The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

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

4. The social context of emerging communication technologies

This research project sought to investigate the use of social networking sites and mobile phone technologies in facilitating sexual assault. Before discussing the ways in which this may occur, it is useful to consider the broader changes in technology, and social and cultural norms41 (particularly those relating to sexual interaction) that set the broader social backdrop and context within which this behaviour takes place. Indeed, our participants saw these broader technological and social changes as a key factor driving the use of technology to facilitate unwanted sexual experiences. For some, the situation is akin to a "Lord of the Flies"42 scenario in which the shifting boundaries between online and offline, and public and private, together with the sheer accessibility of sexualised content, are rewriting the rules of interaction, sexual exploration and adolescent development.

This chapter outlines the changing nature and use of technology and online spaces. In particular, it describes how both interview and roundtable participants saw this as affecting social and cultural norms. It should be noted here that a range of other broader social and cultural factors were seen to be influencing the use of technologies in sexual assault, including broader norms around gender roles and sexuality, the influence of popular culture and media, and the role of family relations. However, this report will only consider the key issues of technology and sexual interaction. From our analysis, these key issues include accessibility, online/offline social spheres, the permanence of material, and the role of pornography in the sexual(ised) culture of young people.

Accessibility of technology

As noted in earlier sections, the past few decades have witnessed rapid changes in the availability and use of technological devices. This technological advancement has fundamentally shifted both the capacity of these devices and our ways of connecting with one another. The capacity of devices such as mobile phones allows us to contact each other at almost any time or place, shifting and blurring the distinctions between work/school and home, with many people now easily contacted outside of the traditional working hours of "9 to 5". Interview participants highlighted how this change in accessibility has altered how and when we communicate with each other. This was also seen to have dramatically shifted from one generation to the next:

It's a continuation, so it will be either school continuation of bullying, continuation of sending pics of yourself. It's this constant 24-hour on. You know, whether you go out and something's said, you come home, you're on Facebook and you're talking further about it. You know it's just constantly on. Whereas in my time, you came home and you switched off. (Legal Group 5)43

So the difference between the world, even for my 25-year old and my 16-year old, is it's quite different to how things were. We didn't have the access to massive capacity on the Internet when the 25-year old was 16. Now, for virtually nothing, you can watch anything on YouTube any time you like. (Legal 2)

Mobile devices and other information and communication technologies now have the capacity to record photographic and video images, to record sound, to send text and picture messages, and to connect to the Internet and access social networking sites, chat rooms, instant messaging and web cam chats, and so forth. Such devices are relatively cheap and easily accessible, making us constantly accessible on numerous devices.

Access to pornography

It was apparent in interview participants' narratives that technological advancements and the development of online spaces have facilitated gaining access to a broad range of materials, with young people (particularly young men) now having almost unfettered access to pornography. Participants discussed changes in the way that pornography can be accessed, who it can be accessed by, the types of pornography that can be accessed, and the amount of pornography that can be accessed. This was seen as having a direct effect on young men's attitudes towards women and towards sex, particularly in terms of what constitutes "normal" sexual activity:

That a 15-year-old boy is sitting in his bedroom perusing a full range … I would have thought it has some impact on that young person's attitude to women and to what is expected and what is appropriate and what is normal. (Academic 1)

I think it's coming down to the access to pornography, personally. Again it's a personal opinion. I think all you've got to do is go online and type in "porn", and you've got access to millions of images. It's so easy to get. Child pornography is easy to get; adult pornography is easy to get. (Law Enforcement 3)

Several interview participants reflected on how access to, and usage of, pornography had shifted significantly within their lifetime:

As I half-joked, when I was young, you had to go and really hunt for it. It was hard work. You couldn't get access to it. More to the point, you knew it was "adult", you knew it was a thing for adults. (Academic 1)

Roundtable participants wanted to acknowledge that technology and social media could have a positive role for young people in relation to both their sexual development and also in dealing with offending behaviour. In respect of the former, access to online spaces and pornographic imagery may offer young people an anonymous or less intimidating means of exploring their own sexuality, particularly young people with non-normative sexual identities.

Online/offline social spheres

Increased access to pornography is, in part, indicative of broader cultural shifts reflecting ever-involving technology. Accessibility of information of any kind in the digital age has shaped the way in which both young people and adults learn and communicate. In this section we explore how technology has affected, and continues to affect, the social aspects of young people's lives.

