Digital sexual cultures feminist research and engagement consortium
Research England QR Funding, University of Leicester Impact Development Fund, AHRC (AH/T008938/1)
Who We Are
We are a consortium of academics, who work closely with stakeholders, third-sector organizations, government and policy makers to explore issues around contemporary digital sexual cultures. We are particularly interested in issues such as online sexual harassment, and how we can better equip school leaders, teachers, parents and young people to manage the risks and rewards of using digital technologies in their intimate relationships.
- Professor Kaitlynn Mendes, University of Leicester
- Professor Jessica Ringrose, University College London
- Dr Tanya Horeck, Anglia Ruskin University
- Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, University of Kent
- Professor Clare McGlynn, Durham University
- Dr. Emma Sleath, University of Leicester
- Dr. Enrico Mariconti, University College London
Project Partners, Stakeholders and Third-Sector Organizations
School of Sexuality Education – a sex education organization, delivering workshops to secondary school students and teacher training sessions to qualified and trainee teachers.
Association of School and College Leaders – a trade union representing 19k school leaders across the UK.
Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) – part of the UK's National Crime Agency, which works to bring online child sex offenders, including those involved in the production, distribution and viewing of child abuse material, to the UK courts.
The Revenge Porn Helpline – A UK service offering support for those aged 18+ who help those who have had intimate photos shared online without their consent.
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. (Feb 2021-Dec 2021) (£211,580).
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, we know little 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 (Mendes et al. in press). 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 seeks to fill 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.
Staying Safe Online Survey
Our research with 150 young people aged 12-18 in 2019 found many young people experience a daily barrage of unsolicited sexual images on social media as soon as they sign up to use the platforms Snapchat and Instagram. For girls, receiving unwanted ‘dick pics’ or being harassed for nude photographs is a daily occurrence on these social media applications.
We know that since lockdown began, ‘25% of girls have experienced at least one form of abuse, bullying or sexual harassment online’, and that there has been an upsurge in practices such as ‘revenge porn’. However, we know little 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.
To find out more, UCL Institute of Education, University of Kent, University of Leicester and Sexplain have launched a quick, accessible and anonymous online survey for 13-18 year olds.
Although 13 may seem young, it is the minimum sign up age for many of the social media applications that put young people at risk, and therefore is the age at which they are likely to have been exposed to these phenomena. The survey questions ask about: 1. non-consensual receipt of sexual images, 2. pressure to send images; 3. sending self-produced sexual imagery; 4. and non-consensual image sharing. The findings will help us better understand issues around online image sharing among a wider range of young people and enable us to develop more robust approaches to safeguarding in a digital context.
Tackling Online Sexual Harassment in Schools
The aim of this project was to develop a comprehensive guidance for secondary schools on how to tackle the problem of online sexual harassment. Online sexual harassment refers to a range of behaviours where digital technologies are used to facilitate both virtual and face-to-face sexually based harms. Examples of online sexual harassment can be broadly split into the following areas:
- Unsolicited sexual content online refers to any sexual content shared online which is not wanted by the recipient. This could include content seen on apps, messaging services and websites which has not been sought out by the user.
- Image-based sexual abuse refers to the non-consensual creation and/or distribution of sexual images.
- Sexual coercion, threats and intimidation online could include a person receiving threats of a sexual nature or being coerced to engage in sexual behaviours on or offline via digital technologies.
Drawing from interviews with seven safeguarding leads in UK secondary schools and a survey with students aged 13-18, and working in close consultation with key stakeholders and project partners such as Sexplain, Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP), and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the policy details the laws relevant to these issues and provides recommendations for school staff in terms of pastoral care, whole school approach and curriculum content.
We have also provided additional guidance for young people, including links to resources which outline their legal rights, and links to organisations which can help remove sexually explicit images online.
- Short survey to complete before accessing the resources
- Access the Online Sexual Harassment Comprehensive Guidance for schools
- Access the Online Sexual Harassment School Policy
- Access the Online Sexual Harassment for Students.
The ‘teachable moments’ project is an educational initiative to create a series of digital resources based around streaming TV shows and films popular with teens.
Through worksheets based on topics such as ‘Pleasure and Communication,’ ‘Sexual Health’ and ‘Homophobia’ from episodes of shows such as Netflix’s Sex Education (2017-), ‘teachable moments’ addresses key learning points from the new RSE guidance and encourages critical thinking. The worksheets are co-designed by the sex education organization Sexplain and Dr Tanya Horeck, Reader in Film, Media and Culture at Anglia Ruskin University. See https://sexplain.org.uk/online-resources
With the recent announcement that the new compulsory RSE will now be delayed until summer 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic (https://inews.co.uk/news/compulsory-sex-education-relationships-delayed-schools-coronavirus-434523), there is a pressing need to find alternative, online ways to explore sex education issues with young people. This new initiative showcases the importance of a sex positive, non-judgemental and feminist pedagogical approach to sex and sexual relationships.
Resources and Publications
Online Sexual Harassment: Comprehensive Guidance for Schools. Leicester: University of Leicester.
‘Staying Safe Online’ survey: what unwanted sexual images are being sent to teenagers on social media?’, UCL Blog, Available at:
‘More needed to combat children’s experiences of non-consensual sexual content on social media’, UCL Blog, Available at:
Ringrose, J. and Regehr, K. (2017). The Women We See: Experiences of Gender and Diversity in London’s Public Spaces. [Online]. UK: Greater London Authority. Available at: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/2018_women_we_see.pdf.
Teachable Moments https://sexplain.org.uk/online-resources[MKD(6]
- Horeck, Tanya (2019) Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era, Wayne State University Press.
- Horeck, Tanya (2018) ‘Post Weinstein: Gendered Power and Harassment in the Media Industries’, Special Issue of Commentary and Criticism, edited with Shelley Cobb, Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 18 (3), pp 489-491.
- Horeck, Tanya (2019) ‘Streaming Sexual Violence: Binge-watching Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why,” Special Issue of Participations on ‘Watching and Listening in the Streaming Era’, 16. 2, November.
- Horeck, Tanya (2018) ‘Screening Affect: Rape Culture & the Digital Interface in Top of the Lake and The Fall,’ Television & New Media, Volume 19, Issue 6, September, pp. 569-587.
- Horeck, Tanya (2013) Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond, edited with Berit Åström and Katarina Gregersdotter, London/NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Horeck, Tanya (2011) The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited with Tina Kendall, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.
- Horeck, Tanya (2004) Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film, London/New York: Routledge.
- Mendes, K., Ringrose, J., and Keller, J. (2019) Digital Feminist Activism: Girls and Women Fight Back Against Rape Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 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.
- Regehr, K. and Matilda, T. (2017). The League of Exotic Dancers: Legends from American Burlesque. [Online]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-league-of-exotic-dancers-9780190457563?lang=en&cc=gb#.
- Ringrose, J., Whitehead, S., Regehr, K., and 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, J, Mendes, K, Whitehead, S. and Jenkinson, A. (2020) Resisting Rape Culture online and at school: The pedagogy of Digital Defence and Feminist Activism Lessons, in Ylva Odenbring and Thomas Johansson (Eds.) Everyday Violence in Schools. 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.
- Walker, K, and Sleath, E. (2017). A systematic review of the current knowledge regarding revenge pornography and non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit media. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 36, 9-24. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2017.06.010
- Walker, K., Sleath, E., Hatcher, R.M., Hine, B., and Crookes, R.L. (published online). Non-consensual sharing of private sexually explicit media amongst university students. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, doi: 10.1177/0886260519853414