Establishing Boundaries to Prevent Online Sexual Violence

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, both our communication with friends, family, and colleagues and the spaces where this communication takes place have shifted from happening in person to primarily occurring online. But like the world outside our screens, this digital space too presents a realm where unfortunately problematic behavior can take place. That’s why, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April, we’re discussing how we can prevent sexual violence online and how to create safe spaces where sexual violence is never tolerated.

Sexual violence refers to any form of unwanted sexual contact, both in person or online, and can include sexual assault, harassment, or abuse, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Online, this type of behavior ranges from sending someone unwanted requests for sexual acts to sharing sexual images or videos with a community that did not consent to receive them. Additionally, leaving sexually inappropriate comments or victim blaming can suggest that sexual violence is acceptable.

It’s important that communities work together to prevent this type of behavior. This starts with implementing community-level prevention, which means making changes to an environment as a whole to prevent sexual violence from occurring to begin with. In online spaces, such as a victual classroom or meeting space, leaders should take proactive steps to keep these areas safe. This could look like establishing a community agreement early on to indicate acceptable and unacceptable behavior or providing steps that participants can take to report harassment or abuse.

As individuals, we can also keep our eyes open from problematic content online, such as sexist jokes and victim-blaming language. Not only can these words be hurtful to their target, but if this language goes unchallenged, other survivors of abuse could be re-traumatized if they see these comments. A few ways we can respond to this sort of behavior and show that it will not be tolerated in our communities is speaking out against these hurtful comments or reporting them, and letting victims know that we support them.

While the pandemic has certainly made preventing sexual violence online even more relevant, there are also many virtual spaces that can help survivors heal from sexual abuse. Here in Kentucky, for instance, A Voice for the Innocent operates a safe, online storytelling community where survivors can share their stories and hear from others with similar experiences. The Center’s social media platforms are additional spaces where the community can learn how we are supporting survivors. Our community as a whole is filled with support systems both online and in person, so no matter when or where sexual violence occurs, remember, help is always available.