Virtual Violence seminar examines how digital world facilitates abuse

Laura Higgins, front, with others at the Virtual Violence conference at the University of Suffolk. P

Laura Higgins, front, with others at the Virtual Violence conference at the University of Suffolk. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The harrowing effects of online abuse were laid bare by expert speakers from across the country during a Virtual Violence seminar at the University of Suffolk.

The Virtual Violence conference. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The Virtual Violence conference. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Academics, support providers and law enforcement were represented for the conference at the university’s Waterfront building in Ipswich on Thursday.

The aim of the event was to raise awareness of abuse facilitated by technology, with particular focus on cyber-stalking, harassment, revenge porn and coercive control in relationships.

Ahead of her talk on the behaviour of perpetrators, Laura Higgins, founder of the Revenge Porn Helpline, said: “Too often, I’m asked how victims can protect themselves from falling foul.

“What I want to focus on is the power of the perpetrator, by digging deep into a few of our cases.”

Vice Chancellor Richard Lister speaks at the conference. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Vice Chancellor Richard Lister speaks at the conference. Picture: GREGG BROWN

One of the cases dealt with by the Revenge Porn Helpline included the distribution of more than 6,000 images.

“We work positively with social media and search engines to improve policies, but some sites are dedicated to posting this sort of content, and they’re not illegal in the same way as images of children,” she added.

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“We’re honest with our clients about managing expectations, but on the whole, we get 70-75% of reported content removed.

“Often the carrot works better than the stick. For example, one adult website notifies users if content has been removed at our request.

“We clearly don’t want to blur lines, but we’re working to change the language used for content like ‘ex-girlfriend’ or ‘voyeurism’. It runs the risk of accredited content being seen as a green light to post content that isn’t.

“If young men think a type of behaviour is acceptable, it will continue into adulthood.

“Legislation needs to be enforced and police response needs to be stronger. A lot of cases are part of a broader issue of abuse and we would like to see tougher penalties for those offences.”

Surrey graduate Dr Emily Setty, whose PhD investigated the phenomena of ‘youth sexting’ and digital sexting cultures, said: “Although facilitated by technology, the nature of harm arises from societal norms and peer practices.

“The risk of someone being victimised to engage is often driven by the idea that ‘boys will be boys’, and it’s up to the other person to resist and say no. Victim blaming is predicated on the idea that they have no one to blame but themselves.

“It’s a breach of privacy that can be experienced by boys too. It creates a market where young people feel they can laugh at this boy, or ‘slut shame’ that girl. They start to take for granted that this is just what they do to each other.

“The technology exaggerates the potential for harm. To address it, we need to get back to basics. What rights do we expect people to have over their own bodies?

“Protection of privacy and the right to bodily expression can exist together.”

Detective Inspector Ben Clark, of Suffolk Constabulary’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), said: “This is a priority for us and we take all reports seriously.

“We ask people to tell us if something has happened to them. If they feel they can’t, there are really good partner agencies which they may feel they can talk to.

“We will listen to you, and with the information, we will work to investigate your case.”

Min Grob, domestic abuse awareness campaigner and founder of the Conference on Coercive Control, said: “Often, abuse in a relationship continues after the two parties have separated.

“Abusers are using technology to further their abuse. We can see it on social media.

“The analogy of ‘flying monkeys’ is used to describe the role others play to further abuse a victim – allowing the abuser to claim clean hands. Everyone I have come into contact with has experienced it on some level.

“Abusers are looking for ever more inventive ways to carry on their abuse.”

•Last October, more than 40 universities and colleges were awarded a total of £1.8 million by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to improve responses to hate crime and online harassment on campus.

The University of Suffolk aims to raise awareness through workshops, seminars, conferences and consultation with students, while increasing staff confidence in responding to disclosures with a digital element.

Speakers also included Professor Emma Bond, University of Suffolk; Heather Hunt, Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid; Jennifer Perry, Digital Trust; Professor Andy Phippen, University of Plymouth; Sonal Shenai, SafeLives; Victoria Green, Marie Collins Foundation; and Tim Passmore, Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner.

Richard Lister, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Suffolk, said: “This is exactly the sort of event that we, as a community focused university, should be hosting.

“The research into ‘virtual violence’ is important, has impact and matters to the communities we serve.

“I am immensely proud of my colleagues at the university who are leading on this research.”

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