Friday, March 15, 2024

The intersection of online and offline behaviours in sexual abuse: reframing approaches

 By Kieran McCartan, PhD & Sophie King-Hill, PhD

Over recent years there has been a rise in conversations about sexual abuse in the online environment. These conversations encompass a wide range of online behaviours such as catfishing and its impacts, sexual and relationship education in UK schools, the production of Child Sexual Exploitation material internationally, as well as the nature of pornography on legal sites (i.e., Pornhub). The main premise that all these conversations have in common is how the relationship between sexual abuse and exploitation is understood in the online and the offline world.

There are different components to consider when addressing the issue of online sexual abuse. These include education, safeguarding/child protection, law enforcement, and the responsibilities of online companies. These all need consideration when attempting to understand and change social norms in relation to the online world. Many of the solutions that are offered are rooted in established models and ways of thinking because they are familiar to us does, however due to the differing complexities of the online world they may not be fit for purpose. One of the first steps in this process is to recognise the differences between online and offline sexual abuse.

Research has been ongoing into the online world for the past 30 years, with knowledge and practice moving on significantly. Due to this there is a relatively good understanding of the practices that occur online, who partakes in them, the reasons why they engage in these activities, and how we can prevent reoffending. The understanding of the relationship with technology and the online world has evolved and it is not simple.

The online and offline worlds are becoming increasingly intertwined in our daily lives and identities. In relation to young people, the boundaries between these two worlds are not present and are seamless. Therefore, it is important that professionals recognise how identities are evolving on and offline. There needs to be a shift in the understanding of behaviour and action and how we think about this issue needs to shift.

Online sexual behaviours need reframing to recognize that our current ideas about the online world and how to approach the issues that it presents are not fit for purpose. The relationship between the online and offline worlds needs to be redefined in respect to sexual abuse. Consideration needs to be given to how conversations are framed in society and how change policy and practice can influence this. Realistic education and awareness programmes are needed that put this debate at their heart, that don’t see talking about the online environment as a bolt on or afterthought and that actively involve the users.

It is therefore important to recognise that our perspectives of this are rooted in our experiences and knowledge of the offline world and these need to adapt and evolve to fully tackle the issue of online sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviours.

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