Roundtable participants identified a number of important issues for understanding the role of technology in sexual violence. First, the group felt it was important to acknowledge the environment in which young people operate; that is, the proliferation of technology, and focus on connectivity and sharing, and the importance of this in young people's day-to-day lives. Roundtable participants were also mindful of the technology knowledge gap between many parents and young people, and the expanding nature of this gap; there is a risk that parents who are uncomfortable engaging with young people about their online behaviours miss an important opportunity to offer a countering ethical voice. There is also a risk that violence with a technology element - for example, violent incidents that occur online rather than offline - will not be considered to be as problematic or harmful as "real", offline violence.

According to interview participants, this technological revolution has had significant effects on how we interact with each other, and our rules of social interaction. It has created new ways to interact and communicate, and it has created a new type of virtual (online) space with its own social norms and rules.

Here, we wish to highlight the ways in which the norms of online space overlap and interact with and influence the social norms and rules of social interaction of "real"/traditional social spaces. That is, these spaces do not operate in complete isolation from one another:

People have likened youth culture on the Internet as like Lord of the Flies … which is an interesting way of looking at it. (Academic 2)

But with kids it makes it a lot more difficult because they don't understand that there is a, there is no difference from online/offline world. It's all, it is one world. It's all combined. No matter what you do there is some form of consequence. (Law Enforcement 2)

In particular, online spaces have come to play a particularly significant role in the lives of young adults. They are a fundamental part of their social lives and social self, and an important tool and space for the formation of an adult identity. The following quotes highlight the centrality of technology in young people's social interactions:

I think the, I don't know, maybe young people, particularly because they live and breathe technology and they live through technology, that it's so hard to escape technology. The idea of leaving your mobile phone at home let alone having somebody take it off you or the Internet being down so you can't actually get on MSN and chat or you can't get on Facebook let alone actually personally making active decisions about who I will and won't block on Facebook or who I may or may not want to interact with. My experience is that they tend to have all of that open all the time and it's open for open slather. (Counsellor/Advocate Group 2)

The thing about Facebook is you cannot afford to be out of the loop for one night. You need to be in there. You need to know what's being said, what people are doing. Because when you come to school the next morning, you could be out of the loop … No-one's prepared to risk that. So the whole being in Facebook is a social currency. (Academic 2)

Thus, not only are technology and social networking sites a vital part of young people's social lives, those without access to these resources may find themselves excluded or socially shunned. Engagement with technology in this respect becomes an imperative rather than a choice.

Participants also suggested that the relative anonymity provided by the Internet produces a space where young people can play with their desired identity. This was seen as being particularly beneficial for young people with "non-traditional" identities, such as gender- or sexuality-questioning youth:

I think it's actually an opportunity to try out different things, especially as an adolescent. That one day I can be a 50-year-old queen from New York, and the next day I can be the 13-year-old girl that I am. That I can try out different personalities and think, what would it be like to be like …? What would it be like to be a black person? To get inside somebody's skin. (Policy 1)

So the online space is one space where they can actually perhaps go and explore and feel comfortable to explore their sexuality or explore the feelings that they're having that they can't talk about with potentially their friends, family, or anyone at their school. (Educator Group 2)

However, the relative anonymity of the Internet was also seen as facilitating harmful and abusive behaviour in which the perpetrators would perhaps not otherwise engage in "real life":

People behave quite differently, but the whole tone seems to be snide and critical in a way that I don't think they do face-to-face. (Academic 1)

The instantaneous nature of this form of communication, coupled with its physical distance, was seen by respondents as facilitating bullying and abusive behaviour, as there was less time to reflect on the consequences of one's behaviour compared to more traditional forms of communication:

As somebody once said, if it's important, sleep on it. If it's really important, sleep on it twice. I think it goes even onto the third time. I think this technology is taking away the opportunity for kids to think about what they're saying. (Legal 2)

I think the technology helps in that there's that distance between yourself and the person that you're talking to, so you feel more … confident, provocative. Whereas if it was: I'm meeting this person and I have to do these sorts of things in front of them, there may be some more hesitation (Legal Group 5)

While these descriptors represent the understanding of a number of professionals working in the area, it is unclear from our research whether or not young people would articulate the same understanding or reflection.

