According to research from the CDC, 41% of American women experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. Likewise, nearly a quarter of men (26%) in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
While physical assault and rape are the crimes most people associate with sexual assault, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) also reports on instances of sexual abuse facilitated online, including harassment and exploitation.
As public spaces have moved online over the last few years in response to the pandemic, the opportunities for virtual sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation have likewise increased.
Sexual abuse definitions
According to the NSVRC, online sexual abuse “can be any type of sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse that takes place through screens.” It’s often motivated by the same things that influence a person to commit in-person sexual violence.
Those motivators may include harmful beliefs about masculinity, femininity, and gender roles. Perpetrators may hold hatred, fear, or misconceptions about marginalized groups. They may experience insecurity or a desire to exert power over someone else.
When channeled online, these motivators may drive behaviors like:
- Unwelcome communication about sex or hateful comments based on sex, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation
- Sending partners, friends, acquaintances, or strangers unwanted requests for nude photos or videos or to livestream sexual acts
- Performing sexual acts on webcam without the consent of everyone involved or in inappropriate settings, like during a class or work meeting
- Revenge porn or nonconsensual pornography, which entails sharing private images or videos without the consent of everyone involved (a crime in 48 states plus Washington, D.C.)
- Zoombombing, or sharing porn in spaces where not everyone has consented to view it (i.e., in inappropriate spaces like Zoom meetings)
- Grooming children to enable their sexual abuse either online or offline
For more terms unique to online abuse and harassment, like astroturfing and doxxing, see the NSVRC glossary here.
Combating online sexual abuse
Fighting instances of sexual abuse online requires not only individual vigilance, but also a community commitment to safe shared spaces. This may include simple things like reporting inappropriate content through the correct channels, standing up for someone being publicly harassed, or identifying victim-blaming and other harmful language.
Sexual assault awareness is a critical need
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It’s a chance to uplift those working hard to care for those who have experienced sexual assault.
Trained in respectful, patient-centered healthcare, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANEs, collect vital evidence for adult and adolescent survivors of sexual assault. This training makes SANEs vital partners in the judicial process, as well as compassionate advocates for survivors.
There is a critical shortage of SANEs in the U.S. To work as a SANE, nurses must complete 40 hours of didactic education approved by the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), plus an additional 16 clinical hours aiding adult and adolescent sexual assault survivors.
To learn more about SANEs and get started on your SANE certification, view the IAFN-approved 40-hour Elite course here.