Content warning: This piece describes examples of digital abuse, sexual violence, relationship violence, and institutional reporting, which can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
Despite its societal history long before lockdowns began, reports of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence have skyrocketed during the past year as individuals have been required to stay home. A double–edged sword, it has also become more difficult for those experiencing intimate partner violence to tell anyone about it, given that their partner could be listening in on their virtual conversations.
Even pre–pandemic, the rates of abuse were extremely high among college students. The National Domestic Violence Hotline published statistics on sexual and relationship violence stating that “43% of dating college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, digital, verbal, or other controlling abuse.” This parallels the results from the 2019 Association of American Universities' Campus Climate Survey at Penn, which found that “41.2% of students indicated that they had experienced at least one type of harassing behavior since entering school.”
Missing from many of these discussions is an acknowledgement that our increasingly virtual lives also make us more vulnerable to online abuse. When everything we do happens over Zoom, intrusions into private spaces, such as Zoom bombing, become more frequent. As the use of texting and video calls for dating has grown in response to social distancing guidelines, it's opened up more opportunities for sexual images and recordings to be sent past the intended recipient(s).
The BBC reported that one government–funded helpline in the United Kingdom witnessed a 22% increase in reports of nonconsensual pornography (colloquially called revenge porn) during the first few months of lockdowns. Al Jazeera reported that similar trends emerged all over the world, where women were particularly likely to experience cyber–harassment of a sexual nature, and receive threatening messages.
Although the problem of online sexual harassment might be the most familiar to a wide audience, there are a variety of other actions that also constitute digital abuse. Sophie Maddocks, a second–year Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School for Communications who specializes in the topic, encourages people to think of it as a set of corollaries to traditional abuse categories: “A lot of people have a pretty good understanding of what abuse is. It can be emotional, physical, verbal, sexual, financial—and it can be all of these different things happening at once,” Sophie says. “Digital abuse takes on all of those categories, and kind of adds another manifestation to them.”
So while you typically might think of financial abuse as an abuser restricting their partner’s access to money by hiding bills or stealing cash from them, digital financial abuse could be a phishing scam, or changing the password to a shared online bank account. And while you might think of sexual abuse as nonconsensual physical contact, digital sexual abuse might look something like sharing intimate images without permission, or sending unsolicited sexual messages and photos.
To be clear, the recent increase in these forms of violence doesn’t mean that online harm didn’t occur before the pandemic. Malik Washington, the director of Penn Violence Prevention (PVP), notes that “even pre–pandemic, a lot of [abusive] behaviors happened digitally, whether that be via text message, or whether that be online and on social media.” In fact, it is overwhelmingly more common for digital abuse to occur simultaneously with physical and emotional abuse rather than as an isolated event.
The most important factor to remember when discussing this topic is that no matter what the circumstances are, digital abuse is still abuse. Just because it happens online doesn’t make it any less harmful or violent, and shaming someone for their online activity—taking and sending nudes, posting a bikini picture on social media—is just as wrong when discussing online violence as it is when discussing physical violence. Cautionary statements such as “Don’t show your face in nudes” might seem like harm reduction on the surface, but require a robust critique of the person who subsequently decided to distribute the photo without permission. Otherwise, these suggestions can feel more like victim–blaming than helpful advice.
“It's like a rape victim who wears a miniskirt. You don't want to blame her for wearing a miniskirt—you want to blame the rapist,” Sophie says. “It's exactly the same in digital abuse. You should be able to take nudes, you should be able to employ your sexuality, you should be able to make an OnlyFans account, you should be able to engage in any type of safe sexual behavior that you deem appropriate for you. But somebody taking that and using it against your will or posting it in a different location, or somebody posting your personal address—all of those things are a completely unprovoked, unnecessary attack that is rooted in power and control.”
Thankfully, search engines and social media platforms took measures to limit the spread of such harmful content and the sites that host it. They “de–index” intimate images posted without consent from their search functions, ensuring that it cannot be found by searching for the content’s title or the victim’s name through their sites. Many social media sites also have community guidelines that prohibit hate speech or harassment, and users are able to report accounts that engage in such activity. Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook were among the earliest to adopt such policies in early 2015, and Instagram, Yahoo, Bing, and Google were not far behind. By the end of 2015, even Pornhub, one of the most popular hosts of pornographic content online, had followed suit.
It’s significant to acknowledge that this decision didn’t just happen—activists have been dedicating massive amounts of time and energy towards progress. “The reason things have changed is because an army of victims have come forward and said, 'We're not going to deal with this,'” Sophie says. “The real story that we take from this is that people who have experienced this harm have become lawyers so that they can fight back, they have changed their doctoral thesis [so] that they can write research that tackles revenge porn, they have gone onto social networks and demanded to be heard.”
