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We Can Build Safe Online Spaces

Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2021: We Can Build Online Safe Spaces

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In keeping with 2020 being the Year We Spent Online, this year’s SAAM theme is “We Can Build Safe Online Spaces.” Sexual assault can happen anywhere. It’s important to be mindful of that as we become evermore connected online.

Online interactions may be mostly anonymous but safety is still important. When we join online spaces, we need to be mindful of our interactions. It is even more important when we manage online spaces. Nonetheless, we are all residents of the digital world, whether we are managers or members. As such, it’s the responsibility of all of us to work together to make online spaces safe for all.


What’s So Important About Online Safe Spaces?

It’s often the case that technology outpaces the laws that regulate it, and the internet is no exception. With so much of life moved online this year, we’re past due for a discussion about online safety. We need to understand that sexual violence can and does happen online. It is not any less serious than physical abuse and it should be taken as seriously. Online safe spaces are ways that we can maintain inclusive, welcoming communities.

According to a 2018 study, nearly half of women and a quarter of men in the US have experienced some form of sexual harassment online. You can view that study here. For those of us who have not had these experiences, we almost assuredly know at least one person who has. It’s easy to believe that such experiences are simply the inherent risks of life online; they’re part of the deal. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We can create safe spaces online where all community members can feel respected, seen, and heard. When we join together to prioritize safety and respect, we can create spaces for all. Gone are the days of being able to simply log out and ignore online harassment. Well before the pandemic — and especially since — much of our lives are lived online. Everyone deserves freedom and safety from harassment in every sphere of life. The digital sphere is no exception.


What Does Online Sexual Violence Look Like?

Online sexual violence can be any type of harassment, abuse, exploitation, or abuse that takes place online. We need to remember that even though these abuses take place online, their impact on the victim is not any less real. Some of these behaviors are crimes. The ones that aren’t are just as harmful. Furthermore, when things circulate online, it can become difficult to escape the trauma. Online safe spaces can prevent such instances. Nonetheless, we should always be attentive online in case we see forms of abuse ourselves.

These are just a few examples of what online sexual violence looks like.

  • Sending someone unwelcome or hateful comments based on sex or gender
  • Sending unwanted requests to partners or strangers to send nude photos or videos, or to stream sexual acts
  • Performing sexual acts on webcam without the consent of everyone on the call, or in inappropriate settings (such as online work meetings)
  • Sharing private images or videos without the consent of those involved — this is called revenge porn, and is illegal
  • Sharing pornography in spaces where everyone has not consented to viewing it
  • Grooming children to enable their sexual abuse online or offline


Ways We Can Create Online Safe Spaces

Trying to bring order to the internet, especially as an individual or small organization, can feel a bit like delving into the Wild West. However, no one has to change everything. It’s as we have said in previous posts — culture change requires many hands. Your efforts may feel like a drop in the bucket, but enough drops will fill it. Our actions can ripple and cascade, and positive change will follow.

Practice Online Consent

Consent is permission. It’s an important part of any communication, in person or online, with intimate partners or platonic relationships. The difference with establishing online consent is that we lack communication cues we’d normally have, such as body language or tone of voice, that clue us into what the other person is really feeling. This is why, in online communications, explicitly establishing consent is critical.

Consent in Online Situations

Digital consent refers to consent for online sexual acts. Because we lack most social cues in online situations, it’s important to take extra steps to establish consent. It’s always better to ask questions or for clarification when in doubt.

We can practice digital consent by:

  • Asking permission before sending explicit messages or texts
  • Respecting the decisions of others once you ask
  • Understanding that everyone has boundaries around meeting up in real life. If you’re talking to someone through, for example, dating apps, they are under no obligation to meet in person
  • Asking each time — consent in one occasion does not mean consent in all.

Of course, there’s plenty of other non-sexual online situations that require consent. It’s still important to be mindful of others’ boundaries and perspectives.

