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June 3, 2013

Sex, youth, and social media

The Canadian Charger

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Crime Prevention Ottawa recently held a public workshop based on preliminary undertakings in an exploratory study on sexual violence and social media among young people. The principals in this exploratory study are Jordan Fairbairn, a Carleton Ph.D. student, and professors Rena Bivens of Carleton and Myrna Dawson of the University of Guelph.

The study in process focuses on cyber-bullying of a sexual nature.  Of course, a wider concern is cyber-bullying in general. 

One reason for the more restricted focus may be that the victim of such bullying may have provided ammunition through having allowed someone to take nude photos or photos of sexual activity.  These photos have then appeared on social media sites.

Fairbairn spoke of “an overlapping relationship between cyber-bullying and sexual violence,” using the example of “slut shaming via social media.” 

She uses the following definition of sexual violence: “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of relationship to the survivors/victims, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”

From this, it is clear that slut shaming is sexual violence which when appearing on social media is cyber bullying, not something that “overlaps.” 

However, there is another form of social media activity that is of concern, the luring of children by adults.  It does not necessarily fit the given definition of sexual violence because it does not necessarily involve coercion, and the advance may not always be unwelcomed. 

Fairbairn’s presentation focused on females as victims of sexual violence. However, males are also victimized.  For example, just as there is slut shaming, so there is queer bashing.  And males may also be lured using social media.

The research team did a survey in February and March resulting in “187 survey responses from Ontario-based community organizations, educators, violence prevention advocates, and frontline workers.”  The results:

-79% were aware of social media being used to control, harass, or stalk a current or former intimate partner.

-76% were aware of posting or sharing intimate photos or text messages without consent.

-65% were aware of posting or sharing sexually harassing or violent texts or images.

-52% were aware of social media being used for the sexual exploitation of minors.

-10% were not aware of violence, abuse, or harassment in their community related to social media.

In the preliminary analysis, the researchers identified certain themes: “location tracking and online harassment, unauthorized dissemination of sexual images and texts, bullying or harassment of sexual assault survivors, and the use of deception and anonymity.” 

They suggest that abuse may be related to characteristics of victims in terms of such factors as “ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental health, disability, social class, immigration status, and/or homelessness.” 

One thing that should be stressed is that sexual abuse on the internet could put the perpetrator in conflict with the law.  Posting sexually explicit photos of persons under 18 is child pornography.  An adult engaging in sexual activity with someone under 16 is committing an offense.  In some circumstances, the age of consent is even older.  There are laws that may apply to harassment as well.

Some implications of the study so far:

First, never have photos of you taken that you would not want to appear forever on the internet for all and sundry to see.  More generally, there is a need for healthy relationships to be promoted, beginning in kindergarten.

Kindergarten.  One is reminded of Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  

His first three learnings: “Share everything.  Play fair.  Don’t hit people.”  These need to be repeated and elaborated throughout the school years.  The principles apply to relationships, including sexual relationships.

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