‘Technologically Facilitated Sexual Violence’ – aka sextortion or revenge porn – is on the rise and the regulators are falling behind, says Curtin University’s Dr Amy Warren.
Sextortion, quite literally, means perpetrators extorting sexual-related activity and/or money from another person by threatening to digitally share sexual information or explicit images without their consent. This technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV) embraces behaviours in which digital technology is used to commit virtual and, in some cases, actual sexual violence.
TFSV has become more common over the past decade but most research has focused on the experiences of children and adolescents.
The 2016 project at RMIT was the first empirical study to explore the prevalence and nature of TFSV among Australian adults. About 3000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 54 were surveyed and just over 60% of participants had experienced at least one form of TFSV.
Legislative responses have struggled to address its growing incidence, partly due to high levels of under-reporting and minimal legal protections. The Western Australian government introduced Family Violence Restraining Orders (FVROs) in 2016, legislation that widens the definition of family violence to include cyber stalking and the distribution of intimate images without consent.
Unlike Victoria, South Australia and NSW which criminalise ‘revenge pornography’ as a stand-alone offence, FVROs restrain the perpetrator from committing TFSV before the fact. If an order is breached, perpetrators face a two-year jail term.
FVROs mark a positive step in recognising the severity of this type of sexual violence but don’t address the underlying culture that condones it and deters victim reporting.
There seems to be a disturbing level of acceptance in excusing perpetrators of responsibility and ‘blaming and shaming’ the victims.
A recent study found about 70% of participants believed people should ‘know better’ than to take sexually compromising images of themselves in the first place.
There are lessons here for medical professionals, including allied health practitioners such as psychologists and counsellors.
Any person shamed by public disclosure is highly likely to present with feelings of intense humiliation so it’s important to ensure that, in a clinical context, there is nothing that could be remotely construed as ‘blame’ apportioned to that individual. There will, in all likelihood, already be damage to their self-esteem and reputation, which could feed into mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
The impacts are often significant and long-lasting. A recent study by a Canadian university found that ‘revenge porn’ victims engage in coping mechanisms similar to individuals who have been raped. Current best practice treatment of sexual victimisation draws on trauma-informed care and referral pathways to specialist psychiatrists, psychologists and victim services.
As perpetrators continue to use technological means to commit sexual violence, it is crucial that practitioners remain aware of the potential subtleties of ‘victim blaming’. An ‘empowered’ individual is a patient on the road to recovery.
ED: Dr Darcee Schulze and Dr Amy Pracilio are co-authors with Dr Warren in the WA research.