Understanding and Combatting Youth Experiences of Image-Based Sexual Harassment and Abuse

Jessica Ringrose, Kaitlyn Regehr and Betsy Milne

December 2021

On Saturday 17 November 2018, Professor Jessica Ringrose (UCL Institute of Education) and Amelia Jenkinson (CEO of School of Sexuality Education charity) attended the Feminism in Schools conference in south London. They were scheduled to deliver workshops on ‘rape culture’ at school (Ringrose and Mendes, 2018; Mendes et al., 2019) with several groups of secondary-school aged children. They had anticipated hearing concerns around online misogyny and sexism, gender double-standards and slut shaming. What they had not expected was the overriding prevalence of a specific form of image-based sexual harassment, common among millennials: the unsolicited dick pic. Across all the workshops they facilitated that day were these refrains in relation to receiving unwanted sexual images online:

‘Reporting is hard… Because it is normal.’
‘Ignoring it is better, or using humour.’
‘Blocking them’s easier.’
‘But even if you do block the person [they] can make up another account.’

The young people’s statements about the challenges of reporting, and the individualised strategies used to manage these online encounters, highlighted to us the enormous challenges of navigating these new forms of social media intimacy. It also hammered home how image-based sexual harassment and abuse appeared to be largely taken for granted and normalised.

Responding to these challenges, Professor Ringrose with Dr. Kaitlyn Regehr from University of Kent in collaboration with School of Sexuality Education, embarked upon a research project to explore young people’s image-sharing practices, including documenting unwanted sexual images they received on social media platforms, and understandings of and responses to image-based sexual harassment. This was building upon one of the first youth sexting studies in the UK commissioned by the NSPCC and conducted by Ringrose and colleagues in 2011 and published in 2012. The aim was to map how the social media landscape and user practices had changed in the intervening decade. This report details the findings from the qualitative data collected in spring/summer of 2019 and the survey conducted in summer 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic just after the first UK national lockdown. Taken together, the research involved 480 young people from a wide range of school settings across England.

The overall scene is predictably (and depressingly) similar to that of 2011. Sexual pressure and coercion are still common features of solicitation for nudes. The age-old double standards, in which girls who send sexual images are slut-shamed, whilst boys are rewarded for possession of and sharing girls’ nudes, create gender-specific pressures on youth. Rights-based, up-to-date education to address these matters is still lacking, and children feel unable to report image-based sexual harassment and abuse for fear of being victim blamed. What has changed, and will continue to do so, is the digital technology, and each change has brought with it a new manifestation of digital sexual violence. In particular, girls are increasingly experiencing cyberflashing on platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, and this form of image-based sexual harassment is becoming widely accepted as a new norm.

This report aims to shift how young people, schools and parents conceptualise these behaviours by clearly demonstrating how non-consensual image-sharing practices are forms of image based sexual harassment and abuse. We introduce the term image-based sexual harassment to describe unwanted sexual images (e.g. cyberflashing or unsolicited dick pics) and unwanted solicitation for sexual images (e.g. pressured sexting), and image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) to describe non-consensual image-sharing practices (e.g. ‘revenge porn’).

This report is the empirical basis of a suite of resources we have created for schools to tackle image-based sexual harassment and abuse, made possible by our academic expert and sex education charity collaborative partnership. This includes teacher training, lesson resources, comprehensive guidance and a school policy on image-based sexual harassment and abuse which has since been cited by the Department for Education in their guidance to schools on sharing nudes or semi-nudes. Meanwhile, parallel projects using the same innovative methodology are being conducted in Ireland and Canada.

We are writing this in the wake of the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ movement hitting the headlines in March 2021, an Instagram-based campaign against sexual harassment in schools. At the time of writing, Everyone’s Invited has enabled over 50,0000 anonymous disclosures of sexual violence, and the naming of over 3,000 schools, colleges and universities. The survivor testimonies include experiences of image-based abuse, victim blaming and slut shaming which mirror the experiences of children detailed in this report. Now more than ever, we hope there is momentum for policy makers, parents and carers, teachers, practitioners, and technology companies to work together to tackle all forms of sexual violence.

Read the report


Understanding and Combatting Youth Experiences of Image-Based Sexual Harassment and Abuse