participants were asked not to identify themselves or the area in which they worked, instead stating "this area" or "this institution" when discussing issues relating to their professional role.

21 Semi-structured interviews create a narrative within a guided structure, whereby the researcher, as instigator and director of the interview (with any subjects), sets the agenda, even if it is one of apparently unstructured talk (Presser, 2005).