New website set up to help victims amid 36% increase in sexual abuse involving tech: Aware

The cases include explicit sexual messages and calls, coercive sex-based communications and image-based sexual abuse.
The cases include explicit sexual messages and calls, coercive sex-based communications and image-based sexual abuse.PHOTO: PIXABAY

SINGAPORE - A website launched this month provides information and guidance for victims of sexual abuse involving the use of digital technology.

It is called Solid Ground, and was put up by two researchers in consultation with gender-equality advocacy group Aware, which saw a spike in such cases of sexual abuse in 2020.

In a statement on Wednesday (July 14), Aware said its Sexual Assault Care Centre saw 191 cases of technology-facilitated sexual abuse last year, 36 per cent more than 140 cases in 2019. It is the highest number of such cases in a year since the group began tracking the numbers in 2016.

The cases include explicit sexual messages and calls, coercive sex-based communications and image-based sexual abuse - the non-consensual creation, obtainment or distribution of sexual videos or images of another person.

Image-based sexual abuse also includes voyeurism, "revenge porn" and threats of all this, said Aware.

These acts can be carried out through the use of digital cameras, social media and messaging platforms, dating apps and ride-hailing apps, it added.

While these cases involve an aspect of technology, the abuse can sometimes also occur in offline spaces, in the form of physical or verbal harassment, rape, sexual assault, stalking, public humiliation or intimidation.

The new website will guide users through steps they can take if they experience any of nine common types of online harassment, such as being repeatedly contacted, being stalked online or having one's personal information or images shared.

Actions suggested include adjusting privacy settings, collecting evidence and applying for a protection order.

The site also lists support resources in Singapore or online, and will be kept up to date to reflect changes to social media platforms' policies, said Aware.

The website is the brainchild of two researchers, Ms Catherine Chang and Ms Holly Apsley, both 24, from the Singapore University of Technology and Design's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

They were one of the winning teams in a contest that Aware held in early 2020 to crowd-source initiatives against image-based sexual abuse in Singapore.

Said Ms Apsley: "Many technology-facilitated sexual violence survivors are overwhelmed with gathering evidence, making reports, keeping themselves safe, managing their emotions and so on.

"We hope Solid Ground can be a place where survivors can catch their breath, find their footing and orientate themselves before taking their next steps."

The victims seen by Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre in 2020 ranged in age from pre-teens to a 59-year-old.

The highest number of cases was in the 18 to 24 age group, with 62 in 2020. That was 43 per cent of cases where the age was disclosed, a significant jump from the period of 2017 to 2019, when this category made up less than 30 per cent of such cases.

The age group with the next highest number of cases in 2020 was 25 to 34, with 43 cases, or 30 per cent.

The perpetrator was known to the victim in the majority of 2020 cases, where disclosed, said Aware.

"Such perpetrators are typically far more common than strangers when it comes to sexual violence, perhaps all the more so during 2020, with Covid-19 circuit breaker measures reducing encounters with strangers," said the organisation.

The highest reported category of perpetrators in 2020 was intimate partners, current or former (55 cases, or 36 per cent of cases where a relationship was disclosed), followed by acquaintances (40 cases, or 26 per cent), then contacts made on dating apps (19 cases, or 13 per cent).

Other perpetrator types included family members, friends and colleagues, though the number for the last category decreased in 2020, again possibly because of work-from-home measures, said Aware.

The top three common platforms where victims faced such abuse were messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp, and social media platform Instagram.

Only nine cases sought assistance from the platforms by making reports, seeking help with removal of non-consensual material or the suspension of offending accounts.

In most of these cases, however, victims were not satisfied with the response from the platforms, said Aware.

Aware president Margaret Thomas said: "As our clients have attested time and again, the emotional, mental and physical impact of technology-facilitated sexual violence is on par with that of offline abuse.

"It can include anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and suicidal thoughts. What's more, there are often practical and financial effects: reputational damage, being forced to deactivate social media accounts, paying for a service to issue take-down requests to platforms, and so on."