Digital sexual cultures feminist research and engagement consortium
Combatting gendered, sexual risks and harms online during Covid-19: Developing resources for young people, parents and schools. UKRI AHRC Covid-19 Rapid Response Calls. (February-December 2021) (£211,580)
Professor Jessica Ringrose (University College London), Dr. Tanya Horeck (Anglia Ruskin University), Professor Kaitlynn Mendes (University of Leicester), Ms Betsy Milne (University of Leicester)
Sexual and gender-based violence has emerged as a key issue during the pandemic – at home, in schools, on the streets, and online. While digital technologies have helped young people feel connected, they also opened them up to risks and harms such as grooming, harassment, and non-consensual image sharing. Conducted by world-leading academics, and a sexual education charity, the School of Sexuality Education, we have gathered evidence gathered through surveys, focus groups, and interviews with 647 students, 77 parents, and 64 teachers/safeguarding leads across England, about the technology facilitated sexual and gender-based harms young people age 13-18 experienced during the pandemic. Our research has identified challenges students, schools and parents face in addressing these issues, policy, and educational recommendations for preventing, mitigating, and coping with these risks and harms. We also highlight the need for the Department for Education and Ofsted to have clearer language relating to the scope and forms of technology facilitated sexual and gender-based violence
Since lockdown began, the WHO, Interpol, NSPCC, CEOP and other children’s agencies have warned that increased screen time during COVID-19 makes young people more susceptible to online sexual exploitation, grooming and abuse. We know that since lockdown began, ‘25% of girls have experienced at least one form of abuse, bullying or sexual harassment online’ (Plan UK, 2020), and that there has been an upsurge in practices such as ‘revenge porn’ (Reuters 2020). However, little is known about which platforms the abuse takes place on, the type of abuse experienced, who commits it (e.g. strangers vs. peers), or the precise ways it has changed since lockdown. Furthermore, there are no accompanying statistics available for boys, gender non-binary or LGBTQ young people, who we know from our previous research also experience these harms (see Ringrose et al. in press).
Research also shows a gap between children’s experiences of online sexual content and parental awareness or understanding (for instance youth engagement with pornography) (Gunter 2014; Livingstone, 2010). Our ongoing research shows that schools are ill equipped to deal with these issues and lack sufficient policies to effectively respond. Both schools and parents/carers often lack the precise technical knowledge of popular online platforms and how to protect against and report abuse, creating difficulties in supporting young people when they encounter risk and harm.
Moreover, organizations responding to gender and sexual harm online have significant gaps in their scope. For instance, The Revenge Porn helpline only offers services for those aged 18+, while CEOP and the Internet Watch Foundation focus on child exploitation from adults, rather than abuse from peers or other children.
Consequently, this research fills significant gaps in our knowledge of the online harms and risks which many young people, of all genders, sexualities and identities are facing, as well as gaps in need, services and provision (at home, in school and amongst third parties) to address these issues. Although these gaps predate the current pandemic, the lockdown has amplified the risk and harms as well as the need for resources to tackle them.
- Surveys, focus groups and interviews with 647 young people overwhelmingly show a desire for more comprehensive Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) covering topics including consent, healthy relationships, respect, dignity, and digital technologies.
- The risks of technology facilitated sexual and gender-based violence is unevenly spread, and is experienced more by girls, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth, and increases for all genders with age. Girls, trans, and non-binary people face more sexually explicit risks and harms than boys.
- The experiences, risks, and harms of technology facilitated gender and sexual violence are routinely normalized, trivialized, and dismissed by peers, teachers, and schools. Many of these practices are not taken seriously, and victims, rather than perpetrators are often punished.
- Schools are struggling to address issues of (technology facilitated) sexual and gender-based violence. Recent reports (Ofsted 2021; Ringrose et al. 2021), and the Everyone’s Invited campaign highlight sexual and gender-based violence as an urgent concern, while schools are given few resources or training.
- Schools’ inability to address these issues was compounded by different factors including: teachers who do not recognize the scale or scope of the problem; teachers who are keen to address it, but have so little time dedicated to RSE or PHSE; school leaders who perpetuate rape culture and victim blaming attitudes; outdated policies and those that ignore the highly gendered and sexualized dynamic at play in peer on peer abuse.
