The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

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

5. The interface between emerging communication technologies and sexual violence

This section identifies the behaviours of perpetrators and experiences of victim/survivors, in circumstances where technology has been used to facilitate, perpetrate and continue sexual violence, as articulated by our participants. We map these experiences and behaviours on a temporal continuum, identifying how technologies are used before, during and after acts of sexual violence. To this end, we utilise a number of case studies to illustrate the unique role technology plays in these offences, and discuss the myriad of ways in which the concept of "harm" is redefined by the use of technology.

This section begins with a brief discussion of a key debate surrounding the use of technology in the perpetration of sexual violence, namely, "Does the emergence of new technologies merely facilitate traditional perpetration behaviour and experiences of victimisation, or does it provide space for the creation of new types of offences?" This discussion provides structure to the subsequent thematic description of three categories of behaviour, distinguished by their occurrence in relation to acts of sexual violence:

  • the exploitation of features of emerging technology (including increased speed, higher levels of access and the inherently social nature of technology) to locate, contact and "groom" young people for sexual violence victimisation;
  • the use of technology to record and disseminate acts of consensual and non-consensual sexual activity as a specific form of harm; and
  • the unique role of emerging technologies in enhancing post-assault harassment, intimidation and control, and the compounding nature of harm in light of the continued threat of dissemination.

The analysis offered here provides a description of the varied experiences of young people from the perspective of those working in the field of technology-facilitated sexual violence. The aim is to highlight the complex nature of perpetration using emerging technologies and the specific effects of victimisation related to this use.

Perpetration and emerging technologies: Old wine in new bottles?

A key concern for researchers at the outset of this study was whether current legislative responses to technology-facilitated sexual violence are adequate. This question requires both an understanding of the methods and forms of perpetration facilitated by emerging technologies, and an assessment of whether these methods are covered by existing legislation. At a conceptual level, the question put to participants in this study was whether technology had altered the behaviour of perpetrators and/or the experiences of victims. The general consensus of participants was that the use of technology enhances certain aspects of perpetration. This enhancement was described as an act of "facilitation":

Behaviour has not changed with children, it's just it's facilitated by online technology. (Educator 1)

As the above statement indicates, particularly in the area of adult-to-child perpetration, emerging technologies provide a modern vehicle for traditional victimisation (i.e., perpetrators establishing relationships with their victim). Additionally, in the context of peer-to-peer perpetration, acts of coercion and harassment were viewed as being enhanced through the use of technology.

With reference to identifiable differences in perpetration, many interview participants characterised emerging technologies as representing a clear change in the context or "environment" of perpetration:

When you're looking at online predators, we're not looking at people potentially hanging around primary schools and preschools now. We're looking at people hanging around Internet forums and chat lines and communicating names and email addresses of young people between each other as collateral. (Law Enforcement 1)

The alteration in the context of perpetration was viewed by participants as presenting problems in relation to the regulation of space by parents; the ability to supervise young people; and young people's understandings of offending behaviour. From the perspective of victimisation, the use of technology was seen to complicate the nature of sexual violence. The concern articulated by one participant was echoed throughout this research:

I think a lot of young people as well don't really understand what sex offending is. Like they probably think of rape - they've seen rape on TV as being really brutal; you're kidnapped off the street. They probably don't understand that there are lots of different forms of sexual offending. (Legal Group 5)

This statement gestures to a wider concern that the harm experienced through technology-facilitated sexual violence is under-recognised, either by the victim or at a broader social level. In light of both of these findings, this section provides an analysis of a myriad of behaviours to consider (a) whether the use of technology in the facilitation of sexual violence has created "new" offences; and (b) the nature of the harm experienced by victims of these behaviours.

Before: Facilitating sexual violence

In the online sense … any communication may be used to prepare the way for all of those things that lead to a rape, or other forms of sexual violence. (Academic 1)

The use of technology in the facilitation of sexual violence was a re-occurring theme throughout the interviews and focus groups. "Facilitation", in this sense, was variously characterised by participants as the provision of increased access to potential victims, hastening the relationship-building phase prior to perpetration, and affording opportunities to coerce and threaten victims. Thus, "facilitation" was understood by participants as referring to the expansion of opportunities to perpetrate sexual violence.

Participants in this study identified a multitude of behaviours that could be categorised as facilitating sexual violence. In the section that follows we outline key aspects of perpetration specifically afforded by the use of technology. With reference to the current legislative framework, we outline aspects of adult-to-child "grooming" behaviours enhanced by the use of technology, followed by contributory factors in instances of peer-to-peer grooming behaviours. Finally, we discuss one particular form of behaviour that appears to cut across both age and context, namely the use of technology to coerce, threaten and blackmail victims.

Facilitating perpetration: Adult-to-child grooming

Much previous research has been dedicated to the increasing use of technology to initiate and continue the grooming of young people (Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Ybarra, 2008, McGrath & Casey, 2002). Indeed, the initiation of contact by adults is perhaps the most researched and easily identifiable category of technology-facilitated sexual offending against young people.44 Participants in this research identified many aspects of grooming that were enhanced or created through the use of new technology. Key aspects include:

  • the increased speed and progression of the offender's grooming process, facilitated in particular by the Internet as an "unpoliced" space and the (often false) sense of anonymity and detachment of victims created by the use of technology;
  • an increase in access available to offenders through the exploitation of friendship networks, in addition to the ability to target particular cohorts of potential victims;
  • the ability for offenders to manipulate the intangible nature of cyberspace by creating fraudulent profiles and websites to provide a false sense of security or connection among victims; and
  • the ability for offenders to easily locate specific victims using both information freely posted or functions such as geo-tagging in uploaded photographs.

