Why is online sexual harassment an issue for women and girls?

08 Mar 2019 Becca Cawthorne

Childnet, a partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, are launching new educational resources as part of Project deSHAME on 14th March 2019. These resources aim to increase reporting of online sexual harassment among minors and improve multi-sector cooperation in preventing and responding to this behaviour.

Project deSHAME Lead, Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, writes on the experiences of girls when facing online sexual harassment.

Today is International Women’s Day, a global day that celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women as well as calling on everyone to ‘Balance for Better’ to achieve gender equality.

Gender equality and online sexual harassment

Gender equality comes in many forms, and at Childnet we are passionate about making sure that the online world is not only a safe one, but also a positive space where all young people are free to express themselves.

Young people shaming others online for their behaviour

Project deSHAME was initiated in 2017 following focus groups where young people told us about the phenomenon of ‘bait out’ pages. These are usually on social media pages or groups which ask people to contribute images, videos or comments about other people’s sexual behaviour in order to humiliate or expose them.

At the same time as we were running these focus groups the Professionals Online Safety Helpline, our partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, were receiving an increasing number of calls from educators concerned about the pages and the issues surrounding them.

Yesterday I appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire Show on the BBC, talking about the very same behaviour amongst young people. Often these groups use derogatory and misogynistic language to humiliate and embarrass girls – which is commonly referred to as ‘slut shaming’.

Behaviour that might be natural expressions of sexuality can be used against girls in a way that is different to boys. Women and girls are stigmatised for engaging in behaviour that is judged as promiscuous. What is perceived as ‘sexually inappropriate’ conduct for girls can be legitimately used to publicly humiliate them.

As one young person told us “If a boy has hooked up with several girls then he’s like cool…If girls have hooked up with several you’re like…a slut.”

Our research found that 65% of young people said that girls are judged more harshly for sexual rumours shared about them online than boys.

Why is this an issue for girls?

It’s important that we look at the issue of bait out pages as part of a wider pattern of online sexual harassment, and within a gendered context.

Our work with children, schools, parents and carers shows that the sexual harassment, misogyny and sexualisation is a real problem for many girls, both online and offline.

Sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon, but the ‘audience’ and ‘evidence’ provided by digital technology facilitates it and has opened the door for new forms of sexual harassment.

While our research showed that both girls and boys are being targeted by online sexual harassment by their peers, it also highlighted that this form of harassment takes place in a gendered context. We found that girls are more likely to be targeted than boys, particularly for some forms of online sexual harassment, with these incidents often resulting in more negative outcomes for girls.

Our research with 1,559 UK teens found that:

  • Almost a third of girls ages 13-17 years (31%) have received unwanted sexual messages online from their peers (compared to 11% of boys) in the last year
  • 14% of girls aged 13-17 said a boyfriend or girlfriend had pressured them to share nude images in the last year (compared to 7% of boys)
  • 1 in 10 of all respondents have been targeted with sexual threats such as rape threats in the last year

When we look at this issue through a gendered lens, it does not mean that boys do not experience online sexual harassment. Harmful gender stereotypes can mean that boys can be negatively affected, believing that they cannot be ‘victims’ or feel pressure to appear sexually active or ‘collect nudes’ for example.

Our research also found that boys were more likely to be targeted with homophobic or transphobic bullying online.

New resources to tackle online sexual harassment

We have worked closely with young people, teachers and other professionals to develop interactive, engaging and relatable resources. They will be freely available for all schools, youth groups and education settings across the UK. They aim to:

  • Increase awareness and understanding on what online sexual harassment is
  • Address responses to those targeted, including tackling victim-blaming culture
  • Encourage young people to report if they see it happening online
  • Support teachers and other professionals such as police, to effectively prevent and respond to this issue.

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