Professor Jessica Ringrose highlights the shocking findings of a new report on young people's experiences of image-based sexual harassment and abuse.
Young people aged 12 to 18 are unlikely to report receiving, or being asked to share, non-consensual sexual images to their school, college, parents/ guardians, or social media platforms, finds a major new report. The report, Understanding and Combatting Youth Experiences of Image-Based Sexual Harassment and Abuse (www.ascl.org.uk/ibsha), led by UCL in partnership with ASCL, demonstrates that these practices have become dangerously normalised for many young people.
The study involved 480 young people from across the UK – 366 via an online survey and 144 participating in in-depth focus groups – using arts-based research methods to document, understand and address their experiences of sexual abuse both online and at school.
High rates of cyberflashing (the sending of unwanted penis images to young people on smartphones) was a major concern. Of the 88 girls taking part in the focus groups, 75% said they had received an image of male genitals, with the majority “not asked for” or “unwanted”.
Participants described instances where senders were adult men who had created false identities, but also discussed episodes of online harassment and abuse from boys in their age range and known peer groups. A total of 80% of girls in the survey reported feeling “disgusted” and 58% felt “confused”.
The report also found that girls felt much more pressure to send nudes (44%), compared to boys (15%):
JADA I had a friend, yeah, and her boyfriend must have sent her a dick pic, and then he carried on trying to pressure her to send one, I feel that’s what happens the most, these boys try and pressure them like into sending it back, because oh I send, or oh if you love me you’ll send it back to me. (15 year-old girl)
SORAYA They expect something back. (15 year-old girl)
Image-based sexual harassment and abuse is heavily influenced by gender norms. Boys were rewarded for non-consensually sharing girls’ images among their peers, while girls were shamed and victim-blamed for having their image shared without their consent, which the report identifies as image-based sexual abuse:
SAM I feel like if like, if like a guy, if his nudes get leaked like it doesn’t really matter that much, but then for a girl she’ll be made to feel like a slut. (15 year-old girl)
LAINIE It’s a lot worse, like if a girl was, because then people are like oh my God, she’s such a slag. (15 year-old girl)
Girls reported that dealing with sexual harassment and abuse from known peers at school was the most difficult for them to manage, given they typically had to continue ‘working’ alongside the perpetrator(s):
CARDI Yeah, if they go to the same school as you then you see them every day, and it just reminds you of like what they did. (14 year-old girl)
The participants revealed they experienced very little relevant and useful support in mitigating these online harms because they were so ‘normal’.
MONIQUE They [young people] think it’s normal… or they didn’t do anything, and that is sexual assault, but most teenagers don’t know that, so they don’t do anything about it, and they just leave it. And they’re feeling bad. (15 year-old girl)
Just over half of the survey participants (51%) who had received unwanted sexual content online or had their image shared without their consent reported doing nothing. When asked why they didn’t report the incident, about one-third said, “I don’t think reporting works.” When they did disclose, 25% told a friend, 17% reported issues to social media platforms, 5% to parents but a mere 2% told their school. Young people told us that reporting to school could make things worse because school reporting systems failed to support the victims and some reported episodes of blaming and shaming girls who were the victims of image-based sexual abuse (their images being shared on without consent).
Time to shift the focus
These findings around the normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse, and the low rates of reporting, are significant for a range of reasons.
They show us that sexual violence is so normalised in society that young people feel like reporting these practices will likely be ineffective, and the low reporting also shows we lack insight into the high rates at which these practices are happening.
They also show us that the structures and procedures in place in some schools are not working well to protect or empower students.
While we’ve seen important recent moves towards contextual safeguarding and trauma-informed victim responses in schools, there is a real need to enact whole-school culture shifts to transform the norms that support everyday forms of gender and sexual violence experienced by young people (for instance, harmful forms of masculinity and lad culture that promote misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of hate and discrimination).
Schools’ reports for Ofsted inspections that document how they are responding to sexual harassment and abuse should document how schools are implementing culture shifts through participatory engagement with young people.
The report also advises prioritising relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools, noting that the government needs to provide schools with sufficient funding to secure appropriate staffing, training and high-quality evidence-based resources to teach gender and sexual equity.
The statutory relationships, sex and health education guidance also needs to remove all victim-blaming rhetoric and better outline online harms. The existing relationships, sex and health education guidance (2019) states that schools must teach students about “resisting pressure to have sex”.
This abstinence message carries over into the advice on digital sexual practices where the advice is “stop sexting”. This abstinence approach fails to identify that harm lies in non-consensual sharing of images; it sends the message to children that victims of coercion are responsible for changing their behaviour, rather than the perpetrator.
The report also highlights the need for all teachers and school staff to be trained on identifying and responding to online and offline sexual harassment and abuse, not only safeguarding teams. To challenge non-consensual image sharing, schools could teach about what constitutes online sexual harassment, including image-based sexual abuse and cyberflashing.
Young people said that dealing with sensitive topics like sexual violence in assemblies was the wrong approach. They believed their digital sex education could be improved if it were delivered in smaller group formats, with younger facilitators. Some also suggested lowering the age at which they learn topics related to digital sex education.
Join our free online workshops
To address these issues, a research team from UCL, University of Leicester, Anglia Ruskin University and School of Sexuality Education, in partnership with ASCL, has developed free workshops for young people on ‘Sexual Violence’ and ‘Activating for Change’. The workshops, as well as teacher training workshops on how to deliver these sessions, are accessible on the ASCL website here: www.ascl.org.uk/ibsha/events
Professor Jessica Ringrose
Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education at the UCL Institute of Education