The increased speed of interaction forms an aspect of both establishing contact with victims and facilitating fast communication in real-time conversations. As articulated by the participant below, establishing relationships with potential victims is often facilitated through a combination of speed of communication and a two-way sense of anonymity that serves to inhibit traditional social barriers present in physical interaction:

Older ways of grooming of kids, you had to actually meet them and buy them ice-cream and do whatever - take them down the shops and buy them things. But this method is not like that. It's a lot quicker for them to groom the children up to a level, and you probably don't need to spend a lot of time making a relationship, and so on. I think they feel that they're anonymous and he feels that he's anonymous, obviously, because we're not actually communicating. So there's none of that social shyness and barrier to jump over at the start. I suppose that's my concern about it - is that for sexual grooming purposes, it's just gold. (Law Enforcement 4)

Further, the processes of grooming, including engaging in sexual conversations, are facilitated by technology. Many participants of this research noted the speed at which exchanges absent of sexual content quickly developed into sexual discussion, sometimes within minutes of initial contact. While traditional methods of grooming are still utilised,45 technology is seen to "fast-track" this process. Again, interview participants cited the sense of detachment and anonymity facilitated by the use of technology as being a contributory factor in these grooming interactions. It is also noted that this behaviour can circumvent many entrenched teachings concerning "stranger danger". Perpetrators were understood to exploit the lack of physical presence and an assumed sense of detachment to coerce and manipulate victims. Additionally, the speed of these interactions expands opportunity to coerce and pressure. As mentioned above, quite often multiple methods of contact quickly become available to perpetrators (for instance, "friending" on Facebook will often lead to access to Microsoft Network (MSN) "handles",46 email addresses and additional social networking site accounts), allowing them to bombard the victim with messages.

Many participants observed that technology increased access to both specific victims and potential victims. In particular, key aspects of emerging technologies, including the networked structure of social networking sites, the friending function available on those sites, and the abundance of information available from publically displayed profiles (Mallan, 2009), facilitate both online and offline contact with victims. Participants highlighted the heightened sense of "social trust"47 exploited by perpetrators through the networking aspect of online communication. In particular, participants noted the false sense of "knowing" people through online communication:

Therefore [perpetrator and victim have] made the arrangement on Facebook rather than having made the arrangement on the phone. However, would you have contacted this person on the phone if you hadn't sort of, somehow, like, remotely befriended them on Facebook? Well, maybe not. So maybe you're exposed to a broader variety of people who you don't have such a trusting relationship with, and that can eventuate into situations, which are more likely to lead to assaults and situations that get out of your control than it would have in the past. (Legal 1)

As the above excerpt indicates, the sense of "relationship" afforded by the friending features of many social networking sites can be utilised in the perpetration of sexual violence. As indicated in the Introduction to this report, for many young people social networking predominantly involves pre-established networks, where there exists a presumed level of knowledge and trust of members. This sense of trust can often be expanded to those connected to, or friended by, those in a young person's established network. This aspect of social networking practice provides an avenue of contact for the perpetrator that can entail an instant level trust or knowledge by the victim:

If the offender can't contact the complainant directly, then he or she befriends their friends, and then they've got a better chance of befriending the complainant on Facebook because you're able to say you've got a mutual friend. I've found with young people it's all about racking up numbers - how many friends you've got on Facebook. (Legal Group 5)

In addition to the increased potential for contact with perpetrators and the presumed level of trust afforded to those with mutual friends, the above excerpt articulates a concern with the practice of acquiring friends as a form of social currency.48 Additionally, participants noted that the information publically available to perpetrators allowed for a targeting of their approach. This was identified as occurring through pre-existing networks. For example:

I think offenders have become so comfortable with social networking, it's just so easy for them that they've become even bolder and they're actually targeting young people to say, "Well, I'm interested in a girl from this age to that age, can you hook me up?" (Legal Group 5)

In Case Study 1, a perpetrator utilises both his knowledge of a particular cohort and the friending function of social networking sites to instil trust in a specifically targeted group of young people.

Case study 1: A targeted approach

[The perpetrator] started off with an assault of … He worked at a school in a maintenance sort of area, and he physically offended against someone, and then it came out that she had met him on Facebook. He'd posed himself as a 14-year-old boy, and had a lovely photo of him up there, saying he loved playing soccer. He had targeted nearly everyone at that school, so he really was just open slather. Like, all her friends started to become his friends, then it went on and on and on. That's how we rounded everyone up. After we'd got to - and quite a few of them had sent topless photos to him, and so on - really, after we got to seven or eight people that he'd contacted, we really had to say, no, that's enough. We could have probably got to a hundred if we'd wanted to. But those were the ones that we could absolutely positively identify, and there was a lot of e-crime analysis [and that takes a long time]. So I think we got a good flavour of what he was doing, and certainly sufficient for sentencing purposes … That's certainly how I see Facebook being used.