Generational gap

Indeed, participants noted a disjuncture between young people's use and understanding of technology and online space, and that of their parents and older generations. There appears to be a significant generational gap, and this is problematic in terms of being able to relate to and understand younger people's experience of emerging communication technologies. It also means that the discussion of our (adult) interview participants around the significance of technology for young people should be treated with caution; by their own admission they do not share the same understandings of these technologies and spaces as many young people. The fast-paced evolution of technological devices means that, particularly for older generations, it is incredibly difficult to "keep up" with technology, especially in comparison to their younger "digital native" counterparts. As the following participant observed:

The fact that kids are so far ahead in being able to use it, and sort of parents and adults tend to find them sort of being left behind and not being able to sort of follow or understand, I think that can make it difficult. (Legal 1)

One participant suggested that this gap meant that young people were left to their own devices:

There's another factor, I think, in that the technology is outpacing the parents' ability to understand it … and it requires time and practice that they don't have available. So they're basically leaving kids to do their own thing. They're not really interested, and I think there's a certain element of: "I don't want to let my child know that I don't really know what they're doing about that". (Policy 3)

Online spaces are rapidly evolving, and it was seen as difficult to keep up with what young people were currently using, or to remain technologically relevant:

I suppose probably MySpace was before that, and that was a fair while ago now. It still held on for a little while until Facebook took over. Now you're seeing Twitter and Bebo, some of these other sites. You go and do talks to school kids. They always put up their hands and throw out new websites and you've never even heard of them. But it's just constant evolution. I'm amazed Facebook's stayed where it is for so long. (Law Enforcement 3)

Permanence of material

Interview participants observed that our online interactions are often permanently recorded, and it is often suggested in research and commentary that once something is "out there" on the web it is very difficult to remove. Consequently, changes in technology have altered our concepts of time, not only in terms of when we are available, but also in terms of creating ongoing ramifications for our behaviour in a way that would not have previously been possible:

Trouble is, once that stuff's out there, it's very hard to get it back; particularly if you've put it on Facebook and things like that. The trouble is people don't realise that one of the conditions of going onto Facebook is that everything that does get lodged on Facebook belongs to Facebook and it doesn't stop other people downloading images and then storing them. So they're out there forever. (Law Enforcement 6)

The mistaken acts of our youth at the moment may well place their future employment at risk, because … part of your recruit process in the future will probably be the provision of an image that would then be searched by a recruiting company, being paid for by your potential employer. Then that would come down to issues in the future and probably of things like relationships, where we're going to see relationships endangered by past Internet footprint. You'll have a boy or a girl doing a search on their partner and finding out information or things that they hadn't been aware of and the potential there. (Law Enforcement 1)

This suggests that the exploratory behaviour of young people may have long-term implications for them in ways that were previously not possible, by virtue of these technological advances allowing us to easily record and share these behaviours. While some participants argued that this would have a negative effect on young people's future employment, educational and relationship opportunities, others contested this, suggesting that our norms of acceptable behaviour would shift to accommodate the widespread recording of young people's misdeeds:

But I actually think, with the information age, our standards of what's acceptable are going to have to change, whether we like it or not. (Policy 1)

Pornography and the sexual(ised) culture of young people

Roundtable participants were conscious of the influence of pornography on how young people behave and engage with mobile phone and social networking technologies. The group had two perspectives on this: first, the do-it-yourself (DIY) nature of producing and distributing pornographic images and, second, the influence pornography has on young people's sexual development and their expectations of their own sexual experiences or performance. The DIY capacities afforded by the technology also manifest in relation to offending behaviour more generally. For example, many young people have smartphones, and filming sexual incidents, criminal or not, is common.

This complexity was echoed by interview participants, who discussed sexting as a multi-faceted issue. Firstly, these participants suggested that sexting is a relatively normalised and strongly gendered practice. This normalisation could, in part, be attributed to an increased exposure to pornography. Specifically, changes in pornography consumption and the intersections between pornography consumption and the nature of online space, were seen by the people we spoke with as altering the sexual culture and activity of young people:

Then I think it goes to lots of lots of flattery, and it moves extremely quickly. And I don't want to get into any of the grooming things, but what I'm noticing is that it just happens so quickly; the conversation from becoming someone's friend on Facebook. You could be having quite an intimate sexual discussion on MSN [Microsoft Network] within the space of half an hour. (Legal Group 5)

In particular, the practice of sexting and sharing nude images was seen as becoming normalised and expected because of pornography:

I mean, only to the extent, I guess, that the abundance of Internet pornography legitimises the sexting practice. Because it's like, well, it's okay to have a pair of breasts in your pocket kind of thing. Whereas, I guess, when maybe I was growing up, a boy might have a couple of magazines under his bed, and that was hidden and that was not really shown to anyone. (Policy 2)

Importantly, many participants identified that this normalisation occurs in a clearly gendered way. Many participants identified the highly gendered and unequal nature of these pictorial interactions. For instance, one participant described the practice as a way for young women to manage the sexual expectations of young men:

It's kind of like that - sending a text and sending a sext is actually a way of doing that. In my day, it might have been, I suppose just a kiss or something, or a bit of groping. But these days it's like if you send a guy a shot of your breasts, that actually will keep him happy for a few months so he won't be pushing you for sex. (Policy 1)

