Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards

Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards

Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards

Increased Prevalence of Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (OSEA)

Sexual exploitation and abuse include many forms of coercive and predatory actions. The United Nations (UN) defines it as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.”13 Those who exploit others take advantage of the sex, gender, and structural discrimination inherent in our patriarchal society, and the economic inequality faced by women, children, and other vulnerable people for sexual gratification and, often, profit.

Digital technology and the internet provide significant opportunities for advancing gender equality and women’s and children’s empowerment, but ever-increasing internet and digital connectivity, camera-ready technology, and online anonymity are making it easier to groom, recruit, and sexually exploit with impunity. Anonymity and very limited regulation of online service providers and platforms also enable exploiters to easily contact potential victims.

Social media platforms and online gaming platforms are increasingly being used by predators to meet, groom, and abuse victims. With the widespread use of the internet, exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, misogyny has found a new home, and old crimes of gender-based violence are taking new forms and being perpetrated online more easily.

OSEA is growing at an alarming pace globally. The full scale of the problem is not known because many cases go unreported due to victims blaming themselves and feeling shame, or being blamed and shamed by others, among other reasons. Victims may also fear prosecution or retribution from perpetrators or that the authorities will not take their reports seriously. This lack of reporting contributes to the vicious cycle of abuse. There are also gaps in monitoring. More attention is paid to monitoring online sexual abuse of younger children than of women, adolescents, and other groups.

Efforts to Detect and Stop OSEA

There is increasing public pressure on governments and digital service providers and platforms to act. However, measures to prevent and detect OSEA have been mostly left to digital service providers and platforms because of the different contractual, criminal, and private law14 obligations placed on them in different countries. As a result, there has been heavy reliance on voluntary measures implemented by digital service providers and platforms.

The inadequacies of laws that specifically provide for OSEA and lack of clear definitions on what constitutes “harmful content”,15 as well as the reliance on community policing (i.e. relying on users to report harmful content and behavior), has resulted in inconsistencies in the application of the terms and conditions of use and standards of the service providers and platforms.16 During 2018 it was reported that YouTube’s “content moderation efforts have become more haphazard and inconsistent than ever”.17 Abusive material is not always removed online, particularly if it is not specifically classified as a crime in a specific country, or if the victim is not very obviously identifiable as a child (due to the emphasis and clarity on child protection). In addition, the tensions between freedom of expression and privacy and the right to protection and safety present challenges to efforts to prevent sexual abuse on the internet.

In this report, we examine whether legislative efforts are sufficient.

Scope of this Report

This report considers what OSEA is and recognizes women and girls as particularly vulnerable. OSEA is part of the continuum of gender-based violence and is rooted in sex, gender, and intersecting inequalities and abuse of power that perpetuates women’s and girls’ subordination in
society. We take a broad view of OSEA that includes online grooming, live-streaming of sexual abuse, CSAM, online sexual coercion and extortion, online sex trafficking, and image-based sexual abuse. We examine the law relating to these harms at the international level, at the regional level with a focus on Europe, as well as at the national level with a focus on Kenya, India, Nigeria, the United Kingdom (mainly England and Wales), and the United States. Although we aim to highlight the situation for women and girls, among the laws we explore are also those relating to children, on the understanding that many adolescents are legally children, and we examine the extent to which these laws protect them. In addition, abuse and exploitation that occurs during childhood often continues into adulthood. Children who have been abused are more vulnerable to being exploited and abused as adults.

The report also explores the relationship between aspects of digital rights – in particular privacy and freedom of expression – and protection and safety online. We consider how digital rights can be used to provide protection and recourse against OSEA and the tensions that arise when these rights are competing.

We also discuss the challenges posed by the multi- jurisdictional nature of online sexual harms and examine the challenges of regulating service providers and platforms. The testimony of survivors illustrates the impact of OSEA and highlights the challenges faced in keeping people safe and bringing perpetrators to justice. Finally, we provide recommendations targeted at governments, international bodies, and technology companies/ digital service providers and platforms.

Read full report here.

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