Source: Law Enforcement 4

This case identifies an additional method of facilitation afforded by new technologies, namely the ability of the perpetrator to create a false representation of themselves to deceive potential victims. The advantage for offenders of this behaviour is that initial and continued engagement is more likely in circumstances where the perpetrator is able to misrepresent themselves as a desirable entity. In addition to the creation of false profiles, as identified above, participants noted an increase in the use of false websites to access young people:

We're getting a lot of modelling websites that are problems for us, in terms of people setting up … fake modelling sites, to groom children and adults. Aimed at the female victims, but obviously … it's a dream of a lot of children, female children, is to be a model, and that's just an easy way that they can get access to the kids. As I said, it's happening to adults as well. (Law Enforcement 3)

In addition to utilising online spaces to overtly approach and access young people, participants also identified covert methods of identifying, locating and accessing potential victims. For this reason, being selective when publishing personal information has long been a tenet of cyber-safety campaigns. However, participants noted that many young people were not aware of the types of information that are typically available when through posted communications, including photographs, stating current locations and discussing upcoming events. Many participants highlighted the use of global positioing systems (GPS) information by offenders. Although the following comments were made in the context of sexting, they are still relevant in relation to this issue:

Also with that sexting, many of their phones and cameras these days have got GPS equipment in them, such as your iPhone. Now when you take a photograph, it embeds a GPS [latitude/longitude] into the image. So what you can have is a young boy or girl taking a photograph of themselves, sending it to their then partner or person they want to foster a relationship with. But the further dissemination of that image will provide the sexualised image of a young person with an address, potentially their home address on it as well, in the form of a [latitude]/longitude. (Law Enforcement 1)

The above analysis confirms previous research indicating that the use of technology by adults to access young victims online can involve a complex range of behaviours (Choo, 2009). Importantly for our research, the behaviours described above by participants suggest that the stereotype of adult offenders utilising trickery and violence to assault young people is largely inaccurate (Wolak et al., 2008). Technology is seen to enhance opportunities for perpetration through an increase in access, the speed of communication and the exploitation of information made available online.

Facilitating sexual violence: Peer-to-peer perpetration

In contrast to adult-to-child grooming practices, the practice of peer-to-peer technology-facilitated sexual violence is decidedly under-researched. As discussed in the literature review, the focus of media and social commentary problematises (often) consensual activities such as sexting. However, in relation to the use of technology by peers to perpetrate sexual violence, participants in this study consistently identified the role of technology in the creation of hostile and harmful social environments. Specifically, participants identified the creation of a distinctly gendered sexual discourse that facilitates later perpetration. This includes the disproportionate level of gender-based insults directed at young women:

There's a lot of calling [young women] "sluts" and saying, "She slept with this person and that person"… The way to denigrate someone is in a sexual way, and so the girls do that as much as the guys do. I haven't seen an increase in girls sending sexualised photos. In fact, I think … 99 per cent of them have been boys posting them. (Legal 3)

In addition, the increased use of gender-based insults to harass peers was seen as a distinct feature of emerging technologies:

Facebook and use of email and text messaging are the most significant forms of abuse, apart from physical violence and face-to-face violence. So it's not even the drive-bys. It's not sending the boys around. It's not sending things in the mail, leaving packages, like in movies. The text message technology is stunning what people will say on there to each other - the threats, the abuse, the vile language, the horrible names, the use of gender-based insults in any language. (Legal 2)

Young women in particular were seen as being affected by this social environment. Specifically, participants suggested that young women were exposed to a consistent form of sexually based pressure not experienced by young men. An increase in this form of coercion was attributed directly to the use of emerging technologies:

You sit there and think it's intrinsic. You think the ways that these offences develop is because one person is trying to convince, cajole, pressure someone else into behaviour that previously they probably never would have. (Legal Group 5)

Concomitantly, the consequences of this coercion were identified as being gender-based, with young women being subject to an increasing graduation of demands by members of their peer group. Included in these demands are inherent expectations and assumed understandings in technologically mediated social spaces, such as the expectation to physically enact any behaviour described using emerging communication technologies:

In the virtual world, there are … consequences which are used as part of the grooming. So I've noticed a lot of girls sort of say, "Oh I'm so sorry, now that I've teased you by sending you that photo, I want to meet up with you now and do all that stuff I said I was going to say the other day". (Legal Group 5)

Participants viewed the creation of this social environment as facilitating sexual violence by normalising coercive behaviour. Case Study 2 describes an instance in which sexual text messages were used to establish a relationship prior to the perpetration of a sexual assault. In this sense, peer-to-peer perpetration can be facilitated by technology in many of the same ways as adult-to-child perpetration, including the use of technology to establish a relationship, initiate sexually based interaction and arrange physical meetings.

