Online sexual harassment is defined as unwanted sexual conduct on any digital platform and it is recognised as a form of sexual violence.
Online sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of behaviours that use digital content (images, videos, posts, messages, pages) on a variety of different platforms (private
It can make a person feel threatened, exploited, coerced, humiliated, upset, sexualised or discriminated against.
Such harassment takes place in a gendered context and is deeply rooted in structural relationships of inequality between women and men. This produces disproportionately negative outcomes and experiences for women and girls. Indeed, girls are more likely to be targeted with online sexual harassment than boys, particularly some forms, with these incidents often resulting in more negative consequences for girls.
Online sexual harassment can intersect with discrimination and hate crimes, relating to a person’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion,
special educational need or disability. Young people in these groups may face unique forms of online sexual harassment, resulting in a more negative impact in both the short and long term, as well as multiple barriers that can prevent them from accessing support.
Among young people this is typically taking place in a peer-to-peer context, focused around schools and local communities, and very often being played out online in front
of an active, engaged audience. Whilst it typically takes place amongst peers, it is also possible for adults to sexually harass young people online, when they interact through ONLINE GAMING or SOCIAL MEDIA.
Online sexual harassment can be categorised in four main types. These different behaviours are often experienced simultaneously and can overlap with offline experiences of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, bullying, relationship abuse and stalking.
Sexual harassment of this kind can make a person feel any of the following:
• Threatened or scared
• That their dignity is violated
• Humiliated or degraded
• Shamed or judged
• Discriminated against because of their gender or sexual
• Feel guilty or that they are to blame
The experience and impact of online sexual harassment is unique to the individual and can be felt both in the short-term but also can have long-term impacts on mental health and
wellbeing. Long term impacts can be amplified because of re-victimisation if content is re-shared online, or because the initial trauma of the incident resurfaces much later. It is important to recognise that there is no single way that a young person may experience online sexual harassment and that it might also affect others who witness it.
Some incidents of online sexual harassment break the law. In all three countries there are varying laws surrounding:
• the creation, possession and distribution of indecent images of under 18s
• sexual offences
When young people are involved in perpetrating these offences, the way in which these laws are interpreted and implemented across the three countries, and indeed within,
Further to this definition of online sexual harassment, there is some key terminology used in specific ways. These definitions have been developed on the basis of our ongoing work with young people and review of relevant literature.
Online – Any website, app or digital platform including social media platforms, gaming, direct messaging services (for example, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Musical.ly, YouTube, Xbox LIVE). Whilst some professionals may prefer to use the term ‘digital’, young people were more familiar with the term ‘online’.
Sexual – Any conduct that concerns a person’s sexual activity, body parts or sexual orientation.
Sexual Violence – Unwanted sexual behaviour that abuses, coerces, threatens, exploits or harasses.
Harmful sexual behaviour – Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult (NSPCC, 2016).
Victim – A young person who experiences online sexual harassment. Throughout this report young people who experience such behaviours will be referred to as ‘victims’.
This was terminology that was understood by both young people and professionals, although it is recognised that not all young people will identify themselves as victims, or want to be called a victim, as they may not want to be defined by the behaviour of others.
Perpetrator – A young person who has carried out online sexual harassment. The term ‘perpetrator’ is a recognised description amongst professionals. However, young people would not necessarily refer to themselves or their peers as perpetrators, or even recognise harmful sexual behaviour. They are more likely to identify others by their specific individual actions or repeated behaviours. Moreover, particularly in a peer context, it is important to recognise there are complex vulnerabilities that surround any young person
or group of young people who may display such behaviour.
Bystander – A young person who witnesses any online sexual harassment.