We can practice everyday online consent by:

  • Respecting the devices and accounts of others. It’s never okay to read someone’s messages or browse their device without permission
  • Asking permission before posting a photo of someone else on social media and before reposting or resharing something personal
  • Checking if it’s okay before sharing information outside of your one-on-one chat
  • Making your availability for activities like video calls clear and conducting them within the agreed-upon time frame. Establish whether the other person is okay with using webcams or would prefer a different mode of communication

Identify Red Flags That Indicate Grooming

Grooming is when perpetrators judge how far they can push boundaries and exploit someone’s trust. It’s a process of building trust with children online. Grooming isn’t always obvious — after all, it’s about building someone’s trust. In fact, the beginning stages of grooming can even appear harmless. It’s only after building a level of friendship and trust that perpetrators try to exploit. That’s why parents can help kids and teens with online safety and teach to recognize red flags that indicate grooming.

We can identify red flags that indicate grooming by watching for certain signs:

  • Asking to keep the relationship secret
  • Making suggestive or sexual comments
  • Asking the child about their sexual background (have they been kissed, are they a virgin, etc.)
  • Sending links to suggestive images, memes, or porn
  • Asking the child to only contact them on certain apps
  • Trying to guilt them into continuing communication
  • Sending lots of messages, especially over multiple platforms (texting and Instagram DMing and Facebook messaging, etc)

What Should I Do If I Think I’m Seeing These Flags?

If you think that you are being groomed, if your friend or child is being groomed, or if you see warning signs in public, there are some things you can do.

If you think you are being groomed:

  • Communicate to them that you don’t want to talk to them anymore
  • Tell an adult you trust
  • Change your online privacy settings

If you think someone you know is being groomed:

  • Advise them to talk to their parents or a trusted adult. If you can’t convince them, talk to someone yourself
  • Direct them to anonymous help or tip lines. The National Sexual Assault hotline is one such resource
  • Listen without judgement. Try to talk to them about what’s going on without panicking them

Create Respectful, Trauma-Informed Communities

For those of us who curate, manage, or are administrators of online communities, there are some extra steps to take. Leaders in online communities can moderate their spaces to be respectful and trauma-informed. When building or managing online communities, it’s important to remember that many people in those communities have probably experienced some form of trauma.

Being trauma-informed means taking another’s traumatic experiences and reactions to those experiences into consideration. Trauma-informed communities, therefore, are communities that are designed with the trauma of their members in mind.

We can create respectful, trauma-informed communities by:

  • Giving participants options for how they interact and engage. For example, Zoom meetings that don’t require everyone’s webcam to be turned on
  • Making it clear how information shared inside the space will be used outside the space. For example, a community requirement could be to not repeat what someone says or shares with anyone outside that community, and to have their consent when doing so
  • Providing resources for members and assistance in connecting them with those resources

Support Survivors of Sexual Violence

As leaders of online communities, we can moderate our communities to support survivors and never victim-blame. As members of online communities, we can hold each other accountable and uphold the values of the community. Victim-blaming is never appropriate. It’s yet another way survivors can be harassed online, and it is in no way helpful.

Moderators of online communities can facilitate healthy group norms. Maintaining online safe spaces means maintaining trust and support. We can step in when we observe harmful behaviors by:

  • Speaking out when we see harmful comments. Calling out someone for victim-blaming may not change their mind, but it does reinforce the values of the community and refocus blame on the perpetrator, where it belongs
  • Showing support to victims of online harassment. Moderators can check in with members who have been targeted by malevolent comments
  • Volunteering to help moderate the group. Collective ownership of the safe space is part of the cascading culture change we mentioned earlier


Together, We Can Change

We can build online safe spaces. We can build better cultural norms. Change online requires change offline. Online safe spaces are important steps, but it’d be better if they weren’t necessary to begin with. Sexual violence online can be stopped. Sexual violence offline can be stopped. In our community and in the greater United States, we have outdated ideas about what is acceptable. Outdated ideas about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. What we see online is a clash between outdated attitudes and a changing culture.

It’s up to all of us to take collective ownership. We can change our online experiences and create online safe spaces. We can use these as tools for spreading new ideas throughout our culture and to affect real change. As new platforms emerge and technology expands, we can lead with these foundational principles and build safe online spaces now and into the future.

Follow us on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

Click here to visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and learn about Online Safe Spaces.

Read the full 2018 report on sexual harassment and assault.

Click here to visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline.

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