There has been an overall rise in cases of technology-facilitated sexual violence in the past three years at the Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) run by gender-equality group AWARE. While 46 out of 338 (13.6%) cases in 2016 were technology-facilitated sexual violence, in 2017 that number rose to 99 out of 515 (19.2%) and in 2018 it became 124 out of 808 (15.3%).
According to AWARE, these cases involved actions enabled by digital communications technology from social media and messaging platforms to digital cameras and dating apps. These behaviours range from unwanted and explicit sexual messages and calls – including attempts to coerce sex or a relationship – to a specific category of image-based sexual abuse (IBSA).
This specific type of abuse is the non-consensual creation, obtainment or distribution of sexual images or videos of another person, including threats to carry out the above. These can be taken without the victims consent or knowledge.
In a report presented by the head of SACC Anisha Joseph at the “Taking Ctrl, Finding Alt 2019” event on Monday (25 November) at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Paya Lebar, almost half of the IBSA cases seen between 2016 to 2018 were committed by an intimate partner. As for cases of unwanted or explicit communication, close to 40% were perpetrated by a colleague in a workplace.
Ms Joseph noted that the profile of perpetrators cut across age, class, educational background and race, adding that technology-facilitated sexual violence can be committed by anyone from acquaintances to family members, colleagues, or even strangers.
Between 2016 to 2018, one in two IBSA survivors reached out to the SACC within a month of the incident, while 25% reached out within 72 hours. This, according to the presentation, is unusually fast for cases seen by the centre. In comparison, 58% of cases in 2018 came to SACC within a year.
Over the three years, 1 in 2 of the IBSA survivors in cases known to the SACC has made police reports, which again, is higher than overall SACC cases in which only 30% report the incident to any authority.
Said Ms Joseph: “The conversation and media coverage on sexual violence in Singapore this year has largely been dominated by technology-facilitated sexual violence, from numerous incidents taking place on university campuses, to Telegram groups created for the dissemination of explicit images. We believe that public awareness of this issue — and public urgency to curb it — has never been higher.”
“Technology is not the villain here,” she added. “It is not the cause of sexual violence, but a medium through which violence is facilitated by perpetrators—we see it ‘folded into’ pre-existing practices of violence, harm and harassment. New factors — such as the widespread availability of recording technology, and our 24/7 channels of communication — make these actions all the more pervasive and damaging today.”
The casual attitude towards voyeurism is a national emergency
With approximately 150 attendees, the event marked both the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the one-year anniversary of AWARE’s Aim For Zero campaign against sexual violence. The event included a panel discussion featuring speakers Monica Baey, Amber Hawkes, Benny Bong and Priscilla Chia. Lim Xiu Xuan, a senior case manager at SACC, served as moderator.
The discussion covered the psychological and practical impact of tech-facilitated sexual violence on survivors, as well as the recourse options available to them under the Penal Code and Protection From Harassment Act.
Speaking during the panel discussion, Ms Baey said she wants to debunk the myth that technology-facilitated sexual violence is not as serious as general cases of sexual violence. She related her experience as well as the experiences of hundreds of others who have reached out to her since she went public with what happened to her.
About a year ago, Ms Baey was filmed in the shower at a student hostel by another student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) without her consent. Early this year, she took to social media to talk about the case as she was frustrated about the perpetrator getting away with just a conditional warning from the police and a one-semester suspension from NUS. The case made headlines and sparked a major debate and shift in the conversation about safety measures on campus, support for survivors, and stricter punishment for offenders.
Ms Baey labelled the casual attitude towards voyeurism as a “national emergency that was swept under the rug” for too long, recalling how so many people are still opening up to her today to talk about their experiences.
She then talked about attending a four-hour training with AWARE to become a first-responder for victims of sexual assault. The training program was introduced in February and has since trained 943 people.
One of the points Ms Baey raised with the way victims are handled when they report such violations, having to answer questions about what they are wearing or doing or why they were talking to the person. In her case, Ms Baey said she was asked by the police officer if the bathroom she was using has a sign indicating that no men are allowed inside. This made her feel “invalidated”, she said.
“It was ridiculous that I had to answer (that) and I had to stand up for myself… If these small little things invalidate your experience, it becomes even harder for you to continue to the next step past police reporting — going to school, speaking to your family and friends about it,” she said.
“(With) every small voice that tells you, ‘Is this really serious?’, ‘Did this really happen to you?’, ‘Is it his fault?’, ‘Is it your fault?’, you start to question yourself,” she added.
“That’s why it is important that we talk about it. Because the more people understand that this is not about the victim, that this is a problem we have to address and talk about, (it then) becomes a support system where people can actually speak up and feel safe.”
During the discussion, Ms Hawkes also gave an overview of Facebook’s policies for user safety, and walked attendees through the process of reporting a violation to the social media platform. However, panelists agreed that there are limitations to survivors’ abilities to contain the spread of images once they are uploaded, and limitations on how accountable perpetrators are across platforms.
“At Facebook, we take a comprehensive approach to making our platform a safer place for women, including writing clear policies and developing cutting-edge technology to prevent the spread of non-consensually shared intimate images and to protect women from harassment,” said Ms Hawkes.
“We’re also committed to partnering with women’s rights groups, online safety organisations and experts around the world to get feedback on ways we can ensure that we’re a platform where people feel safe.”
“The misuse of technology to violate another is, sadly, another manifestation of how we can exploit others,” said Mr Bong. “Because technology can allow for a degree of anonymity, perpetrators may think that they can get away with these crimes. Our laws must keep abreast of this development.”
Taking Ctrl, Finding Alt 2019: ContestAt the event, AWARE also launched a content in conjunction with the High Commission of Canada, inviting members of the public to submit their ideas for projects to combat image-based sexual abuse. You can submit proposals via AWARE’s website until 7th February 2020.
Winning projects will receive a “kickstarter” sum of up to $6,000, as well as development support for a pilot phase over six months in 2020.
“Women are disproportionately affected by a range of unintended negative consequences enabled by technology,” said Canadian High Commissioner Lynn McDonald. “Canada is committed to promoting gender equality by addressing gender-based violence, which impedes women and girls from realising their full potential. We therefore are pleased to support this important initiative and look forward to collaborating with the contest winners.”