Case study 2: Peer-to-peer facilitation

There was also … [another] situation … where a Year 11 boy and a Year 11 girl, actually as well who had learning difficulties - the girl had learning difficulties. He got her mobile phone number and started texting her, and I suppose the word for it would be "grooming" her, I guess. So sending quite, what she felt were quite sexy-type messages. And … it turned out that that had been going on for some time. Eventually she ended up at some party that he was also at and he got her very drunk. And all of this came out of these text messages, and she thought that it was something that was quite serious, that he was genuinely into her, that she really for the first time in her life felt liked by a boy. And he was just stringing her along and talking about her to his friends and all those sorts of things. He ended up sexually assaulting her at the party, and then it all came out at school over the next two or three weeks.

Source: Counsellor/Advocate Group 2

Blackmail grooming

Participants identified "blackmail grooming" as a course of behaviour that is undertaken in both peer-to-peer and adult-to-child perpetration. As stated by one participant, the crux of this conduct is the threat of distributing imagery and information provided by the victim to coerce non-consensual sexual activity:

What happens is that … he [will] say, "Well now I've got your picture, have sex with me or else I'll upload it". (Policy 1)

This form of conduct is reliant upon the use of technology and is facilitated by the increased access, speed of communication and information collection techniques described earlier:

We're seeing a lot of blackmail-type investigations, where people are online. It's part of their grooming process. They'll engage the child, and they'll talk to them about their backgrounds, their lifestyle, where they go to school, the teachers' names. Just being friendly, all that sort of stuff. But they're creating these dossiers about these kids … But real kids are being blackmailed; they're giving out this information. They get to the point where they may get on a webcam and flash their breasts or show their genitals, or that sort of thing. The minute that happens, then bang, it's game on. These guys have got a picture of you. (Law Enforcement 3)

Given the relative ease with which information and imagery can be disseminated through the use of technology, this form of threat is taken very seriously by victims.

The use of a number of the aspects of technology (discussed above as aspects of facilitation) are evident in the case of R v Zimmerman, in Media Case Study 1.

Media case study 1: Zimmerman

John Zimmerman offended against 55 known victims, most of whom were aged 12 to 15 years old at the time, across a period of three and a half years. The use of social networking sites and mobile phone technology formed a significant part of Zimmerman's offending, with these sites being used to meet and groom potential victims, and in some cases formed the basis of actual offences; for instance, the production of child pornography, from having young women send him sexually explicit pictures or engage in sexual activity via webcam. He would often use these explicit images to blackmail the young women into meeting with him in real life and engaging in sexual activity with him.

As the manager of a local band, Zimmerman had access to the band's MySpace page and used this to identify and contact potential victims, often using the promise of free concert tickets or band merchandise as an excuse to meet the women in real life, and as a means of subsequently blackmailing them into engaging in sexual activity with him.

Zimmerman also used multiple Facebook and MSN accounts in setting up his offences. These accounts often misrepresented his true identity. For instance, in one he posed as a young bisexual woman. He was able to use these multiple accounts to further manipulate his victims. For example, using one account he told a victim that he had forwarded a naked photo of her on to other people, and then contacted her from another account, using another identity, claiming to have received naked photos of the victim.

Zimmerman pleaded guilty in 2011 to 87 charges that were covered under both Victorian state laws and Commonwealth laws. The offences he was charged with included sex and child pornography crimes, rape, sexual penetration of a child, possessing and making child pornography, and using a carriage service to harass, procure or groom a child for sexual acts.

Mr Zimmerman was sentenced to a term of 16 years of imprisonment, with a 12-year non-parole period, for these offences [personal observation].

During: Use of technology in acts of sexual violence

The use of emerging technologies in the act of sexual violence is a complex and sometimes misunderstood practice. The misunderstanding occurs in part, due to the current collapsing of consensual and non-consensual experiences of young people in much current social discourse. As discussed in Chapter 4, consensual capturing of images (whether by the practice of sexting or through the recording of sexual activity) can be a desired and enjoyable practice for young people. It is important, at least conceptually, to distinguish between instances of consensual sexual activity and recording, and instances of non-consensual sexual activity, recording and distribution of images. Additionally, it is important to understand the unique and individual experiences of "harm" that these activities cause to young people. To this end, this section discusses a variety of behaviours and experiences involving the use of emerging technologies in consensual and non-consensual activities, while highlighting the necessary distinction between these two forms of activity. Specifically, this section explores:

  • consensual sexting and the recording of sexual activity;
  • the non-consensual recording and distribution of images of consensual or non-consensual sexual activity, and subsequent distribution; and
  • harm caused by non-consensual recording and distribution of images of consensual sexual activity.

Throughout this section the notion of "harm" is discussed in order to articulate the varying approaches to, and understandings of, sexual violence by perpetrated against young people and highlight the individual nature of young people's experiences.

Sexting as a consensual activity

There is an important distinction to be made between consensual and coerced activity, which is central to the following analysis. For instance, although currently subject to legislative sanction, many participants of this research identified the act of sexting as a consensual activity. While much social and media debate focuses on the illegality of this activity, participants in this research noted that this widespread practice forms a common part of contemporary interactions between young people:

This is one of the problems as well with the whole sexual violence and the Internet - that we are telling young girls to be careful of stuff that they actually want to do. The older boyfriend has always been a status symbol. The exchange of naked pictures has replaced other courtship processes and so it's, I mean, I hesitate to use the word "legitimate", but it's kind of what you do now. (Policy 1)

Additionally, while sexting is perceived to carry an assumed harm to the sender of self-generated explicit imagery, our study found that the perception of that harm by young people themselves does not necessarily conform to this understanding:

It has a lot of impact on many different people, whether it be the relationships with friends and the family, within the school as well. - so kids getting kicked out of school or kids being picked on at school as well as potential legal issues as well. Then they just sit there and laugh and make a mockery of it, because "This is funny because I sent a photo of my body yesterday. Look, I've not got in trouble and everyone loved it". (Educator 1)

While the experience of harm is no doubt an individual one, this section focuses on practices consistently identified as problematic and harmful by participants. The act of consensual self-generated images is therefore necessarily excluded from this analysis.

