Cyber-sexual assault differs from cyber harassment, mimicking a form of sexual violence where the perpetrators remain anonymous through technology and cyber space (Citron & Franks, 2014). Through technology platforms (e.g., Facebook, email, texting, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), unwanted sexual advances are incurred, private sexual material (e.g., nude or sexually explicit photos and media) are shared, and pictured individuals are harassed. When such sexual assaults (e.g., online naked photos/videos) occurs through technology, legally in many cases, not only are the consequences likely similar to in-person emotional abuse, but now socially the victim is impacted because potential employers, in addition to current support systems, family members, friends, neighbors, or colleagues, now have instant access to such private material (Citron & Franks, 2014). Understanding that isolation is part of emotional abuse, and keeping in mind the toll emotional abuse can take upon the victim, technology has offered a new avenue for the perpetrator to anonymously establish dominance (socially and financially), often with minimal legal repercussion.
Specifically, cyber-sexual assault (e.g., nonconsensual pornography) is the online dissemination of sexually graphic images or videos (Citron & Franks, 2014). Such distribution may involve incidents where the sexual images were taken without permission (e.g., sexual assault, hidden camera, hackers) or with permission (e.g., within a consensual relationship intended for private use). This is an era of advanced technology where cellphones contain cameras which has been correlated with an increase of sexting. Sexting refers to the self-creation of a sexual photo (e.g., selfie) and then sharing it digitally with someone else, perhaps a romantic interest or partner (Henry & Powell, 2014; Humbach, 2014). Images can be disseminated via technology quickly and broadly. If such distribution of sexual photos is nonconsensual, the consequences for victims can be emotionally and physically devastating. For example, in a sample of largely adult females, 74.23% of the participants reported a large number, and wide range, of cyber-sexual assaults experienced, 1-100 (M = 26.2, SD = 43.2). Most likely, because photos are permanent (Citron, 2014) once posted online, they never truly go away. The material spreads from site to site; disappears and reappears until the victims’ lose count of how many times they have been assaulted. Essentially, the original poster only needs to post the nonconsensual material once, and then anonymous individuals can share this material for years.
Having conducted a study that measured trauma, depression, post-traumatic stress, and emotional regulation difficulties among those directly impacted by cyber-sexual assault, the results were largely aligned with what we would find for those in distress from sexual assault (see Holladay, 2016). Victims of cyber-sexual assault experienced higher levels of depression and emotional regulation difficulties, as well as some post-traumatic stress symptoms. It may be possible that rape culture attitudes perpetuate this type of abuse as well.