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Virtual sexual violence has real victims – and online offenders can attack in person, too

Published:10 October 2019

CQUni Perth academic Dr Marika Guggisberg is affiliated with the Queensland Centre for Domestic & Family Violence Research.

Sexual violence doesn’t just happen down the cliched “dark alley” - perpetrators are increasingly finding and targeting their victims online.

And there’s  evidence that virtual offenders may attack in person as well, according to CQUniversity sexual assault expert Dr Marika Guggisberg.

Many forms of sexual violence are highly prevalent in contemporary society. Yet, sexual violence is a topic often suppressed as people feel uncomfortable discussing it openly. Furthermore, much research evidence suggests that community attitudes and beliefs are problematic in that sexual violence is not only concealed but often excused and even justified, which creates a barrier for victimised individuals to seek help.

Dr Guggisberg says  cyberstalking, grooming,  and sextortion (blackmail using sexually explicit images of the victim) are all forms of sexual violence, and law enforcement agencies struggle  to keep up with the high prevalence of sexual violence involving technology.

“We already know that if someone is sexually assaulted, in many cases attitudes  can still be very victim-unfriendly,” Dr Guggisberg says.

Dr Guggisberg’s concerns line up with the theme of October’s Sexual Violence Awareness Month, which supports a global campaign to ‘Start By Believing’ victims.

Supported by the Queensland Government, the month of activities aim to raise community awareness about sexual violence, promote existing support options, and send a message that sexual violence should never be tolerated.

And Dr Guggisberg, who is part of CQUniversity’s Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research, said community conversations are vital for protecting our most vulnerable people.

Media technology continues to have a significant effect on attitudes and sexual behaviours

“Especially in the online realm, there’s a ‘contact risk’ for children and young people, through gaming and dating apps, and as sexting becomes a normalised activity , where predators can easily find and exploit unsuspecting  targets,” Dr Guggisberg says.

“Some gaming platforms also present ‘content risk’, by introducing sexually explicit content  to children’s games.

Living free of any form of violence is a human right. Sexual content in the media is consumed by young people with some research emerging as to the negative effects

Sometimes victimised individuals (often adolescent girls) are duped into thinking that requests for sexual images or suggestive texts are from their boyfriends because offenders may create clone social media profiles and steal someone’s identity

“men who sexually offend may really convince themselves that their victims want these attacks, and those rape supportive attitudes are most concerning .”

Earlier this year, a US gaming platform bowed to public pressure to remove a game called Rape Day, where the player controlled a protagonist described as a “menacing serial killer rapist”.

And Dr Guggisberg says attitudes that drive interest in games like Rape Day need to be addressed .

In July this year, the QCDFVR teamed with the Queensland Government to release a fact sheet about sexual violence, dispelling common myths that rape claims are often falsified, that rape perpetrators are usually strangers to the victim, and that sex must be forced for rape to occur.

Dr Guggisberg warned that sexual violence online was diverse and insidious, and that the whole community should be involved in growing understanding of the risks.

“There are  many cyber security issues that  young people aren’t aware of, and parents, care givers, teachers and other professionals need to be proactive about raising awareness  so that kids are confident to tell their parents and responsible adults when an attack occurs,” Dr Guggisberg said.