- The materials produced by the Department for Education and Ofsted do not address the realities of young people’s experiences. Policies do not appear to have been created in consultation with young people to address the complex risks and harms that they experience, or how these are rapidly changing amidst algorithmic and technological developments, new social media platforms of choice etc.
- Most parents have minimal understanding of how the social media platforms their children use work, and therefore, what specific risks and harms they experience there. Many parents also displayed fear towards the technology.
- Many parents attempt to address online risks and harms through using filters and controls over their children’s devices, rather than say through conversations. This strategy is inadequate as our survey with youth showed that over 50% knew how to bypass these parental controls.
- Some parents expressed that they didn’t know how to start conversations with their children about these issues and need support on what to say. Many parents engage in these conversations long after their child has started experiencing them – we argue conversations about respect, consent, and online behaviour needs to start happening much sooner.
- Snapchat and Instagram and the platforms where most girls experience online harms and risks, where gaming platforms pose the most risk for boys.
- Social media companies must be held accountable for online harms that young people experience. There are serious concerns with automatic privacy settings disabled for young people, exposing them to various harms and risks (e.g. grooming and cyberflashing by unknown adults). Reporting features rarely lead to satisfactory resolutions, with some social media companies not responding to reports (e.g. Snapchat), and others saying what is reported can’t be addressed (e.g. it doesn’t break ‘community standards’)
Developing Digital Defense & Activism Lessons (AH/T008938/1) Follow-on-Funding for Impact and Engagement. (July 2020-July 2022) £98,424.91.
Professor Jessica Ringrose (University College London), Dr. Tanya Horeck (Anglia Ruskin University), Professor Kaitlynn Mendes (University of Leicester), Dr Karen Desborough (University of Leicester)
In 2015, a group of girls set up a Twitter account as part of their secondary school feminist society. Less than an hour after posting their first tweet, they received a barrage of angry, sexualized responses. Over the coming weeks, they were attacked, threatened, and belittled. The girls were told to 'kill themselves', called 'Feminazis,' sent porn links, had official statistics on sexual violence challenged, told to 'shut up' and 'make me a sandwich.' Since 2014, we have been studying young people's use of digital technologies to challenge gender inequality, sexism and harassment (Mendes et al. 2019). While digital technologies offer new possibilities for change, they make those who speak out vulnerable to vicious, often gendered, sexualized and racialized trolling. Technology-facilitated gender-based and sexual violence (TFGBSV) is a significant public concern around the world (Bailey 2015; Bailey and Mathen 2017; Bailey et al. 2017; Dietzel at press; Dunn 2020; Flynn et al. 2021; Khoo 2021; Regehr 2020). TFGBSV can include sexual name calling or sexual rumour spreading using technology, the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images, online harassment, upskirting, cyberstalking, and doxing (5Rights Foundation 2021; Horeck et al. 2021; Ringrose et al. 2021; Vepsä 2021). Although it affects people of all ages, this violence can be particularly impactful to young people who may be targeted by members of their peer group or by adults that they know in person or have met online.
While TFGBSV is a broad public concern, it is not consistently taught in school. Although a new Relationship and Sex Education Curriculum was meant to become mandatory in 2020, this was delayed because of the pandemic. At the same time, teachers have not received training on how to deliver this curriculum.
The aim of this project is to take knowledge and information about TFGBSV and how young people can challenge it, creating content relevant to RSE curriculum, and training teachers around these issues, and how to deliver this content for students.
Working closely with the School of Sexuality Education, we have developed workshops and resources for students, parents, and teachers around TFSV and gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV). To date, these workshops and resources have reached over 900 teachers and school leaders, 1,300 young people, and 280 parents across England, Ireland, and Canada.
- Schools are currently ill-equipped to deliver RSE content on the topic of TFGBSV, or RSE more generally. Teachers are not trained to teach RSE, and few resources are currently available in schools to deliver high quality RSE. Instead, until teachers are equipped with skills and knowledge around these topics, they are best taught by professionals.
- Students desperately want a comprehensive RSE curriculum that reflects their lived experiences. They want a curriculum that is intersectional and inclusive for students of all genders and sexualities. They want to see material that reflects their lived experiences, giving them a chance to understand, and at times re-frame experiences.
