Criminology in Practice

Powell and Henry on Technology and Sexual Violence

Anastasia Powell and Nicola Henry, authors of Sexual Violence in a Digital Age, discuss the shifting nature of sexual harms in the context of an increasingly digital society.

It has been almost ten years since we began our research into technology and sexual violence. When we started, there had been just a handful of cases reported in the media. Today, barely a day goes by without another news story about ‘revenge pornography’, or the circulation of images of sexual assault, of ‘online misogyny’, of rape threats directed towards women in public and private life, of stalking and harassment, or of online abuse directed at victim-survivors of rape.

Sexual violence and harassment are widely recognised as globally significant and prevalent human rights problems. In Australia, where we live and work, 1 in 5 women has experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). These rates are similar in comparable countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and New Zealand; and higher in some countries where inequalities between women and men are also greater (according to the World Health Organization). Overall, the international research literature continues to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual violence, and that these harms are overwhelmingly gendered and most often relational. In other words, women are disproportionately victimised, most often by a known male perpetrator, such as a partner, friend, date or acquaintance.

Yet when we began our research, there was little information about the ways that sexual harms might have shifted in form and impact in the digital age. Our book, Sexual Violence in a Digital Age, calls attention to the wide-ranging nature of these harms – particularly in the lives of adult women.

Research cannot, unfortunately, tell us whether women’s experiences of sexual violence have become more common since the widespread uptake of communications and digital technologies. But one thing can be said with some certainty: technology has facilitated sexual violence in ways that extend and reinforce its harms to victims, at the same time as making the violence more visible. We think that this visibility has, in turn, contributed to the reinvigoration of activism, legal reform, and the collective movement to address sexual violence in recent years.

Though much of our research has shed light on the devastating nature and impacts of online sexual victimisation, there are also positive news stories to tell. Even as we write this blog post, the non-consensual distribution of intimate images has been criminalised in another Australian jurisdiction. The Australian Capital Territory has passed a law that will introduce three new criminal offences: distributing an intimate image of another person without their consent, capturing an intimate image without consent and threatening to distribute or capture an intimate image without consent.

Through our continued research, and with our colleagues Dr Asher Flynn (Monash University, Australia), Professor Clare McGlynn (Durham University, UK), Professor Erika Rackley (University of Birmingham, UK), and Professor Nicola Gavey (University of Auckland, New Zealand), we advocate for greater recognition of the harms of sexual violence in a digital age, for a range of legal and non-legal options for victims, and clear sanctions for perpetrators. By giving voice to the experiences of victims, and presenting their experiences to law and policymakers, we’ve sought to make a difference through applying our research to the human rights, justice and policy problems of sexual violence.

Most of all what we continue to strive for in our research, is to challenge the cultural and structural underpinnings of sexual violence: the everyday intrusions on sexual autonomy, and the gendered inequalities that reinforce them.

Anastasia Powell is Senior Research Fellow in Justice & Legal Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. Nicola Henry is Principal Research Fellow in the Centre for Global Research at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. Their book, Sexual Violence in a Digital Age (2017), is the latest of several collaborative works in the field of sexual violence including the Palgrave edited collections Rape Justice: Beyond the Criminal Law (2015), and Preventing Sexual Violence: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Overcoming a Rape Culture (2014). Powell and Henry also have a chapter on technology-facilitated sexual violence and harassment in the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Criminology, Crime and Justice (2017).