Although this isn’t a perfect solution, websites’ newfound willingness to respond to digital abuse is celebrated as a huge win in violence prevention circles. As long as the content remains confined to mainstream websites and doesn’t trickle into the dark web, takedown notices can be filed and are usually complied with. Until the federal government revises Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow for litigation against the sites themselves rather than just those who post on it, it’s the best case scenario for now.
But for all of the advances that have been made in the field of violence prevention, there are still numerous barriers and risk factors that have yet to be addressed—including at Penn.
A grave point of consideration is that Penn keeps a semi–public repository of student information. Anyone with valid PennKey login information can access a complete database of students’ emails, phone numbers, and addresses. While this is sometimes useful—you might be able to get in contact with a classmate for a group project or speak to alumni working in a field of interest—it can also leave students vulnerable to cyberstalking and harassment.
Even worse, it’s likely that the vast majority of students have no idea their information is so readily available.
The responsibility should not be on students to go out of their way to keep themselves safe. Instead, Penn should make the system opt–in rather than opt–out, especially for high–risk information like addresses.
Unfortunately, this is just one of many ways that Penn both enables abuse and violence while also washing their hands of it. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported last semester that under new federal Title IX guidelines, the University is no longer responsible for off–campus reports of sexual harassment unless “the locations are being used by an officially recognized organization, like a University–recognized fraternity or sorority.” Given that the majority of upperclassmen choose to live off campus in non–University–affiliated housing, there are now thousands of students with limited access to the Title IX office if they experience violence.
Penn’s policy on digital abuse is even worse—it’s nonexistent. In their policy on sexual misconduct, Penn lists a number of things that fall under their jurisdiction—sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence, and even stalking. But if you search for the term “digital abuse,” there are no results.
The Title IX office did not respond to a request for comment.
Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that there are absolutely no options. Washington explains that even though “there is no explicit or specific piece of the [Title IX] policy that's talking about digital abuse, the things that are covered in harassment policies are still [applicable] whether it's happening digitally or in person.”
It is comforting to know that there is at least some level of protection afforded by the current policy. But if forms of digital abuse are lumped in with sexual harassment in the University’s policy, and the legal and institutional responses to sexual harassment happening off campus are limited by federal Title IX regulations, then the same issues that exist with reporting sexual harassment also exist for reporting digital abuse.
This isn’t an uncommon problem; Sophie notes that in her research she hasn’t found any universities with a particularly comprehensive policy on digital abuse, and Penn’s nonspecific language is not an outlier. However, it does mean that students who experience this type of harm at Penn can feel like they have nowhere to turn. The fact that it takes hours of research and an interview to learn that online harm can be reported at all is evidence enough that this policy needs to be more explicit.
It is also crucial for students to be equipped with non–punitive options for responding to violence and abuse. One such resource is Penn Violence Prevention, which offers confidential resources and support to any student who has experienced harm—regardless of whether they file a formal complaint with the University.
“I never want a student to feel deterred from even just speaking to us because they don't see specific language in a policy,” says Reema Malhotra, the associate director for graduate and professional students at PVP. “We will still support folks, regardless of where the incident occurred, when the incident occurred, regardless of anything.”
Bystander intervention is another key component of responding to harm that we can all do in our communities. A common misconception is that you have to directly confront the abuser in order to truly ‘intervene,’ but Malhotra disputes this. “When folks think about bystander intervention, they picture, you know, someone wearing a red cape, and they have to jump in and stop an assault from happening in front of them,” she says. “But that is not always what it looks like . . . I think that is what scares people from being an active and engaged bystander.”
Instead, take some time to check in with people around you. If you notice someone leaving a Zoom call abruptly, or if they seem really distant and detached when they’re normally really bubbly and engaged, send them a quick message to make sure they’re okay. It’s not overstepping—it can be the difference between someone getting the support they need and continuing to silently endure harm.
Although the problem of digital abuse is a difficult one to tackle, it is not impossible. Between using our voices to demand institutional change and taking steps to better support one another in our own communities, we have enormous power to change our campus culture for the better.
The HELP Line: 215–898–HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215–898–7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania. They have a dedicated Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention (STTOP) Team to provide support specifically related to sexual violence and abuse.
Student Health Service: 215–746–3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual violence, regardless of whether they make an official report or seek additional resources.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215–573–2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am, texting available 24/7): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.