A Guardian ‘Opinion’ article on April 2023 highlighted the impact of receiving unsolicited sexual images by phone. The writer’s first paragraphs read:
“I was travelling home on the London Underground when more than 100 unsolicited images of an erect penis, sent over Apple’s Airdrop, appeared on my phone. The Bluetooth enabled feature only works between iPhones that are within 10m (30 feet) of each other – around half the length of a tube carriage. I knew the sender was nearby, but I didn’t know who he was.
“Should I get off the train? Would I be safe to walk home if I did? Did he single me out from my fellow passengers to be his victim, or was I just a random female target picked out from a list of nearby devices? What was his intent in sending the images; to threaten? To get sexual gratification? To feel powerful in his anonymity? Or just to amuse himself?”
Online abuse is a huge, and growing, issue for women and girls in our society, no matter what age they are. A 2022 Girlguiding survey, carried out for Internet Safety Day, found that 79% of 13-21 year old girls and young women had experienced online harms in the previous year. It revealed that they had experienced cyberflashing (22%), sexual harassment (20%), catfishing (20%), pressure to share nude photographs (16%), and cyberstalking (13%).
What is online sexual harassment and abuse?
There is a broad range of behaviours that online abuse perpetrators use to harass, humiliate, intimidate, control, and frighten women and girls. These include:
- Sending unsolicited sexual materials or images (known commonly as ‘dick pics’)
- Taking and distributing sexual images without consent or threatening to do so
- Creating and distributing non-consensual pornography (sometimes called ‘Revenge Porn’)
- Creating and distributing fake porn or using ‘Deepfake’
- Grooming or manipulating
- Tracking movements using social media or other apps
- Using images to threaten or blackmail
- Creating fake social media accounts to harass
Online sexual harassment and unsolicited sexual images can come via:
- Social media, private messages
- Dating sites
- Video calls, WhatsApp calls
- Apple Airdrop, Windows Nearby Sharing, Send Anywhere
- Snapchat or Snapdrop
There are a growing number of sharing apps becoming available and with it the growing potential for sexual harassment of women and girls. Snapchat is widely used by young women and girls and the Snap Map function allows those who are ‘friends’ to locate exactly where someone is, giving a perpetrator the opportunity to follow a woman’s movements online. This can be turned off by using the ‘Only Me’ option for who can see where you are on the site.
You can also avoid getting random Airdrops by ensuring your settings are switched to ‘Contacts Only’ so that you will only receive files from those on your contact list.
Windows Nearby Share is the android version of Airdrop and can be disabled in your phone settings. It can also be used on your PC or laptop and files can be transferred from phone to laptop.
The impact of online sexual harassment or abuse
In common with all forms of sexual harassment and abuse, any online abuse has an impact on the lives of the women and girls affected. The report ‘Shattering Lives and Myths: A report on image based sexual abuse’ by McGlynn et al, found that:
- Online abuse shatters lives
- Significant numbers of victim-survivors experience ‘social rupture’ – a major devastation that drastically alters all aspects of their lives
- Threats are experienced as life threatening and paralysing
- Intense isolation from friends, family, the online world and society in general characterises many experiences
- Victim-survivors spoke of abuse that is constant, ongoing and relentless, that shatters not only their lives but the lives of those who love and support them
Online abuse is frequently perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner who may have had access to images or videos that were taken either consensually or non-consensually. Because some images or videos have been taken consensually, this may lead to women being blamed for initially agreeing to this. This, however, is another example of victim blaming as the photos or videos were consensual between two people so that when the perpetrator chose to share them more widely, he did that without the woman’s consent. He has not only betrayed the woman’s trust in him, but he has also committed an offence.
As well as that sense of betrayal, fear of the images being posted online (if the perpetrator has not already done so), a possible longer-term impact on a woman’s career, studies, future work relations etc, she may also experience trauma related physical and psychological impacts including:
- Panic attacks
There is a strong correlation between online abuse and domestic abuse. The study ‘Shattering Lives and Myths’ found that:
“Our research confirms that there is a strong relationship between image based sexual abuse, domestic abuse, coercive control, and other forms of gender-based violence and harmful practices.”