One of the difficulties in delineating consensual and non-consensual activities with regard to technology-facilitated sexual violence is the conceptual continuum of the actions involved. For example, that consensual sexual imagery can be either self-produced or produced by consent and distributed by the victim (albeit typically to one other person) can obfuscate the sense of victimisation in subsequent further distribution. As one participant stated:

I have been known to say to people, "What made you think it was a good idea to have these taken in the first place?" But that's just being moralistic. So it's really not my place. But occasionally, when somebody's hysterical about it … you need to remind them that they were a consenting party at some stage. That's where it starts, with our personal responsibility of allowing the photographs to be taken. (Legal 2)

The notion that victims can be consenting parties "at some stage", however, does not suggest that subsequent actions by the perpetrator should be sanctioned. This is an issue of personal control, complicated by the nature of emerging technologies:

They haven't got the control of what's out there about them either. They can have control over what they post and put out there. But they don't have control over what other people can do. (Academic 2)

This has posed a problem in public media and social discourse concerning the relative "blameworthiness" of many victims and a sense of predictability with regard to non-consensual distribution. A key concern with this approach is the positioning of the victim as being responsible for the subsequent actions of the perpetrator.49 Participants of this research highlighted the damaging effects of this inability to delineate between consensual and non-consensual activity, including the negative effect on young women's self-esteem, the fact that this form of victim-centred focus discourages reporting of these incidents to an authority figure, and the lack of focus on perpetrators (including by educational campaigns).

Non-consensual image capture and distribution

A further behaviour of concern for participants in this research was the non-consensual capturing of images of consensual sexual activity:

What I don't think people necessarily appreciate, and I think this is a form of potentially sexual violence in the broader sense, is people being filmed without their consent. We forget that our phones are portable surveillance devices and that sexual activity may easily be captured on video, uploaded, those sorts of things, which to me is a very chilling scenario … So you've got those cases which turn a consensual sexual act into what I would call a form of sexual violence - I mean, as people have termed it, "unwitting pornography". (Academic 1)

So it's those really obvious examples of … where photographs may have been taken during sexual acts or photographs may have been taken - personal photographs just of the victim survivor and the perpetrator when they were engaging in consensual things. I had a victim survivor who, the perpetrator just took a picture of her with his mobile phone. They just had sex and she knew that it was consensual sex, and that the picture [was possibly taken]. She didn't consent to the picture being taken … and he did have a history of posting things everywhere on Facebook and online and everywhere. (Counsellor/Advocate Group 2)

As articulated by Academic 1 above, the act of image capturing has the potential to change a consensual sexual act into an act of sexual violence. In addition to being conceptually problematic in terms of a common understanding about the point and nature of victimisation, this shift can be problematic with reference to legal redress.

While recent legislative changes have served to criminalise the capturing of imagery for sexual purposes without consent, the use of technology to film or photograph consensual sexual activity without the knowledge of the victim remains a grey area. This is evident in the investigative response detailed in the Media Case Study 2. This case involved both the non-consensual recording and non-consensual distribution of recordings of consensual sexual activity. From a criminal justice perspective, the appropriate response (charge) was initially difficult to determine. Eventually, the perpetrator responsible for the live broadcasting of the sexual activity and one of the witnesses of this broadcast were charged.

Media case study 2: Australian Defence Force Skype case

An 18-year-old female Australian Defence Force (ADF) cadet engaged in what was, at the time, mutually consensual sexual intercourse with another cadet. However, their sexual encounter was broadcast live to six other cadets in another room, using Skype, without her knowledge. Photos of the pair having sex were also distributed via mobile phone. According to media reports, the victim reported the incident to navy officer Commodore Bruce Kafer, but then contacted the media as she was concerned the incident would be covered up. Bringing the matter to the attention of the media was in breech of written navy codes, and the victim was allegedly asked to apologise to other cadets for doing so. This decision was later overturned (and was denied by Defence Minister Stephen Smith).

The victim was initially told that there was no criminal legal action that could be taken, and that the perpetrators would be dealt with at misdemeanour level under the charge of "prejudicial conduct". Police subsequently charged two of the cadets on 29 April 2011. One was charged with using a carriage service to cause offence and an act of indecency, the other with using a carriage service to cause offence.

A number of other women in the ADF subsequently came forward to say that they had also been sexually abused/assaulted, with some of these incidents filmed or involving other cadets watching, and that these incidents were covered up by the ADF. Another victim, interviewed in Perth Now (8 April 2011), said, "These incidents are not isolated. These officers have a god-like complex over you and it creates a power dynamic that leaves people vulnerable".