- Most teachers are currently ill-equipped to deliver content that requires an intersectional understanding of power and sexual violence.
- Some schools are inherently unsafe. As a result, it can be risky to deliver content on GBSV without proper supports and resources for students.
- Comprehensive Relationships and Sex Education: Students need to be taught about sexual and gender-based violence from an early age, and how it can be facilitated by technologies. Parents and schools have key roles to play in this education, and young people desperately want more information from diverse sources (including Relationship and Sex Education curriculum) to help them form, manage, and maintain healthy relationships. Young people of all genders expressed the ways that many harmful practices such as sending and receiving unsolicited sexual images are routinely ‘normalized,’ and how potential negative consequences are often dismissed. Working with a sex education charity the School of Sexuality Education, we are piloting and rolling out two workshops for students, and accompanying teacher training workshops, which meets this need.
- School Policy: We recommend that schools adopt specific sexual and gender-based violence policies (including those addressing the prevalence of technology facilitated sexual violence). They also need to develop diverse strategies for reporting, and victim support mechanisms for dealing with (online) gendered harms and sexual violence.
- Government Policy: The Department for Education and Ofsted must provide clearer language and terminology relating to the scope and forms of technology facilitated gender and sexual violence. This will help young people to recognize practices which are often normalized, trivialized, or dismissed. Current policies do not reflect the breath of young peoples’ lived experiences, particularly digitally facilitated risks and harms, nor offer advice on appropriate victim supports.
- Government Funding: The government should invest funding into RSE curriculum. In the short term, this includes both CPD and investment in PGCE and SCITT programs to include training on delivering RSE, as well as additional funding for schools to bring experts in to teach this content. In the long run, we hope that all teachers receive basic training in delivering RSE, and schools take seriously RSE as an important part of the curriculum that encourages a child’s holistic development.
Outputs from these projects
School of Sexuality Education; Ringrose, Jessica; Mendes, Kaitlynn; Horeck, Tanya (2020). ‘Online Sexual Harassment: Comprehensive Guidance.’ School of Sexuality Education. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57dbe276f7e0abec416bc9bb/t/5f86b37c409ee95b26cf27e6/1602663308003/School+of+Sex+Ed+OSH+Comprehensive+Guidance.pd
Guidance is also available here: https://www.ascl.org.uk/Microsites/IBSHA/Resources
Resources for teaching sexual violence in schools
Sexual Violence and Activism Workshops and guidance: https://www.ascl.org.uk/Microsites/IBSHA/Resources
Horeck, T., Ringrose, J., & Mendes, K. (2021) ‘Schools urgently need to tackle rape culture by educating pupils about online world’, The Conversation, 31 March. https://theconversation.com/schools-urgently-need-to-tackle-rape-culture-by-educating-pupils-about-online-world-158159
Mendes, K., Burkell, J., Bailey, J., and Steeves, V. (2021) ‘Why Facebook and other social media companies need to be reined in’ The Conversation. 18 Oct. https://theconversation.com/why-facebook-and-other-social-media-companies-need-to-be-reined-in-169520
Mendes, K., Milne, E., Ringrose, J., & Horeck, T. (2021) ‘Lockdown, violence and understanding women’s anger’ The Conversation, 18 March. https://theconversation.com/lockdown-violence-and-understanding-womens-anger-157180
Ringrose, J. Eliot, R., Whitehead, S., Jenkinson, A., Mendes, K., & Horeck, T. (2021) ‘Everyone’s Invited: Why we’re not surprised about the #MeToo movement in UK schools’, UCL Institute of Education Blog, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/2021/04/27/everyones-invited-why-were-not-surprised-about-the-metoo-movement-in-uk-schools/
Mendes, K., Horeck, T., and Ringrose, J. (2022) Special Issue on Sexual Violence and Education, Journal of Gender and Education, 34(2): 129-133. DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2022.2032537
Ringrose, J. Milne, B, Horeck, T and Mendes, K (forthcoming) #MeToo in British Schools: Young people’s changing understandings of sexual violence after the Covid-19 lockdowns
Mendes, K., Ringrose, J. and Keller, J. (2014-2016) “Documenting Digital Feminist Activism: Mapping feminist responses to new media misogyny and rape culture” (AH/L009587/1), (£136,872)
Horeck, T. (2004) Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film. London/NY: Routledge.
