The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

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

7. Implications and future directions

In this chapter, we draw together the key issues raised by participants and consider their implications for policy and service responses in terms of the initial research questions. These implications fall into two broad categories:

  • the conceptual framework(s) currently being used to understand the interface between emerging communication technologies and sexual violence; and
  • practical avenues of intervention, such as legislation, educational interventions and opportunities for industry involvement.

We begin by summarising the key themes and issues before discussing the above dimensions in turn.

Key themes and issues

The matrix in Table 4 synthesises the key issues raised by participants in relation to: the general effects of emerging communication technologies, the trends and behaviours participants are experiencing in their various roles, and their thoughts on current responses.

When participants were asked whether using emerging communication technologies in sexual violence was a new behaviour, there was general agreement that: "Behaviour has not changed with children, it's just it's facilitated by online technology" (Educator 1). What was new was what emerging communication technologies enabled: more victims (and more quickly), more ways of making contact, and more ways of threatening and blackmailing victims, including after the assault. As can be seen in Table 4, many of the behaviours identified by service providers and agencies related to facilitation; that is, emerging communication technologies being used in a variety of ways to set up the opportunity for sexual contact. The use of emerging communication technologies during acts of sexual violence was relatively limited. However, when asked about the general context in which the use of emerging communication technologies in sexual violence was occurring, participants more readily spoke of a scenario in which the combination of access to pornography, the ubiquity of emerging communication technologies in young people's lives, and (gendered) expectations about sex and relationships result in highly sexualised behaviours without traditional boundaries, in ways that were seemingly unheard of among older generations.

Table 4: Key themes and issues
Issue Potential outcomes
Effects of emerging communication technologies
Accessibility Blurring of boundaries between social settings, especially between public and private domains (e.g., school and home life)
Increased avenues, and constancy of contact
Access to pornography
Enhanced capacity to connect and communicate with others
Online/offline social spheres Blurring between online and offline (“real world”) domains
Online sociality is central to young people’s interactions
Young people have a limited understanding that online communication has offline consequences
Online anonymity enables different forms of communicating, including harmful and abusive behavior
Generation gap between adults and young people in relation to these spaces
Permanence of material Changes the consequences of “youthful exploration”
Shift in youth culture Accessibility, especially in relation to pornography, and the nature of social media is reflective of normalised sexualised interactions between young people (e.g., sexting, permissive sexual culture)
Young women experience more pressure than young men to create a digitised and sexual(ised) self through emerging communication technologies
Trends and behaviours in using emerging communication technologies
Using to facilitate of sexual violence Emerging communication technologies are used in a range of ways to facilitate or precipitate sexual violence: increased access to people, hastened the relationship and trust-building process
Using networked linkages to connect with people with whom the perpetrator may not previously have had a direct relationship with
Saturating sites with friend requests, multiple profiles to eventually make contact
In adult-to-child perpetration enhances grooming strategies because of speed, ability to set up fraudulent profiles and websites, and ability to exploit networks
In peer-to-peer perpetration:
  • gendered expectations have normalised coercive behavior
  • blackmail and threats are used to extort further sexual acts
Using during acts of sexual violence Threats to distribute images
Recording sexual assaults for distribution
Distributing still or moving images without consent of other person
Using post-assault Threats to distribute or upload images
Contacting, threatening or abusing victim following the assault
Current responses to using emerging communication technologies
Access to resources Criminal justice
  • Keeping up with: changes in emerging communication technologies, the traffic and distribution of images, perpetrators’ movements
  • Volume of evidence collected
  • Technological limitations of courtrooms in trying to view emerging communication technology evidence
  • Global or offshore companies, making it difficult to issue warrants and obtain material
  • Lack of expertise and facilities to undertake investigations

Education sector

  • Inadequate education resources
  • Inconsistent education programs and messages
  • Safety messages don’t resonance with young people
Jurisdictional issues Lack of standardisation across state and territory legislation, including admissibility rules
Critical questions about whether the law or education is the most appropriate instrument
Using to support responses Using emerging communication technologies as a form evidence, and difficulty in obtaining the material
Using emerging communication technologies to make and post orders
Using emerging communication technologies in proactive policing and in entrapping child sex offenders
Flexibility to respond to spectrum of behaviours Lack of clarity about whether police responses are based on discretionary decisions or inconsistent decisions
For police, not always clear to what or whom they are responding
Need for flexibility to ensure that young people are not inappropriately charged

