Sexual abuse often happens in physical spaces, tucked away in hidden corners of homes, churches, schools, gym locker rooms and spas. It can also happen online, where some survivors never have physical contact with their perpetrator but still suffer the same level of harm and trauma.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, 33% of women say they’ve endured some form of unwanted sexual contact online. In comparison, only 11% of men say they’ve had similar experiences.
Online abuse can create additional difficulties
What can make online sexual abuse so complicated is where it takes place and how it takes place. In some cases, survivors never see their abuser because they use a fake name and image in their online profile, making it more difficult to identify them. Plus, if the abuse happens on a direct messaging app, survivors may not even know what the abuser sounds like. The perpetrator may also not live in the same state or country as the survivor, which can create additional challenges. And, if the abuser targets young children, they may be at an age where they don’t understand what a predator may be asking of them or why it’s inappropriate.
What can online sexual abuse look like?
Many abusers still find ways to exert control and dominance over survivors, even when they’re not in the same room, state or country. For example, sexual abusers on social media and other online platforms may:
- Send explicit photos to the survivor.
- Demand the survivor send sexual images of themselves.
- Threaten to publish sexually explicit images of the survivor as a form of blackmail.
- Force the survivor to participate in sexting over messaging or video chat.
- Flash their genitals or anus while on video chat.
- Send content from pornographic websites.
- Participate in sextortion, where the abuser positions themselves as an online love interest, convinces the survivor to send sexually explicit content of themselves, then uses that content as a form of ransom.
Even if the abuse never happens in person, the emotional, psychological and reputational damage it can cause can be equally harmful.
Abusers can be held accountable online and off
While online sexual abuse doesn’t match all the traditional criteria, it can be equally traumatic for survivors and those they love. And as our lives become more digitally intertwined, remaining vigilant about online predators is more critical than ever. Survivors, whether abused in person or over the internet, should know that they’re never alone and can seek help and support as they heal from their trauma and move forward with their lives.