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Sextortion, Revenge Pornography, Sexual Harassment...: Gender Violence On Internet

A long look at legal aspects of gender violence facilitated by digital communication technologies on Internet and social media

Claustrophobic: Artwork by Kaviya Ilango
Claustrophobic: Artwork by Kaviya Ilango Claustrophobic: Artwork by Kaviya Ilango

Have you ever sent a photograph or sel­fie using a mobile phone or a computer? If not sha­red via webcams in a virtual chat­room, then perhaps to a loved one via a text mes­sage or an email attachment, or posted on “family-friendly” social networking and micro­blogging sites such as Face­book, Instagram or Twitter? Now imagine this image, even doctored or morphed onto other bodies, posted on pornography sites or used for “sextortion” (the malafide use of sexual images obtained either consensua­l­ly—for instance during a relationship, or illegally without permiss­ion, or by hackers through spycams and mali­cious software. According to a rec­ent media report, the FBI received 18,000 sexto­rtion-­rela­ted complaints in 2021. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Image-based abuse—including, but not limited to, sextortion and ‘revenge pornography’—where an ex-partner posts intimate pictures or videos online as a vicious form of retribution—is only one of the many ways in which digital technologies are being used to perpetrate sexual and gender-based harm.

Other forms include online rape threats and simulated rape, misogynistic hate-speech (e.g. directed at female politicians and journalists), cyb­er bullying, and as a tool to intimidate rape sur­vivors and victims of sex trafficking. In rese­a­rching rape victims’ suicides for my doctoral dissertation some years ago, I came across chilling instances, where rapists not only recorded their crimes but also circulated them via MMS clips, or thr­eatened to upload the videos on YouTube as a sha­ming tactic to silence the victim. While many survivors probably did stay silent due to fear or social pressure—such that we may never hear the­ir stories—some publicly fought for justice, tak­ing on the system with or without family support. Some others took their own lives. I still remember the heartbreaking case of a young wom­an in India, gangraped and blackmailed by her boyfriend and his friends, who died after lea­ving a suicide note: “Punish him, God, because I loved him.”

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