In relation to the role of criminal law, respondents felt that there was already legislative capacity to address many unwanted and/or violent sexual behaviours - from those that are themselves technological in nature (e.g., unwanted image capture, unwanted distribution of explicit images) to those that are more "traditional" offences but facilitated by emerging communication technologies (e.g., stalking, sexual assault). There was also shared concern about the use of criminal justice approaches to child pornography offences to address the capture and distribution of sexual images. In part, this related to the inconsistency of the law, in that the age of consent is 16, yet sexual images of individuals under 18 constitute child pornography. This concern also related to the fact that child pornography legislation was drafted to capture adult sex offenders not children. Most participants expressed reluctance for such provisions to be used in cases involving adolescents. However, there was less consistency when it came to the adequacy of current practice. In particular, there was confusion about the police approach regarding young people, emerging communication technologies and sexual violence. Some respondents thought that police have a "gung-ho" response, with obtaining prosecution being a key focus. Others felt that police responses are dismissive or inconsistent. From the education sector perspective, there seemed to be a view that it is best to involve police as a matter of course.

The research team discussed these inconsistencies and disjunctions at length. What these views suggested to us was firstly that there appears to be a lack of clarity across the sectors about the how the spectrum of behaviours described should be conceptualised. Participants talked about various behaviours and associated harms, ranging from the consensual capturing and sharing of sexual/nude self-images, to the recording and distribution of coerced or non-consensual images, through to deliberate and predatory behaviour with the intent to sexually exploit or sexually coerce. Although some participants explicitly acknowledged that there was a spectrum, when the discussion considered the effects of technology more generally, there tended to be a conflation between young people's sexual behaviour and relationships in the "information age" and sexual violence facilitated through emerging communication technologies. It appeared to be difficult for participants to separate out the changes that the world of Internet connectivity has meant for social interaction, particularly young people's social interaction, from what it has meant for sexual assault and sexual violence perpetration. The following section discusses the implications of this analysis.

Implication 1: Importance of clear conceptual frameworks

The first research question was about how emerging communication technologies interfaced with or facilitated sexual violence. It is important to note that our insights on this are limited by our sample (i.e., key informants who are responding to incidents, but not young people who have experienced such violence). It may be that the addition of these voices could alter the conclusions we draw below. Thus, we make the caveat that our analysis refers to the views of the services and stakeholders responding to the issues.

As noted, there were disjunctions and contradictions in terms of how participants understood the relationship between sexual violence and emerging communication technologies. This had flow-on effects in terms of how participants understood the role of others or what appropriate responses involved. We think that this stems from an absence of, or lack of clarity on, a shared conceptual framework in which to locate the behaviours.

Conceptualising sexual violence and the roles of emerging communication technologies

Our observation is that although there was agreement that the criminal law is a limited and blunt instrument for intervention with young people, the issue of sexting created a lot of "noise" in participants' views of (a) just how emerging communication technologies interfaced with experiences of sexual violence; and (b) what sort of challenges this presented for the criminal justice system.

Sexual violence broadly refers to unwanted sexual interaction or threats of such interaction (such as sexual intercourse, sexual touching, or sexual exposure) in circumstances of non-consent and/or force, threat, incapacitation or blackmail. The creation of nude or sexually explicit images of yourself or another person does not of itself constitute sexual violence. This does not mean that sexual violence is not part of sexting. In terms of the creation and distribution of nude and explicit images, participants did refer to a culture of expectation and pressure that taking a "selfie" was simply what you did, and that this pressure was disproportionately experienced by girls. In discussing harms and consequences, this too was disproportionately experienced by girls who experienced judgement, shame and humiliation because images they had created were circulated around school and peer networks.

However prevention messages and programs often focus on sexting per se in order to address these issues, with the warning that there is "no such thing as safe sexting" (ACMA, 2011). Risks named in educational material, such as DVDs, fact sheets, programs include:

  • being charged with producing or distributing child pornography;
  • damage to your "digital reputation";
  • sending the wrong message to other Internet users; and
  • on-forwarding to unintended recipients.

Commentators have noted that in conflating sexting with risks of harm and sexual violence, young women are positioned as being both "'at risk' from sexting, and being responsible for resisting/preventing the practice" (Albury, Crawford, & Byron, 2012, p. 3). From a sexual assault prevention perspective, this approach poses problems.

