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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Learning about online sexual harm

Knowledge of online sexual harm

The vast majority of participants demonstrated some degree of knowledge of online sexual harm. Across all ages, school was identified as the most common source of learning. Family members, friends, peers and the media were also identified as significant sources of learning, although this varied slightly according to age. Of particular note is the fact that 9 percent of secondary school survey participants said they had learned about online sexual harm from personal experience.

Although participants were familiar with the concept of online sexual harm, their responses revealed a need and desire for better understanding about it. This included information about why it occurs, different forms it can take, how to identify it, possible impacts, and what to do if it happens.

Participants’ contributions suggested some potentially critical gaps in knowledge and understanding about different forms of online sexual harm and related sources of risk. For example, while most secondary school aged participants identified sexual approaches from adult strangers as harmful, they demonstrated less clarity about what constituted sexual harm within the context of peer relationships or existing online networks. This included difficulties working out when online sexual activity between peers, including within relationships, was appropriate and when it constituted a form of online sexual harm. Participants explicitly wanted more support about this issue.

The issue of sexual images received considerable attention among interview and focus group participants. Many related personal experiences in which they, or others they knew, received unsolicited explicit sexual images, or requests or coercive messages to send such images to others. This was particularly apparent for female participants, a number of whom reflected on the ‘normality’ of this.

I don’t think my dad realises how many messages from random boys I get or how many dick pics I get. And I have to deal with it every day ... it’s kind of like a normal thing for girls now ... I’ve been in conversations [online] like, ‘Hi. Hi. Nudes?’ I’m like, ‘No’ ... yeah, it literally happens that quickly. Like, ‘What’s your age?’ And you’ll say how old you are, you’re underage, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh OK’, and then they’ll ask for pictures.

14-year-old female interviewee

Participants reflected on how repeated exposure to such experiences could lead to desensitisation, which meant such incidents became accepted as an everyday part of life rather than something harmful to be acted on.

Both male and female participants highlighted how experiences of online sexual harm were influenced by wider harmful ‘gender norms’ and were part of a wider continuum of sexual harm. For boys and young men, these were noted to include myths around males not experiencing sexual harm, and anexpectation that if it did occur, they should cope or ‘laugh it off’. For girls and young women, impacts of gender norms included pressure to make sexual images of themselves available, and judgements that ensued whether they followed or resisted these expectations.

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