Mendes, K. (2015) SlutWalk: Feminism, activism & media. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mendes, K, Ringrose, J., and Keller, J (2019) Digital Feminist Activism: Girls and Women Fight Back Against Rape Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Renold, E., Ringrose, J. and Egan, D. (editors, 2015) Children, Sexuality, and Sexualisation, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Ringrose, J. (2013) Post-Feminist Education? Girls and the sexual politics of schooling, London: Routledge.
Ringrose, J., Regehr, K., and Milne, B. (2021) ‘Understanding and Combatting Youth Experiences of Image-Based Sexual Harassment and Abuse’ https://www.ascl.org.uk/ibsha
Ringrose, J., Gill, R., Livingstone, S. and Harvey, L. (2012) A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’. London: NSPCC http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/44216/1/__Libfile_repository_Content_Livingstone%2C%20S_A%20qualitative%20study%20of%20children%2C%20young%20people%20and%20%27sexting%27%20%28LSE%20RO%29.pdf
Policy Guidance and Good Practice Guides
Bragg, S., Jenkinson, A., Wiggins, A., Boldry, K., Ringrose, J. (2021). UCL Community Engaged Learning Project: School Uniform Guidance for Schools [Digital scholarly resource]. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57dbe276f7e0abec416bc9bb/t/6162b2874b848a5ebf52a2c1/1633858184636/School+Uniform+guidance+for+schools.p
Jenkinson, A; Whitehead, S; Emmerson, L; Wiggins, A; Worton, S; Ringrose, J; Bragg, S; (2021) Good Practice Guide for Teaching Relationships and Sex(uality) Education (RSE). UCL Institute of Education: London, UK. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10125267/
Harvey, L., Ringrose, J. and Gill, R. (2013) Swagger, Ratings and Masculinity: Theorising the circulation of social and cultural value in teenage boys' digital peer networks, Sociological Research Online, 18. 4
Horeck, T and Paasonen, S. (forthcoming) ‘Natalie Wood Day’: Sexual Violence and Celebrity Remembrance in the #MeToo Era.
Horeck, T. Streaming Sexual Violence: Binge-watching Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Special Issue of Participations on Watching and Listening in the Streaming Era, (2019) https://www.participations.org/Volume%2016/Issue%202/9.pdf
Horeck, T. Screening Affect: Rape Culture & the Digital Interface in Top of the Lake and The Fall.
Television & New Media, Volume 19 Issue 6, September, (2018), pp. 569-587.
Keller, J. and Ringrose, J. (2015): ‘But then feminism goes out the window!’: exploring teenage girls’ critical response to celebrity feminism, Celebrity Studies, DOI:10.1080/ 19392397.2015.1005402
Keller, J., Mendes, K. and Ringrose, J (2018) Speaking “unspeakable things:” Documenting digital feminist responses to rape culture, Journal of Gender Studies, 27(1): 22-36
Kim, C. and Ringrose, J. (2018) “Stumbling Upon Feminism”: Teenage Girls’ Forays into Digital and School-Based Feminisms, Girlhood Studies, 11(2): 46-62 doi: 10.3167/ghs.2018.110205
Mendes, K, Ringrose, J. and Keller, J. (2018) #MeToo and the promise and pitfalls of challenging rape culture through digital feminist activism, European Journal of Women’s Studies 2018, Vol. 25(2) 236–246.
Mendes, K., Keller, J. and Ringrose, J. (2019). “Digitized Narratives of Sexual Violence: A case study of BeenRapedNeverReported and Who Needs Feminism?” New Media & Society. 21(6): 1290-1310.