First, it replicates misconceptions about sexual assault generally, in which women are positioned as somehow precipitating their own victimisation, and postulates that prevention involves rape-avoidance programs. A clear evidence base now exists that such endeavours are not effective, as they misapprehend the determinants of violence against women (Carmody, 2009).

Secondly, there is a very real risk of reproducing the very attitudes and social norms about sex and gender that facilitate sexual violence, particularly those that draw on "good girl/bad girl" dichotomies, in which women who are sexually active or sexually adventurous are "cheap". More subtly, this dichotomy is communicated through warnings about "reputation". As our participants noted, such risks are not gender neutral, nor are risks equally distributed across boys and girls.

Thirdly, in recent years there has been a concerted effort across governments, communities and schools settings to introduce sexual assault prevention education. Respectful relationships initiatives58 have been designed as primary prevention interventions, targeting the underlying factors that excuse or condone sexual violence. The messages described above undermine these.

Developing a conceptual framework

Figure 1 offers a visual representation of this spectrum of sexual violence, mapped against the factors influencing the behaviour, and system responses as identified by participants. The diagram describes the following:

  • The context or situation - This is a continuum along which the interface between sexual interactions and emerging communication technologies occur. This ranges from the consensual to the coercive, violent or exploitative.
  • Enablers or facilitators - These are the factors participants identified as shaping that interface. Thus, many participants acknowledged that there is a gendered expectation for girls to provide nude images that draws on already existing social norms and scripts about heterosexuality, male entitlement and female attractiveness. This creates contexts in which pressure or coercion is exercised to obtain images and/or where their distribution has a ready economy of meaning. A range of enablers was identified by police as facilitating motivated offenders to make contact with potential victims.
  • A response continuum - This continuum reflects the overall evidence base about violence prevention, which includes primary, secondary and tertiary prevention (Harvey, Garcia-Moreno, & Butchart, 2007; World Health Organization [WHO], 2002). Such interventions tend to focus on education and capacity-building, early therapeutic intervention in risky behaviours, and criminal justice responses. We have further indicated an overlap between educational and criminal justice responses, where participants identified a degree of discretion in whether to formally involve the justice system.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for responding to technology-facilitated sexual violence

[Large version of diagram of conceptual framework]

The following section describes the practical implications for responses by the sectors involved in preventing and responding to sexual assault and sexual violence.

Implication 2: Practical implications for various sectors

This conceptual framework provides direction for many practical measures for addressing the issue of technology-facilitated sexual violence. Most significantly, as demonstrated in Figure 1, the appropriate response to many of the behaviours that could be considered sexual violence facilitated by emerging communication technologies is often not primarily a legal one. Given our understanding of the underlying attitudes and social dynamics that influence perpetration in this context, participants in this research consistently identified an education-based response as the primary vehicle.

Adequacy of legal apparatus

Participants in this research suggested that current legislation adequately addresses behaviour considered to be at the more serious end of the spectrum. Specifically, the use of emerging communication technologies to groom, coerce and harass victims is covered by existing laws. Additionally, the law is seen to address issues of non-consensual image capture and distribution. With regard to behaviour not currently address by legislation, such as sexually based pressure to participate in activities such as sexting, participants felt that these behaviours were better address by a comprehensive educational campaign. In addition, participants questioned the need for legal intervention in cases of consensual, peer-to-peer image capture and targeted distribution, noting in particular the current application of the Sex Offenders Registration Act 2004, in cases of consensual image capture.

One deficiency noted in relation to the current legal apparatus is the lack of adequate resources, with reference to the requirements of investigative practice and the process of presenting evidence in court. From a policing perspective, it was noted that:

  • training and knowledge transfer for law enforcement officers may be wanting in some jurisdictions, and support for using discretion and alternate, non-legal, means of resolution could be helpful;59
  • the volume of evidence available in some cases of technology-facilitated sexual violence requires prolonged evidence collection processes that can only be performed by a small number of staff; and
  • investigations often require approval through the office of the Attorney-General, given the multi-jurisdictional nature of some investigations.

In relation to the presentation of evidence at trial, it was noted that:

  • the majority of courtrooms are not equipped with facilities to display digital evidence, and as such rely on printouts of voluminous evidence;
  • similarly, personal devices are being used to display evidence in court; and
  • relatedly, many participants felt the judiciary needed more support - in the way of training and information - to understand and engage with the technology. The intersection of rapid technological change with a less dynamic legal system can mean that the judiciary is ill-equipped to respond effectively.

