Sexual violence in the virtual sphere: Sites of harm or justice?

B.Fileborn1, O’Neill2, Loney-Howes2, N.Henry3

Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University
PhD Candidate in the School of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University.

This panel seeks to explore emerging scholarship regarding sexual violence and online spaces. Specifically, it responds to emerging debates regarding the use of online spaces to facilitate or perpetrate sexual violence, such as through the non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images. At the same time, the potential for online spaces to function as sites of justice is increasingly being recognised, and the ways in which justice may be achieved online is explored in detail during this panel. There is also an apparent tension here, with online spaces representing both sites of harm and sites of justice, which we aim to investigate, discuss, and, ultimately, disrupt.


Stripped Bare: On the Harms of “Revenge Pornography”

Henry*, Powell, Flynn

* Corresponding author:

The non-consensual distribution of nude or sexually explicit images, commonly known as “revenge pornography”, is an emerging phenomenon owing to the growth in digital technologies. Although increasingly the subject of media attention as well as law reform efforts in multiple international jurisdictions, little is known about the nature, scope and impacts of these behaviours. In this paper we examine the role that discourses play in framing, shaping or reproducing the harms of image-based sexual exploitation. We analyse the ways in which problematic terminology misframes the problem and explore the usefulness of a human rights framework for understanding the nature of these harms. This, we argue, serves as a starting point from which to develop both primary prevention and justice interventions to the growing problem of revenge pornography.

“Being head, being seen, being believed”: justice practices in online anti-rape activism


* Corresponding author:

The continual failure of the criminal justice system to respond to claims of rape and sexual violence around the world has led to victims speaking out in what journalist Jenny Kutner refers to as the “backwaters of the internet”, or what scholars such as Powell and Salter, amongst others, refer to as “online counter-publics.” As such, there is a growing body of work investigating the nature and use of these online spaces, with scholars turning their attention towards their capacity to respond to victim’s justice needs beyond the realm of criminal law.

The notion of “innovative justice” put forward by Daly (2011, 2015), in which she argues that before we can contemplate whether or not justice has been served we need to consider what victim’s justice needs are, encapsulates vindication, validation, voice, participation and offender accountability. For Daly, innovative justice responses to these justice needs involve restorative justice processes or formal civil society initiatives. Powell takes this to also include informal civil society responses, specifically the use of online counter-publics, and demonstrates that these spaces have the capacity to fulfil some victim’s justice needs.

Drawing on data collected for my doctoral thesis, in which I interviewed creators and managers of online anti-rape campaigns, I expand on Powell’s argument and point to some of justice practices that are enacted in these online spaces designed to fulfil victim’s justice needs. Drawing on what my participants had to say about what they thought ‘justice’ means, and what it means for victims of rape, I suggest that ‘revenge’, prevention and importantly, recognition are significant justice practices occurring in online counter-publics which fulfil the need to be heard, seen and believed.

“Today I Speak”: exploring victim-survivor stories on Reddit


*corresponding author:

Victim-survivors often face difficulties in disclosing experiences of sexual violence. Frequently, fear of the consequences of disclosure or a perception that nothing will be done by authorities deters them from pursuing justice in a formal setting. However, emerging research suggests that survivors are accessing ‘informal’ justice through use of technologies. This ‘informal justice’ might include seeking support or having one’s story heard, and having that story recognised and believed.  Digital platforms, information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social networking sites such as Reddit offer new ways for survivors to discuss experiences of sexual violence in anonymous and ‘safe’ online spaces.

As a pilot project informing a larger doctoral research thesis, this paper explores the nature of victim-survivors’ posts on a rape survivor forum on Reddit. Through content analysis, this research examines how survivors express themselves in online spaces; particularly those designed to be safe and supportive spaces. It explores how survivors might act in accordance with norms and unwritten rules of online forums. Interactions between survivors on the forum are noted and form part of this analysis, along with an exploration of thematic patterns emerging from the data.

Searching for justice: street harassment victims’ reasons for disclosing online


*corresponding author:

Online justice has become the increased focus of emergent criminological debate and research. Scholarship to date from authors such as Salter and Powell has considered the extent to which online spheres may function as counter-cultural spaces to disrupt and challenge hegemonic discourses on sexual violence, and to act as sites of justice for victim/survivors. My own previous work has considered the extent to which online activist sites may be able to function as an informal justice mechanism. To date, however, there has been little work done examining the experiences of victims who share their experiences online.

Drawing on the findings of an exploratory, mixed-methods research project undertaken in Melbourne, I consider why street harassment victims share their experiences online, and the extent to which their experiences of doing so ‘map’ onto a range of victim/survivors’ justice needs, such as voice, validation and affirmation. Rather than asking whether the virtual world can represent a site of justice, I argue that it is more productive to consider who can achieve justice online and in which contexts. The ability of street harassment victims to fulfil certain justice needs online is context-dependent, fluid and contingent upon a range of factors. Victims’ justice needs are themselves fluid and situated, as McGlynn and colleagues have argued through their concept of ‘kaleidoscopic’ justice. As such, online justice must be viewed as necessarily muted and partial.


Dr Bianca Fileborn is currently a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University.

Dr Nicola Henry is currently a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University.

Rachel Loney-Howes is currently a PhD Candidate in the School of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University.

Tully O’Neill is currently a PhD Candidate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University.

Dr Anastasia Powell is Senior Research and ARC DECRA Fellow in Justice & Legal Studies at RMIT University. Anastasia’s research lies at the intersections of technology, gendered violence, justice and digital culture.

Dr Catherine Flynn is a senior lecturer in the Social Work Department at Monash University.  Her core interest is in the intersection of social work and criminal justice, notably the unintended consequences of the criminal justice system.  As such her research focuses on prisoners and their children.

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