The behaviour tends to continue, and even increase, after the woman has asked the perpetrator to stop.
Online abuse, like other forms of violence against women and girls, is based on control, entitlement, believing that women should be ‘punished for their behaviour’, for example leaving an abuser, ending a relationship, becoming independent. ‘Shattering Lives and Myths’ found that online abuse was perpetrated for a number of reasons including:
- “Lad culture”
- Sexual gratification
- A ‘prank’
- To cause distress
- To humiliate
- To build social capital
- For social validation
‘Revenge Porn’ is a term that covers the posting of images or videos of an ex-partner, usually one who had ended the relationship. This term has been coined to show the ‘punishment’ aspect of the act, or ‘revenge’ against the woman for leaving. In this paper we use the term non-consensual pornography as the term ‘revenge porn’ suggests that the victim-survivor did something wrong and in some way deserves the ‘revenge’.
During the Covid lockdown, the Revenge Porn Helpline noted a significant increase in calls for help, with their figures showing a 98% increase in calls in April 2020, compared with those in April 2019.
Also, research by Sensitivity AI showed that 90% to 95% of all deepfake content is non consensual pornography and 90% of that contains images of women.
What can be done?
In Scotland, online sexual harassment and sexual abuse is covered by the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016. Section 2 of the Act makes it a criminal offence for a person to disclose or threaten to disclose an intimate photograph or film, and that the perpetrator’s intent was to cause fear, alarm or distress. More information can be found on the Revenge Porn Helpline website – 0345 6000 459.
Various online websites specialising in cyberstalking and abuse recommend that:
- Restricting or blocking the perpetrator if you know their name can help remove his access to some of your social media.
- Adjusting privacy settings can also help to keep access to your social media to those you choose to allow. When accounts are set up they automatically default to ‘open’ so making your settings as private as possible may help.
- Blocking all calls, texts, and emails from the perpetrator can also help, as can refusing to answer unknown numbers (though this can be a problem if you are using a work phone for example).
- Changing your phone number and email address can also help with unwanted communication though it can cause a lot of disruption for you to have to contact friends and family to let them know about your new contact details. Some sites recommend that you keep your old phone/email so that you can continue to monitor the abuse if you decide to report to the police.
- Get support from family or friends. Being able to share what is happening to you can help you to cope with the abuse, and having a witness/es can also be useful if you decide to report to the police.
- Keep a diary. It can be difficult to go over texts, emails etc to record them but this can be really useful if you decide to report to the police. It can also be useful to record how you felt when you received the message/text/call.
The Cyber Helpline www.thecyberhelpline.com also has information and resources that may be helpful, but any legal advice may not be applicable to Scotland.
Scottish Women’s Rights Centre can be contacted for legal advice on Scottish Women’s Rights Centre (scottishwomensrightscentre.org.uk)
SWRC also have an excellent booklet called ‘Reporting stalking to the police: Your rights’ which can be found at https://www.scottishwomensrightscentre.org.uk/resources/SWR-012-stalking-03-ONLINE.pdf/
Rape Crisis Scotland also have online resources on stalking and harassment which can be found on Visual (rapecrisisscotland.org.uk)
Action Against Stalking – www.actionagainststalking.org
 Cyber-flashing is just as damaging as the ‘real world’ equivalent. When will the law catch up? | Sophie Gallagher | The Guardian
 Upskirting – Covert voyeurism involving taking photographs with a camera or phone, up a woman’s skirt without her consent for the sexual gratification of the perpetrator.
 Deepfake – a photograph or video of a person which has been digitally altered so that they appear to be someone else. Often used to superimpose someone’s face onto online porn images or videos.
 Doxxing – Posting someone’s private and identifying details online without the permission of that person, and usually with malicious intent.
 Catfishing – Luring someone into a relationship by creating a false identity online.
 28683.pdf (dur.ac.uk)