It is clear that emerging communication technologies pose specific problems in the processes of evidence collection and presentation. This area must be adequately resourced so that cases can proceed through the criminal justice process in a timely fashion.

The educational response

As indicated above, participants in this research agreed that a coordinated and ongoing education campaign targeted at young people would have the greatest influence on technology-facilitated sexual violence. Specifically, participants identified the need for a consistent, clear and evidence-based campaign with young people. It was noted that many current campaigns are run as "one-offs" and focus almost exclusively on concepts of safety and risk. While campaigns focusing on privacy and security were seen as a necessary element of digital citizenship, the conceptual framework provided by this research suggests that the campaign needs a broader, more socially based focus. Participants suggested that any campaign with young people should focus on relationships and ethical conduct, and that the use of emerging communication technologies would form part of this campaign. It was also agreed that any campaign should retain consistency so that young people receive a standardised message. For this reason, it was suggested that any education campaign be coordinated across audiences - including young people, parents and schools - in order to maximise engagement and share responsibility.

Form of educational response

Participants advocated a multifaceted, multilayered approach to education. This approach suggests that while educators in the school system are a key source of information for young people, the responsibility for informing young people about ethical and respectful decision-making should be shared by parents, educators and government. Participants expanded on this multi-faceted approach, suggesting that:

  • youth should be encouraged to gain information from multiple sources, including through web-based resources;
  • parents need access to adequate information in order to engage with their children on the ethical use of emerging communication technologies;
  • schools need to be adequately resourced to provide a consistent and ongoing curriculum that includes the practice of respectful relationships and components on ethical digital citizenship; and
  • industry, particularly large social media sites, should be involved in the provision of educational resources and funding with respect to the appropriate use of their sites.

Additionally, a number of participants suggested that the scale of the issue warrants a media campaign, similar to the public health campaigns around tobacco, domestic violence and binge drinking. Views about the focus of such a campaign differed, depending on the participant's professional point of view or experiences, but the common themes were risks and consequences, and personal agency.

Approach of an education campaign targeted towards young people

A conceptual framework would provide direction for future educative strategies. Online and offline social worlds and social connections are much more contiguous than they were ten years ago. In particular, educational responses must acknowledge that the risk of sexual violence very much comes from existing networks - the familiar and the "friended". In one sense, this marks a departure from many of the current cyber-safety educational responses, which tend to be centred on concepts of "privacy" and "security". What this research suggests is that there may be a mismatch between the nature of risk and the messages given about risk prevention. This research has echoed much national and international literature in identifying that the use of the Internet in particular is fundamentally relational - people use it to be social.

In this sense, we already have frameworks to draw upon in formulating an appropriate educational response. An educative response targeting the conduct of responsible and ethical relationships and a care of the self within social interactions was seen as being paramount by participants in this research. The use of emerging communication technologies, and the concept of digital citizenship should be encompassed by this broader framework. However, we agree that socialisation using emerging communication technologies requires a specific and tailored educative response.

The difficulty in determining the content and method of such a campaign is acknowledged. In particular, participants identified that:

  • a campaign aimed at promoting respectful relationships and conduct between young people would be met with a wide range of differing community views on what constitutes "appropriate" sexual behaviour;
  • beyond the difficulties associated with determining the moral positioning of appropriate content, there are challenges in making the message relevant to young people and establishing a sense of connectedness or ownership with that message;
  • communication technologies themselves need to be harnessed because using a medium with which young people are comfortable makes for a powerful communication tool;
  • using a common language and communicating on the recipients' level is an important foundation for the development of education materials because language that resonates with young people makes conversations about safety and technology more meaningful; and
  • within the larger context in which the message is being delivered, there may be an absence of broader critical literacy skills and this may inhibit young people from thinking meaningfully about what they are doing.

Participants also suggested that the underlying approach of any campaign needs to be carefully considered. Many of their suggestions were based on problems experienced in previous educational campaigns. As articulated by participants, potential issues to consider are that:

  • scaremongering is unlikely to resonate with young people;
  • young people may not see the personal relevance of a message that focuses too heavily on legal consequences that are not a feature of their own learned experience; and
  • a negative approach that focuses only on the consequences may not accurately capture the complexity of young people's relationships.

