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Image-Based Harassment: Its Scope, Harms, and Remedies

A new study raises the alarm on digital sexual harassment.

Key points

  • A new study looking at digital sexual behavior finds that image-based sexual harassment is pervasive.
  • Twenty-five percent of teen girls experienced online sexual abuse during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020.
  • Few teen girls reported their digital harassment because they saw it as normal, and this needs to change.

Last month, I had the opportunity to join a radio broadcast with Professor Jessica Ringrose, the lead author of a recent study about image-based harassment. This involves either receiving—in the absence of any invitation—sexual images (sometimes called “cyberflashing”) or pressure to share sexual images with others (sometimes referred to as pressured sexting), usually on social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. More invasive forms of such harassment involve the nonconsensual recording of sexual activity and the distribution of such images. This is often referred to as “revenge porn,” but it occurs far more broadly than that suggests.

Gendered Abuse

Like many forms of abuse, image-based harassment is highly gendered; men and boys are more likely to be the ones sending images and pestering women and girls to share them. During the first COVID-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom, from late March to the second week in May 2020, 25 percent of girls experienced some form of online abuse in the form of bullying or sexual harassment. Approximately half of such unwanted images and requests were sent by adult men disguised by false social media profiles, and half were sent by teen boys, often in the teen girl’s peer group.

Some researchers argue that “sexting”—or consensual receipt and exchange of sexual images— can be a more-or-less healthy expression of teen sexuality and intimacy,1 while some see all cases of sexting as harmful—a form of pornography that degrades sex, sexual feelings, and dignity. Conflating consensual and nonconsensual sexual image sharing, however, risks erasing the deep harm to teen girls in particular from nonconsensual images. In fact, Ringrose’s report argues that image-based harassment “describes a subset of non-consensual and harmful online behaviors that constitute digital sexual violence and require immediate intervention.”2

Acceptance Is Itself Harmful

Teen girls rarely report such abuse, believing that no one would do anything about it. After all, they say, it is “normal”; it is “just what happens.” So can image-based harassment really be classified as “abuse” and “violence”?

The answer is “yes,” but this requires explanation.

Let us first look at the highly gendered aspect of such abuse—where girls, typically, are the victims and males (adult men and teen boys) typically the perpetrators. Teen boys are generally rewarded for sending images to girls. By getting a girl's attention and probably rattling her, they make their mark with their sexuality. This in itself is harassment. It draws on and enforces the message, “I am entitled to your attention. I can disrupt your focus. I can impose my sexuality on you as I please.”

When a teen boy shares any sexual images a girl is persuaded to send, he is rewarded by his peers with their excited laughter or amazement, whereas the girl herself is often shamed. If the images are deemed attractive or stimulating, then her sexual dignity is undermined, stolen from her as the agent, and “passed around” as an object of their pleasure. If the images are not rated high (as desirable), then she is ridiculed with the message, “You should be ashamed of not appealing to me, because it is your role to be desirable.” In either case, the girl is trapped within the boys' subjective sexuality, while her own subjective sexuality is shamed.

Digital Shaming Machines

These dynamics are not new, but digital platforms facilitate it and spread it widely, sometimes protecting perpetrators with anonymity. Companies that run these shame machines could do a great deal to mitigate harms. They may claim that they are doing their best, they may claim that they do not “tolerate” harassment or abuse, but their incentives include grabbing users' attention— which sexual images do. There is little incentive at the moment to report and block such abuse automatically, and this needs to change.

In adolescence, when teens are highly susceptible to others’ views of them—a condition sometimes referred to as the “looking glass self”—image-based harassment can feed into girls’ susceptibility to depression, anxiety, and body dissatisfaction, and even generate thoughts of suicide. Yet we have seen that teen girls rarely report image-based sexual harassment and abuse. “There’s no point,” they say, adding, “it’s normal.”

It is here, in this “normality,” that we can see the most widespread harm, and not only for teen girls. We are failing our sons as well as our daughters if we do not intervene in a culture in which harassment of girls is a normal way of bolstering teen boys’ “pride.”

References

1. Burkett, M. (2015). Sex(t) talk: a qualitative analysis of young adults’ negotiations of the pleasures and perils of sexting. Sexuality & Culture, 19(4), 835–863.

2. Ringrose, J., Regehr, K., & Milne, B. (2021). Understanding and combatting youth experiences of image-based harassment and abuse.

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