Creating Safe Spaces Online – Sexual Assault Awareness Month

By: Emily Grzesiowski

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), which since the 2000s has been organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. In 2001, the first SAAM was born as a result of tireless efforts to bring awareness and justice to sexual violence by organizations all around the country. 

The theme for this year’s campaign is ‘We Can Build Safe Online Spaces’. It centers around technology abuse and how sexual violence can intrude into our text messages, social media, and more. Sexual violence is not just rape or sexual assault; it can be anything that can cause harm or abuse through unwanted sexual acts, including online. 

Sexual violence is also common in abusive relationships – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 12 men “have experienced contact sexual violence by an intimate partner”, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend. For teens, this issue is also common as well: according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, “About 1 in 8 female and 1 in 26 male high school students report having experienced sexual dating violence in the last year.” This type of abuse can lead to serious mental health issues, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Teens who are exposed to dating violence also may be more likely to have problems with using drugs and alcohol, thinking about suicide, and undertaking unhealthy behaviors such as lying, bullying or hitting.

There are many ways that someone can perpetrate sexual violence or abuse online. Today, we’ll be talking about some of these topics and what they mean, including sextortion, revenge porn, and doxxing.

Sextortion is when someone threatens to distribute or use sensitive material, like sexual images, in order to coerce a victim to do something. Many times, the perpetrator seeks more sexual content of the victim, or money. They may also threaten to harm a victim’s loved ones if they don’t comply. 

There are usually two common types of sextortion. In the first type, a victim’s current or ex partner  could threaten to share images or videos if the victim does not comply with their specific demands, such as to stay with them or to perform a specific act. In another common circumstance, perpetrators will meet the victim online, and use “a sexual image obtained from the respondent or some other source to demand more images or sexual interactions”. According to the nonprofit organization Thorn, around 60 percent of perpetrators knew the victim beforehand, while 40 percent met them online.

Many times, the victims of sextortion are kids and young teens – according to Thorn, 1 in 4 victims are 13 or younger when threatened with sextortion. 2 out of 3 times, victims are girls 16 or younger. Sextortion is something that exists primarily online, and it can happen on any platform, game, or network. 

Revenge porn, also known as nonconsensual pornography, is the distribution of sexual images, videos, etc. without the person who is featured in the image or video’s consent. Similar to sextortion, it relies on media to take advantage of the victim. But, while sextortion is more of a blackmail and coercive tactic, revenge porn is does not usually require anything from the victim. In other words, revenge porn does not have to necessarily be as a result of a perpetrator seeking ‘revenge’, it can be for any or no reason at all, with or without the victim’s knowledge. As long as the material is recorded and distributed without consent, it is considered revenge porn.

Over the past years, many prominent figures in America have been subjected to nonconsensual pornography. A notable survivor of revenge porn includes Jennifer Lawrence, a prominent actress, whose nude photos and other information were distributed without her consent in 2014  following a hack into her cloud account. In the same mass leak, around 500 photos were also shared from various celebrities, most of whom were female. In another instance, former U.S. Congresswoman Katie Hill also was subject to revenge porn, after her estranged husband released nude photos of her during their tumultuous divorce. This, along with other allegations of engaging in a relationship with a staff member, contributed to her resignation from office. 

However, revenge porn is something that can happen to anyone, not just celebrities and politicians. According to an 2016 report by Lenhart, et. al, 1 in 25 Americans “have either had sensitive images posted without their permission or had someone threaten to post photos of them”. This can lead to dire consequences in survivors’ lives moving forward, including in the workplace or in their future intimate lives. 

In the United States, laws surrounding revenge porn vary by state, and can range to a misdemeanor to a felony. In New York City, where Day One is based, “it is a criminal and civil offense to disclose or threaten to disclose an intimate image of another person with the intent to cause harm”, according to the organization Women’s Justice Now. Depending on where you are, if someone distributes pornographic material of you without your consent, you can take action.

Doxxing is a term used for obtaining and releasing private documents on someone without consent, usually on the internet. The term is derived from the slang word ‘docs’, short for ‘documents’. Doxxing is similar to revenge porn or sextortion, but usually does not include sexual content. It does, however, include other important information. That info could be “phone numbers, email addresses, family members, spouses, real names, employers, or personal photos”, according to Business Insider

When it comes to intimate partner violence, there are many ways that abusers can use doxxing as a weapon. When personal information is leaked, abusers can find survivors, harass them, or harm them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, where incidence of domestic abuse is on the rise, it is important to protect survivors at all costs, including creating safe spaces online.   

Protecting Yourself From Tech Abusers

There are a few different ways we can prevent tech abuse from happening. First, know how to spot abuse for yourself and others. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides ways to help create a community-based prevention method for tech abuse. There are also ways to spot warning signs of tech abuse for kids and teens. If you are a parent, then you can also talk with your child about safe online interactions, and talk with them about never sending any sexually explicit media to anyone. 

Secondly, if you are experiencing abuse online, there are a few steps you can take: 

  • Screenshot and document the abuse. One of the most reliable things about reporting abuse online is that it is ‘in print’, and easily provable if recorded. 
  • Talk to the authorities. In many states, it is illegal to distribute sexual images or other content with malicious intent. An abuser could face criminal charges.
  • On many websites, you have the ability to report or flag explicit content and get it removed. 

Day One is committed to preventing and mitigating teen dating violence. We help young people aged 24 and under in the New York City area get access to legal services, counseling, education, and more. If you or a friend needs help, please contact us using our online form or by calling or texting the numbers at the bottom of this page.

If you are experiencing dating violence, check out these additional resources:

Cyber Civil Rights Initiative Hotline

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)

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