Additionally, the need to ensure age-appropriate messaging was a key issue for many participants. Importantly, participants felt that the education process concerning respectful relationships and the safe use of emerging communication technologies needs to start early. This early education would need to be focused on the short-term practicalities of using emerging communication technologies, whereas for older youths, participants suggested that it could help to focus on the bigger picture and the lasting consequences. A number of participants noted that a more nuanced approach, or a more multi-faceted approach, could also draw on a larger pool of experts to develop content.

Content of the educational response

As detailed above, participants indicated a strong preference for a campaign that was centred around respectful relationships and ethical conduct more broadly, while also incorporating the practice of digital citizenship. Specific suggestions made by participants as to the content of an effective educational campaign included:

  • the need to ensure that educative responses reflect respectful attitudes and behaviours and focus on building capacity within young people to make sound ethical decisions;
  • the importance of a focus on personal resilience and skills useful in negotiating behavioural boundaries. It was suggested that young people who have the confidence and skills to navigate the complexities of their interpersonal relationships would be better equipped to mitigate risks faced by the use of emerging communication technologies; and
  • particular messages about giving and receiving respect for others, but also themselves, could be helpful for young women, due to the gendered nature of some behaviours.

Despite the very strong view that an education model focusing on respect and ethical decision-making is the best approach, participants were mindful of the need to ensure a balanced message. As such, it was not suggested that this approach replace pre-existing messages concerning privacy and security online, but rather that messages concerning cyber-safety be incorporated into a broader campaign concerning ethical conduct and respectful relationships.

Benefits of such an approach include:

  • the use of a strengths-based approach has broader application and can tap into other teaching strategies; and
  • an approach that has a core focus on fundamental interpersonal skills, like building respectful relationships, can help to equip young people in the online and offline environments for the longer term.
Engaging parents: As important as educating youth

It is clear from this research that parents play an important role in informing and guiding the use of emerging communication technologies by young people. Participants were clear that engaging parents in the educative process was just as important as engaging young people. Barriers such as a generational gap in knowledge of emerging communication technologies and a common lack of awareness of young people's activities online were seen as being detrimental to young people's ethical engagement with emerging communication technologies. For this reason, participants advocated:

  • parents engaging with their children in relation to the technology, in order to be able to have greater influence in guiding their children to consider the consequences of using emerging communication technologies;
  • establishing a strong foundation early on to help ensure young people are well equipped to make good decisions, even after parental influence wanes;
  • that the most effective engagement by children would commence early and extend until the child is in their late teenage years or beyond; and
  • parents taking the practical step of increasing their own knowledge about these technology, which can also be an effective means of interacting and engaging with their children.
Supporting the school-based response

Participants acknowledged the difficulty of successfully implementing a multi-faceted but integrated response, but agreed that supporting a school-based response was important. Notions of clarity and consistency were of primary importance here. In particular:

  • counsellor/advocates pointed to the challenges for schools in providing a supportive and balanced, but different, response for victims and perpetrators, and noted that at the tertiary stage a more specialised response may be more effective; and
  • a key issue for law enforcement professionals was around supporting schools to deliver appropriate messages, while also responding to criminality.
Informing police discretion

Additionally, law enforcement officers were mindful of the importance of delivering a consistent message to young people. An important element of the educational response is a realistic portrayal of the possible legal consequences of perpetrating sexual violence. In particular, some participants identified challenges in relation to police discretion in responding to matters that may have criminal ramifications. The application of the law is decided upon a case-by-case basis by necessity. This has negatively affected law-and-order-based campaigns, as youth are rarely exposed to actual legal consequences. Many educators and law enforcement officers noted the ineffectiveness of campaigns focusing on the legal consequences of behaviour such as sexting, and were more supportive of campaigns focusing on ethical relationships.

The responsibility of industry

As detailed in Chapter 6, many participants felt that industry was not responsive to requests by those in the criminal justice process, and that the difficulties in obtaining evidence or having material removed were cumbersome and unnecessary. Additionally, a number of participants noted the lack of involvement of industry with educative campaigns concerning ethical behaviours in the online space.

This research found a cross-sector desire for industry involvement and accountability, particularly from social media sites. Participants also stated that technology manufacturers and service providers have a responsibility to support effective responses, particularly where activities have a criminal element or legal consequences. There were different opinions about how this responsibility should be met, but a number of participants were of the view that improved processes and content standards would be helpful.


58 See the ACSSA practice profiles for more information about these programs, at <>.

59 To this end, the Australian Federal Police have developed a training model that is intended to improve consistency.