Young women in particular were seen as facing significant pressure to engage in sexualised activity online or via mobile phone technology, and potentially faced negative consequences for both refusing to take part or taking part in such behaviour:

The sexting issue is what I'm getting at - not getting at, we should be talking about, is the use of social networking, mobile phone technology to send sexual images of boys and girls. But I think generally girls get persuaded to do this a bit more commonly. (Academic 1)

People are actually giving young women the advice of saying, if your boyfriend asks for a picture of your breasts, that's fine, just make sure you get a copy of his willy as well so that you can use it for blackmail … If a guy gets his penis forwarded over the Internet, he's just going to go, "Yeah, isn't it huge", you know, in a lot of cases. But a woman is going to be humiliated. (Policy 1)

Secondly, some participants saw sexting as being a "safe" way to sexually interact, and as a part of normal teenage sexual exploration that has just adopted to a new medium:

I think it's just, to a certain extent, they are using the medium of technology to explore their sexuality in an environment that they see as potentially safer and more private. I'm not saying it is, but their belief that it would be more private, that they won't have to - kids at their school won't find out that they're doing this, because they don't have to tell them or their parents. (Law Enforcement 1)

I think that young adults - young females in particular - have the sense of empowerment. I'm holding the balance of power now because I'm the one who can produce images and decide who I give them to. (Educator 1)

Finally, the medium of sexting itself was seen by participants to encourage behaviour that would otherwise not occur. Specifically, while sexting and sexual online exchanges were seen by partcipants as relatively normal sexual interactions, the online space was also seen as inviting novel sexual behaviour. The intersection of access to pornography and the nature of the online environment were discussed by participants as altering sexual practices in a number of ways. For example, sexual negotiation was seen to be increasingly taking place online:

But we've seen too that people are telling us that they're seeing people are chatting: "No, I won't have intercourse with you, but I'd be prepared to have oral sex". Kind of confirming, negotiating the value from what that engagement would be. (Counsellor/Advocate Group 1)

Additionally, certain sexual acts were becoming normalised:

Acts such as oral sex is becoming normalised and it's not a big issue any more. It's just, as one young adult explained to me, it's just like kissing someone. So it's been normalised to that level where it's not a sexual act any more. (Educator 1)

This normalisation created expectations that were seen by participants to place pressure on young women in particular:

Those that don't do it are sort of stigmatised. If you don't flash your tits out for your boyfriend on the mobile phone and send him a photo of it, you're going to get dumped. (Law Enforcement 4)

These comments suggest that young women may face something of a double-edged sword in choosing to engage or not engage in sexting. That is, they appeared to (potentially) face negative consequences for sending sexts (being humiliated), but may also face negative consequences for refusing to send naked images (getting "dumped").

A number of participants also commented that the type of sexual behaviour that young people engage in may change across different age brackets:

So people that work with the kids themselves, that it was getting quite young and by the time they were 14, it was old hat. Move on to something else. But that's probably also because of the precursor thing. That by the time they're 16, they're doing it in real life, so they're less fussed about having pictures. (Policy 1)

[This] seems to evolve around a tendency of young people to take - particular age group seems to be about 12 to 15 at the outside, but it's mostly the 13-, 14-year-old age group - where there's a tendency to take intimate photographs of themselves and share them with people that very quickly don't become people you'd want to share it with. (Policy 3)

This section has outlined the ways in which both interview and roundtable participants saw changes in technology as influencing broader cultural changes and changes in the sexual culture of young people. In particular, there were seen to be rapid changes in the capacity, use and access of technological devices. These technological developments have enabled changes in the nature and extent of our interpersonal communication, and have been readily adopted by young people. Specifically, the nature of online interaction and emerging technologies was seen to create a sense of anonymity and distance, coupled with constant accessibility.

Further, ready access to pornography was seen to be influencing shifts in the way young people interact sexually, particularly in relation to activities such as sexting. The effect of technology in shaping sexual norms of young people was clear to participants. Importantly, these norms were understood as being highly gendered, creating different expectations and responsibilities for young men and young women. In the following chapter we explore further the behaviours afforded by emerging communication technologies in relation to sexual violence.


41 Social norms "are the general, often implicit, social rules that guide how we behave in any given social situation" (Clark & Quadara, 2010, p. 30)

42 This literary reference is utilised to characterise cyberspace as a "normless" space in which young people are creating their own order and social rules.

43 The pseudonyms utilised throughout this paper reference the area of work of the individual. Where "group" is denoted, this refers to a focus group.