Apr. 10—This month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an initiative now 20 years old that aims to end sexual violence such as sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment.
The theme for this year is "We Can Build Safe Online Spaces," and it's no wonder that was chosen for 2021. Over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have moved virtually our entire lives online, from Zoom meetings with co-workers and FaceTime videos with faraway family members to text messages with prospective dates through dating apps. But these platforms can be rife with abuse, particularly sexual abuse, and unfortunately many of us have noticed that as we have lived more online than ever before.
So what is online sexual harassment or abuse? According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, it can be:
—Sending someone hateful or unwelcome comments based on sex.
—Sending unwanted requests to partners or strangers to send nude photos or videos or livestream sexual acts.
—Performing sexual acts on webcam without the consent of everyone involved or in inappropriate settings.
—Sharing private images or videos without the consent of everyone involved — also known as revenge porn, which is illegal.
—Sharing porn in spaces where everyone has not consented to view it — such as in Zoom meetings, also called Zoom bombing.
—Grooming children to enable their sexual abuse either online or offline.
As the NSVRC notes, just because these forms of sexual abuse take place behind a screen doesn't make their impact on the victim any less real. Some of these behaviors are legally crimes, but all of them have the potential to be incredibly harmful to the victim, perhaps causing lasting trauma.
So what can we do to create online spaces that are safe from sexual violence? The simple solution is to not do the above behaviors, to teach your children not to perform such behavior and to appropriately report such behavior when you see it.
But there's more to it. Creating an online world free of sexual violence should move beyond the bare minimum of not doing sexually unwanted behaviors online and toward explicitly supporting victims and offering victim-focused spaces. Again, from the NSVRC:
—We can give participants choices about how to engage with online formats. For example, when we hold Zoom meetings for work or FaceTime videos with family, we shouldn't insist that everyone turn their video camera on.
—We can make it clear if and how information shared in the space will be shared outside the space. We can agree to not repeat others' personal stories that are shared within the space so that participants feel comfortable.
—We can connect participants to support they may need. Let people know where they can go for help if something in the online community is triggering.
These strategies should be integrated into our online interactions to make our world safer for everyone.