Phipps, Alison, Ringrose, Jessica, Renold, Emma and Jackson, Carolyn (2017) ‘Rape culture, lad culture and everyday sexism: researching, conceptualizing and politicizing new mediations of gender and sexual violence’, in Journal of Gender Studies DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2016.1266792
Ringrose, J. Regehr, K. & Whitehead, S. (2021) ‘Wanna trade?’: Cisheteronormative homosocial masculinity and the normalization of abuse in youth digital sexual image exchange, Journal of Gender Studies, DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2021.1947206
Ringrose, J. Regehr, K. and Whitehead, S. (2021) Ringrose, J., Regehr, K. & Whitehead, S. Teen Girls’ Experiences Negotiating the Ubiquitous Dick Pic: Sexual Double Standards and the Normalization of Image Based Sexual Harassment. Sex Roles. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-021-01236-3
Ringrose, J., Whitehead, S., Regehr, K., & Jenkinson, A. (2019). Play-Doh Vulvas and Felt Tip Dick Pics: Disrupting phallocentric matter(s) in Sex Education. Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology, 10(2-3), 259-291. https://doi.org/10.7577/rerm.3679
Ringrose, Jessica (2018) Digital feminist pedagogy and post-truth misogyny, Teaching in Higher Education, 23:5, 647-656, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1467162
Renold, E. and Ringrose, J. (2016) Selfies, Relfies and Phallic Tagging: Posthuman part-icipations in teen digital sexuality assemblages, Educational Philosophy and Theory DOI:10.1080/00131857.2016.1185686
Dobson, A. and Ringrose, J., (2015) Sext Education: Sex, gender and shame in the schoolyards of Tagged and Exposed, Sex Education, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2015.1050486
Ringrose, J. and Harvey, L. (2015) Boobs, back-off, six packs and bits: Mediated body parts, gendered reward, and sexual shame in teens’ sexting images Continuum Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, DOI: 10.1080/103043112.2015.1022952
Ringrose, J. and Renold, E. (2014) “F**k rape!”: Mapping affective intensities in a feminist research assemblage, Qualitative Inquiry, Special Issue: Analysis after Coding in Qualitative Inquiry 20(6): 772- 780
Ringrose, J., Harvey, L, Gill, R. and Livingstone, S. (2013) Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange, Feminist Theory, 14(3) 305–323 DOI: 10.1177/1464700113499853
Horeck, T. (forthcoming 2022). Sexual Violence and Social Justice: The #MeToo Documentary. In Routledge Companion to Gender, Media & Violence, editors, Karen Boyle & Susan Berridge, Routledge.
Horeck, T., Mendes, K. and Ringrose, J.. (2021) ‘Digital Defence in the Classroom: Developing a Feminist School Policy on Online Sexual Harassment for under 18s’, In Powell, A., Flynn, A., and Sugiura, L. (eds). Palgrave Handbook on Gendered Violence & Technology (London: Palgrave Macmillan)
Mendes, K. and Ringrose, J. (2019) ‘Digital Feminist Activism: #MeToo and the everyday experiences of challenging rape culture’ in Bianca Fileborn and Rachel Loney-Howes (eds.) #MeToo. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mendes, K., Belisário, K., and Ringrose, J. (2019) ‘Digitized Narratives of Rape: Disclosing Sexual Violence Through Pain Memes’ In Ulrika Andersson, Monika Edgren, Lena Karlsson and Gabriella Nilsson (eds.) Rape Narratives in Motion. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ringrose, J., Mendes, K. Jenkinson, A. and Whitehead, S. (2021) ‘Resisting Rape Culture online and at school: The pedagogy of Digital Defence and Feminist Activism Lessons’, In Ylva Oldenbring and Thomas Johansson (eds) Violence, Victimisation and Young People (London: Springer).
Ringrose, J. and Mendes, K (2020) #WhoNeedsFeminism? Mapping Leaky, Networked Affective Feminist Resistance, In Katie Warfield, Carolina Cambre and Crystal Abidin, (eds.) Me-diated Inter-faces: representation, presentation, and embodiment online, Bloomsbury.
Ringrose, Jessica and Kaitlynn Mendes (2018) Mediated Affect & Feminist Solidarity: Teens’ using Twitter to challenge ‘rape culture’ in and around school, in Editors: Tony Sampson, Darren Ellis and Stephen Maddison, Affect and Social Media, London: Rowman and Littlefield.
Retallack, H. Ringrose, J. and Lawrence, E. (2016). ‘Fuck your body image’: Teen girls’ Twitter and Instagram feminism in and around school in J. Coffey Shelley Budgeon and Helen Cahill (Eds.) Learning Bodies: The Body in Youth and Childhood Studies (pp. 85–103). London: Springer.
Women fight back against Rape Culture, Times Higher Education (2019) https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/digital-feminist-activism-girls-and-women-fight-back-against-rape-culture-kaitlynn-mendes-Oxford-University-Press