Thursday, December 15, 2022

Redrawing sexual offenses: the role of technological evolutions in online sexual behavior - A report on a webinar organized by the Dutch Affiliation of ATSA

By Minne De Boeck, Lotte Valepijn, Ellen Janssen & Kasia Uzieblo

Sexuality is constantly evolving in terms of how we date, in terms of how we shape our sexual identity and in terms of how we consume pornography. Social media and technological evolutions encourage and influence these changes. Technological trends, including robots, drones, and VR, keep evolving and exerting influence on our sexual behavior. This can be about positive developments, but it can equally create new opportunities for misuse. Hence, these technological changes create many challenges on a societal level, but also for law enforcement and for forensic care, challenges that are difficult to keep up with. 

On November 22, 2022, a webinar on technological evolutions and their role in online sexual behavior was organized by the Dutch Affiliation of ATSA. The webinar was launched by the President of the Dutch Affiliation of ATSA, Minne De Boeck. She also took the opportunity to introduce her successor, Maaike Blok, who will succeed her in 2023.

The first presenter was Catherine Van de Heyning, Professor at the Faculty of Law, Antwerp University, public prosecutor and independent expert on the advisory committee of the Human Rights Council of the UN, Belgium. She discussed the legal framework in Belgium regarding online sexual penal law, which was thoroughly analyzed with a particular focus on Image-Based Sexual Abuse. She stated that the present age represents a true image culture caused and strengthened by social media, the omnipresence of smartphones and the COVID-19 pandemic. The perception that adolescents can be their own gatekeepers in an online setting because they grew up in a digital era needs to be debunked. Belgium is proud to be a pioneer when it comes to legislative developments to battle online sexual violence. Several phenomena such as sextortion, forced sexting and deep nude were discussed in light of the new Belgian legislation. Sexting (sending nude pictures) is not a criminal offence. It only becomes punishable once the vulnerability of the other person is taken advantage of, for instance in the case of coercion or violence, or when the sexting images are forwarded without consent. Likewise, sexting between minors is not always viewed as a problem. The presenter also shed light on certain unfortunate sexting trends that have arisen. For instance, doxing that occurs when the identity of the victim is broadcasted to inflict more damage is becoming a true problem. Another phenomenon that becomes increasingly prevalent is the misuse of deep nudes. This entails searching for nude pictures of (potential) victims and editing them in such a way that pornographic content is produced. All phenomena target victims in different ways. Predominantly victims between 15 and 30 years old are targeted and girls/women are targeted more often than boys/men. Moreover, female victims are more often confronted with widespread circulation of the pictures, which inflicts even more damage.

Jeroen ten Voorde (Professor of Criminal and Criminal Procedural Law, the Netherlands) shed some light on the Dutch legal framework to cope with sexual transgressive behavior, including online behaviors. His presentation included both recent developments and plans to deal with new trends such as robots and the use of sex dolls. More concretely, there are apparent problems regarding criminalization and penalization. For example, rape is only illegal when there has been a relevant interaction. With online sexual communication, there has to be an attempt to seduce or groom. Dutch policymakers want to tackle these discrepancies in the future by introducing an interaction criterium by law. In addition, there are certain scenarios which are not yet criminalized. For example, according to the Dutch penal law, watching child sexual abuse material as such is not punishable. This issue is expected to be solved with a new child pornography provision. However, the Dutch penal law does not have a solution for the spreading of deep nude/fake pornography. These presentations show how the legal framework keeps evolving and tries to keep up with new forms of transgressive behaviors.

Zohra Lkasbi (Clinical psychologist and behavioral therapist for children and adolescents, Belgium) focused primarily on adolescents and online sexual transgressive behavior, which is also the topic of her new book. The influence of the digital evolution on the concept of sexuality manifests itself in different ways, ranging from POPU (problematic online porn use) and the non-consensual spreading of sexual content to peer-to-peer online grooming. The latter is heavily facilitated by the fact that everyone has continuously access to smartphones and social networking sites. Special attention was given to dual offenders, who have committed both online and offline offenses. These offenders are often excluded from research, which causes a gap in our knowledge. Various therapeutic interventions such as the use of an internet-and media safety plan, the Flag System, an evidence-based tool for assessing acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior or using internet zones to tackle online sexual inappropriate behavior are being applied but its efficacy has not been established in research yet.

Manon Kleijn (PhD-Student at Fivoor Science and Treatment Innovation at Tilburg University, the Netherlands), has studied online and offline child sexual offending. She examined how individuals approach minors online to abuse sexually and identified various pathways. First, she described the person who actively ‘approaches’ his victim by (1) bringing up his sexual intentions in the first few sentences and who mainly engages in short conversations, by (2) manipulating his victim (e.g., by giving compliments and showing affection with the aim of acting on sexual intentions), and by (3) discussing sexual topics. Second, she identified an ‘avoidant pathway’. These individuals do not take a lot of initiative and do not have clear intentions. Finally, a mixed group was also identified.

In the final part of the webinar, Dr. Dean Fido and Dr. Craig A. Harper (senior lecturers in Forensic Psychology, University of Derby and Nottingham Trent University respectively, UK), focused on image-based sexual abuse from a psychological perspective. This abuse encompasses phenomena such as revenge pornography, upskirting, cyber-flashing and deepfake pornography. The presentation shed light on each phenomenon. Firstly, revenge pornography was discussed, a phenomenon that always implies a core motivator as a response. Often, people think of “the cheating wife”, yet research suggests that most perpetrators are not the victim’s former partner. A potential hypothesis that was brought up was that revenge pornography supposedly is produced predominantly by men so they can brag about their sex lives. A second phenomenon, called upskirting, refers to individuals creating footage by taking pictures up the victim’s skirt. In light of this phenomenon, the presenters discussed the case of Gina Martin. She was one of the first females that wanted to report the situation after being a victim of upskirting, yet there was nowhere she could go since upskirting did not exist in any legal framework. Another upcoming phenomenon, cyber-flashing, is not illegal and can only be legally prosecuted under the guise of public harassment. With regard to creating and using deepfake pornography, two possible underlying mechanisms were discussed: hypersexuality of perpetrators and achieving sexual gratification. The presenters introduced the Beliefs about Revenge Pornography Questionnaire – a scale developed to assess social beliefs concerning revenge pornography.  Their recent studies suggest more lenient judgements of deepfake generation and dissemination for celebrities, males and when images were created for self-sexual gratification. Similarly, there is a stronger tendency to victim blaming when the victim is a male. Victims who are male and attractive are perceived to experience less harm in cases of upskirting behaviors. Interestingly, proclivity to make and distribute deepfake and proclivity in upskirting behavior seem to be linked to psychopathic personality traits.

We can conclude that there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of judicial responses to these new phenomena, and preventive initiatives. More research on these new phenomena and the sharing of best practices are highly needed. However, we also need to acknowledge that social media and other technological evolutions are evolving so fast that it is impossible to keep up in clinical practice and in terms of judicial responses. Notwithstanding, practitioners, researchers and legislators need to remain aware and pay attention to current trends in order to prevent victimization and perpetration as adequate as possible.

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