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“Victim blaming silences women while protecting perpetrators of online sexual violence”

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12 April 2023 Tags: CSE, gender-based violence, harmful gender norms, online sexual violence, research, the Netherlands

In her report on sexual violence, Rutgers researcher Marianne Cense dived into the impact of online sexual violence on young people under 25 and the solutions to mitigate it.

Sexual violence initiated online can take many forms: nude pictures or any materials sent or shared without consent, harassment, revenge porn…etc Interviews with 8 victims and 4 experts on the topic were conducted by Marianne and her fellow researcher Anita Redert. They have revealed how disastrous its impact can be. Just like offline sexual violence, online sexual violence triggers shame and guilt among young people.

To prevent the burden of shame among victims, Marianne’s research stresses the importance of cultural change to take place by implementing comprehensive sexuality education at school, helping parents with sexuality education and launching campaigns that tackle victim blaming.

Online sexual violence perceived as sexual abuse

“We heard stories from girls who described online sexual violence as sexual abuse,” Marianne says, highlighting their feeling of being “dispossessed of their own body” that “became public”. Just like people experiencing sexual abuse, girls’ and boys’ testimonies have pointed out a “damaged intimacy” and “the difficulty to trust people,” Marianne explains.

This is particularly true for teenagers aged 15 or 16 where “low self-worth is common and sexual experience limited.”  In online and offline sexual violence, damage on trust is commonly noticed while blaming young girls is much more intense in online sexual violence cases as “society considers that the victim consented,” she explains, therefore causing obvious trauma.

One of the specific features of online sexual violence is the fact that materials can pop up anytime and anywhere, therefore increasing the feeling of shame and of being powerless.

“As a victim, you never know if those around you have seen pictures of you. You don’t know where the material is and you can’t get a hold of it, which accentuates vulnerability.”

Image de Freepik

Breaking the sexual double standard

On the other hand, the social environment can also play a major role in limiting the harmful consequences on young people’s sexual development. “Some victims are laughed at and blamed, which is very damaging as they interiorise these negative views. These reactions must stop if we want to help the victims,” Marianne says while emphasising the importance of changing power dynamics. “Civil society organisations play a key role in supporting victims and not perpetrators.”

According to her, “victim blaming” is a relevant topic to be addressed in classrooms as part of comprehensive sexuality education classes. “There’s this double standard that says that women should be nice and virtuous whereas men can be free to behave the way they want to.

These stereotypes should be challenged through “interactive sessions on social gendered norms within CSE and through scenarios and exercises submitted to students,” she thinks, advocating for a gender-transformative approach when dealing with sexuality.

We should also see social media as a playground where you can meet people, not only as a dangerous place

As part of her research, Marianne talked to boys who have been the victims of online sexual violence too. It is difficult for them to speak out, due to social norms that convey a toxic masculinity where vulnerability is perceived as a weakness.

However, figures show that in the Netherlands girls are more likely to be victims. 6% of the boys and 14% of the girls had at least one negative experience with sexting (de Graaf et al., 2017). Some of them thought they had an online flirt and others have been blackmailed to extort them money. Among women with a migrant background, they are sometimes blackmailed even if they didn’t share any sexual content.

Some of them can be expelled from their homes only because they have been subjected to online shaming. Marianne approves the cooperation of online helplines with women’s shelters to protect those women in the Netherlands but clearly states: “This can happen in any family because any family, with or without a migrant background, is subjected to cultural norms.” In her opinion, what matters is that young people feel supported by their relatives and that family members do not judge their online behaviour.

One of the recommendations highlighted in the report is the importance of normalising online sexual behaviour. “Online sexuality is not only about pornography,” she claims, praising a definition of sexuality that is broad and in line with the complexity of identities. “We should see social media as a playground where you can meet people, discover who you are and see people’s reactions, not only as dangerous spaces.

“Telling young people not to go online does not work, because online spaces are fully integrated into their lives.”

She gives the example of boys watching porn movies: “It’s crucial to talk about it and tell them that what they see is not real life instead of remaining silent on those habits” and points out the importance of “raising awareness on the impact of such practices and how to help victims speak out and find support when they need to”

Click here to access the full report (Report in Dutch with English summary)

“Stereotypes should be challenged through interactive sessions on social gendered norms within CSE ”
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