Harm associated with non-consensual recording of sexual images and their distribution

Many participants suggested that victimisation should be determined by the sense of harm involved in the capturing and distribution of consensual sexual imagery. However, before engaging with the specific harm created by the non-consensual experiences described above, it is important to note that young people's experiences of harm vary widely.50 As one participant stated:

The truth for some young people is that a raunchy photo of them going online will humiliate them and cause some great emotional distress. Someone else celebrates it and goes, yes. So how you get a policy position that's going to account for all of that variation is tricky. (Educator Group 2)

With reference to an understanding of the role of technology in young people's experiences of harm, participants recognised that the use of emerging technology allows the perpetration of harm to go beyond that possible in previous decades:

But the thing is, you can do it. As I said, you can target. In my day, what would you have even had? A VHS cassette that you're going to hand around? People are going to lose interest fairly quickly. (Academic 1)

Indeed, participants identified the increasingly common occurrence of these types of offences:

Very, very common are the threats to post something online, incredibly common. Every night on the law list there'll be something posted online, usually photographs, sex photographs. (Legal 2)

The potentially public nature of consensual sexual activity was viewed as increasing the victim's experiences of shame, and therefore the impact that offence has on the victim. As articulated below, social networking sites in particular exponentially increase the exposure of sexual imagery:

That's exactly it, it's just easier for things to get out of hand and public, and I guess also just that sort of, that shaming that happens. It's one thing if everyone in your school knows about something, but if everyone on Facebook or if everyone on the web knows about something, that's such a … like increasing in that sort of shame that happens to the person who's a subject of those, like, assaults, essentially. So I think it can increase the impact that it has on the victim. (Legal 1)

In this sense, the capturing and/or distribution of sexual imagery without consent compounds the sense of violation and humiliation felt by the victim:

I imagine that is quite violating for people to be used, because it's not just the humiliation, it's for some people - depending on them - it is becoming that form of pornography, against your will. There are some people who will be of interest to others. That thought must be quite horrible. (Academic 1)

An additional aspect of harm caused through the distribution of sexual imagery is its seemingly permanent ubiquity. Many participants noted the impossibility of fully removing an image uploaded onto the Internet.51 Indeed, while orders can be made for individuals to remove images, the extent of this removal is limited to their personal pages and those of people to whom the image was directly distributed. For many victims, this extends the harm caused by the initial distribution of images. As stated by the following participant, the consequences of this ubiquity are still relatively unknown, given the novelty of emerging technologies:

I think in some ways, with some of them, once they actually realise, they get to that age where they realise the long-term consequences of their pictures and whatever being out in the World Wide Web. I actually think that possibly the psychological consequences, which we will probably never find out about, could be a lot worse. (Legal Group 5)

One of the perceived ongoing consequences of this form of perpetration involves the future educational and employment prospects of victims:

There could be hundreds or thousands … of people around the world that have this situation going on. If they go apply for jobs or whatever, [employers] do Google searches, recruitment-type things. You're sitting there in a job interview and they pull out this picture and say, "Can you please explain that?" You've never even known about it. (Law Enforcement 3)

It is clear from this analysis that technology plays a unique role in increasing the experience of harm by the victim. The threat of or actual exposure and distribution of sexual imagery are a form of sexual violence. Further research is required to investigate the complexities of this form of harm and identify the potential of ongoing victimisation.

After: Post-assault uses of technology

Of significant concern to this research is the utilisation of emerging technologies to harass, intimidate, control and threaten victims after an act of sexual violence. While post-assault behaviours of this nature are not new to experiences of sexual assault,52 participants in this research identified clear and specific ways in which technology can facilitate further and ongoing victimisation. Participants highlighted that the ever-present and social nature of many emerging technologies enabled both continued access to victims post-assault and the opportunity to disseminate information and/or imagery related to the assault. In this way, the identification of such methods of post-assault abuse further highlights the issues of increased speed of communication, access to victims and the compound nature of harm experienced by victims as facilitated by emerging technologies. This section discusses a number of distinct behaviours enacted by perpetrators post-assault, including:

  • the use of technology to abuse the victim using intimidation, threats and continued monitoring;
  • the use of technology to discredit the victim; and
  • the distribution of recorded imagery of non-consensual activity.

We discuss the impact(s) of these behaviours on victims, highlighting the complex and extended nature of victimisation afforded by emerging technologies.

Technology used to abuse and intimidate victims post-assault

Compared to the extensive literature on the use of emerging technologies to facilitate sexual violence, there is a paucity of research on the extent and nature of the use of technology to continue to abuse and intimidate victims after a sexual assault has occurred. We found technology was frequently used to abuse and intimidate victims of sexual violence generally, and, more specifically, to discourage reporting. Participants identified that this behaviour can range in severity from overtly monitoring the victims' use of communication technologies to bombarding the victim with threats and abuse. Threats and abuse using communication technologies can be public (for instance, posts on a Facebook wall) or essentially private (for instance, abuse delivered by SMS). Regardless of the nature of the communication, participants identified the increased accessibility of victims through the use of communication technologies as providing an added dimension to the abuse.

An example of monitoring behaviour is described in Case Study 3. This case illustrates that technology can be used to locate the victim after an offence has occurred. In this case, the offender used the networking aspect of social media to locate the victim via a mutual contact.

Case study 3: The use of technology in post-assault intimidation

I think the torment rang a bell for me because another case where my [client] had been sexually abused as a child by her neighbour over a period of time. And for various reasons she hasn't told her family this yet, about what happened. And that neighbour, who is a lot older, still happens to be friends with her brother. And the brother was staying at my client's house and flippantly put on the Facebook that he was staying at her house; and the perpetrator was linked. It happened that she looked at Facebook and saw this, and it was total … Just the calculation of it and the manipulation, just absolute continued torment of this person and that's exactly what sent her into a suicidal relapse again. From that to that, for him to know now where she lives, just like that. It's just terrible and it's totally calculated … He groomed her all her life and then just that manipulation, very contrived, just players, you know.

Source: Counsellor/Advocate Group 2

As described by the participant above, the use of technology to maintain contact of any form can be traumatic to victims of sexual violence. In the same way that knowledge of essentially permanent images can cause lasting harm to a victim, the networked aspects of many emerging technologies increase the likelihood of post-assault contact.

A further form of post-offence abuse and intimidation is the use of technology to bombard victims with threats. The effect of this practice relates to the constancy of technology in people's everyday lives. Many victims are reluctant to disengage with social networking and mobile phone use, even after an offence. As such, emerging technologies provide the perpetrator with near-constant access to the victim. Participants identified the compounding of harm caused by this accessibility:

Well, I think the fact that instead of getting one letter each week, they're getting 77 texts on a day. So it's bombarding them with abuse and in a letter, certainly, you can write a number of swear words and bombard them in the letter, but it's one letter and it can be destroyed. Constantly checking - hearing a beep, hoping it's a friend or whatever and then seeing all the hate and vitriol in there - I think it does have a greater effect on the victims … I think that it really would have a much greater effect than just receiving one letter or one phone call full of hate. It's the constancy and the fact that you never know when you pick up the phone and have a look at it or go on to your Facebook site, when it's going to come. (Legal 3)

Additionally, the person and targeted nature of receiving threats through personal devices and Internet pages provide an added dimension to the experience of abuse:

It is the same with a letter, but it's not the same as being in a pub and … being abused but there are a whole lot of people around. It's very personal, and opening up a text full of hate and vitriol is a real affront, I think, to the psyche. (Legal 3)

An additional aspect of technology discussed by participants was the use of technology, and social networking sites in particular, as a method of informal help-seeking. While it is not within the scope of this paper to discuss these help-seeking behaviours,53 a number of participants identified the potentially problematic nature of responses received by victims, in addition to the inability to control uploaded information:

So it seems that the technologies have just made everything just a million-fold, so the damage is so endless and that sense of exposure or that everybody will have an opinion about it. And sometimes even the supportive opinions are actually still contained within the prejudices in the myths and blaming statements. So … my experience of talking to a victim survivor … her friends were …posting all these supportive messages but that was their intention, but then all this stuff came out when she started to read the content of them. There were sort of blaming statements in them and so even though they were going out in support of her … it just has made everything so much worse, and so much more out of victim survivors' control what happens after and what happens to the information about them. (Counsellor/Advocate Group 2)

It should be noted that while help-seeking through the use of social media can often be a positive practice for victims, participants of this study were concerned with the potentially negative effects of seeking help through peer networks, particularly networks that could potentially include the offender.54

Use of social networking sites to discredit the victim/survivor

A further aspect of network-based emerging technologies is the potential for the perpetrator to publicise the offending. Many participants described the use of technology by perpetrators to undermine the victim (and their story) and to discredit the victim's statements after the offence. In Case Study 4, the offender utilised social networking technology to both describe and reframe the instance of offending:

Case study 4: Using technology to discredit the victim/survivor post-assault

The broadcast aspect is enormous, and I am working with a woman who was sexually assaulted by someone within her school - a male within her school at a weekend party … He raped her at the party [and] … by Monday morning the whole school knew about it. It just went viral, and the support work and counselling work that I've been doing with her has overwhelmingly been about fallout and her sense of exposure. And certainly there was some support within the school of her, but she was vilified by other portions of - you know, everyone had something to say about it. He basically played out his defence through information technology, but still he was able to - he co-accused her. He retaliated by actually saying that everything that he had done to her she did to him, so he literally played that out.

Source: Counsellor/Advocate Group 2

Distribution of images of sexual violence

As discussed in the preceding section of this chapter, the threat of exposure is a common tool for perpetrators, and a source of continuing harm for victims in cases where images of consensual sexual activity have been recorded. Participants in this research also identified the increased and prolonged harm caused to victims by such use of technology:

Sometimes the punishment for the victim survivor is just the idea that they've been exposed. That's the thing that overwhelmingly I'm thinking of - is that information technology and the technology has meant that the chance of being exposed no matter what. Which is, for many victim/survivors, their worst fear - that someone will find out about this dreadful thing that's happened to them. (Counsellor/Advocate Group 2)

A review of recent media reporting demonstrates that offences of this nature are increasing. Media Case Study 3 describes one of the earliest examples of the potential for technology to be used to distribute footage of sexual offending.55 It demonstrates the amplification of the trauma caused to the victim, given the large number of people who were able to view her being assaulted. The decision of media outlets to publicise stills and footage from the assault highlights the potential extent of image distribution.

Media case study 3: Werribee DVD case

This is a case in which a young woman, who has a mild intellectual impairment, was lured to a park in 2006 by a group of young men who made a video recording of her performing a sex act, being urinated on and having her hair set alight. The men also threw her jacket into the river and told her to walk home topless. The DVD was then circulated among a large number of young people, and was sold at schools for $5. Parts of the DVD were also aired on Channel 7's Today Tonight "current affairs" program.

Eight youths (seven aged 17 and one aged 18) were charged with procuring sexual penetration by intimidation, manufacturing child pornography, and common law assault. Seven of the 11 young men involved pleaded guilty to a range of charges, including one representative count of assault covering all the sex acts, two counts of procuring an act of sexual penetration by intimidation, and one of making child pornography. Several of the men were also expelled or suspended from school as a result of their involvement in the matter.

Parts of the DVD were also posted on YouTube, with many comments left condemning the footage. The Age newspaper reported then Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan as saying, "There could be no more glaring an example of how technology is aiding and abetting acts such as these to reach a wider audience at a remarkable pace" (Rennie, 2006).


There's a philosophical view of cybercrime, which says that we're playing out the same problems, just in a different framework. I think that's absolutely right. I mean the issue is about people who don't respect people, men who don't respect women. (Academic 1)

This chapter has discussed a number of distinct uses of emerging technologies in the facilitation and perpetration of sexual violence, as well as in the continuation of abuse after an event of sexual assault. This analysis has identified a continuum of coercive and illegal practices that are enhanced through the use of technology. Participants in this study characterised the use of technology as a method of enhancing pre-existing behaviours, due to the ease of access, speed of communication and ability to exploit the networked structure of many emerging technologies. Returning to the original question of whether technology has given rise to new offences beyond the remit of the law, the analysis offered here indicates that many forms of behaviour are adequately addressed by legal intervention.

An additional finding is how technology affects the experience of harm by victims. The potential for non-consensual exposure and distribution of sexual images can be seen to have a profound effect on many victims. Additionally, using threats of exposure and distribution as a method of coercion marks a development in offending behaviour.

Importantly, this analysis draws attention to the common conceptual difficulty in public and media discourse in defining consensual and non-consensual activity, particularly in relation to the experiences of young people. We have also highlighted differential experiences of harm that participants observed in relation to the myriad of behaviours described above. The implications of this are discussed further in Chapter 7 of this report.


44 As Bradford (2006) stated, "the internet has become the recent focus of deviant sexual behaviour with the increase in the number of individuals charged with the possession of child pornography, as well as the Internet being used by paedophiles to 'lure' child victims" (p. 258). For an overview of contemporary research on the (mis)use of technology by adults to sexually offend against young people, see Choo (2009) and Gillespe (2008).

45 Smallbone and Wortley (2001) stated that typical methods of grooming young people include engaging in one-on-one contact, providing a lot of attention, and progressively introducing sexualised behaviour into their interactions through a process of boundary-testing.

46 "Handles" are user names or aliases used by individuals on social networking sites. Knowledge of an individual handle allows searching for further information about that individual and facilitates establishing contact.

47 As highlighted by Clark and Quadara (2010), the concept of "social trust" is important to an analysis of sexual offending, as it provides an understanding of interactions (and experiences of harm) that are shaped, not on a personal or interpersonal level, but rather on a social one. In this view, the concept of "trust" moves beyond individual/psychological assessments of honesty and sincerity or institutionally based trust (such as the inherent trust of authority figures) to be a form of social capital that is reflective of the foundations for social cohesion.

48 While this practice has been described in much previous literature as problematic, and is indeed a feature of many current educational cyber-safety campaigns, most participants of this research proposed that a minority of young people accept friend requests indiscriminately.

49 This approach is reflected in many early and current educational campaigns concerning the activity of sexting, which aim to teach young women not to engage in this practice (as opposed to focusing on the distribution activities of young men), and are often couched within the social and legal consequences for young women should an image be distributed. As Powell (2010) highlighted, public debates and discussions concerning these activities focus upon the "risks" and "dangers" of engaging in this behaviour.

50 This difference is noted with reference to cyber-victimisation generally. For an analysis, see Roberts (2008).

51 Cyberspace is largely considered to be public domain, though removal orders can be made on particular sites in some circumstances. The inability to fully remove images is due in part to the practice of many search engines of producing a cache of site images and text and the ability for individuals to immediately download posted images to their own personal devices.

52 See, for instance, Clark and Quadara (2010) on perpetrator strategies of isolation, humiliation and domination post-assault.

53 For a recent and detailed study of victims help-seeking through the use of emerging technologies in Australia, see Webber and Wilmot (2012).

54 This is what Morahan-Martin (2000) refers to as the "promise and perils" dichotomy of engaging with emerging technology.

55 This case suggests that more serious forms of offending that involve technology or social media in some respect are fairly well covered by existing legislation. In addition, the recording of the actions provides tangible evidence and ultimately facilitated prosecution. This aspect is discussed further in the next Chapter of this report.