Is there hidden sexual abuse going on in your school?

Three-quarters of teenage girls have been sent unsolicited nude photos – but there's very little they can do about it, says Jessica Ringrose

Jessica Ringrose

Teenage girl, shocked as she looks at her laptop screen

Anti-exclusion campaigners have argued that pupils should not be taken out of school for committing acts of sexual violence. But the idea that perpetrators of sexual assault should get away with it is nothing new. 

There are several forms of sexual abuse going on under the radar in schools at the moment, with few consequences. These problems have only intensified since lockdown. Lockdown and blended learning have meant increased screen time – and the more time they spend online, the more vulnerable children are.

To give you some idea of the extent of the problem: our research found that 75.8 per cent of girls between the ages of 12 and 18 have been sent unsolicited nude images of boys or men – what are colloquially known as dick pics. Basically, if you use Snapchat, you will be sent a dick pic.

Many girls told us it was relatively easy to laugh off adult men who send you unwanted images: you just block them, or report them as paedophiles. 

But they find it much more difficult to deal with their peers abusing them. They either feel sorry for the boys doing it, or they feel they need to protect the boys from feeling ashamed.

Dick pics as social currency

For example, one boy sent a dick pic to a girl. He didn’t get a response from the girl he’d sent it to, so he blocked her, and told her he’d sent it by accident. Asked if she had talked to him about the incident, she said: “He was clearly embarrassed.”

Another girl was sent multiple masturbation videos by boys who were high. She said at first she was disgusted, but didn’t say anything “because they’re my friends”.

These girls don’t want to report their classmates, because they’re worried about being seen as mean – or being recast as the problem themselves. The boy can turn around and accuse the girl of being a “snake” or a “snitch”.

The boys send the dick pics to girls – aiming to trade and get responses from the girls – because it’s a way of garnering esteem and respect from their male peers. It gives them currency – lad points – in their social world. The boys know it’s not a great thing to do and is often unwanted, but they don’t understand that it’s actually abusive behaviour.

There are also practices of sending a dick pic to request a “trade” – an initiation process to ask for nude pictures from the girls. Seventy per cent of girls in our study had been solicited for nude photos of themselves.

For the boys, being sent a nude picture from a girl is a trophy. But the girls get little value from sharing dick pics among their friends. Girls told us that if they shared a dick pic around, they could be slut shamed, even if they hadn’t asked for the photo in the first place.

There are also longstanding problems with image-based sexual abuse – or revenge porn, as it’s more commonly known. This is when a girl sends a nude photo of herself to a boy, for example, and then he sends it on to others without consent.

The impossibility of a conviction

There’s a loophole around revenge porn, which makes it very difficult for school-aged girls to access help. There is a designated revenge porn helpline, but it’s only available to use if you’re over 18. If you’re under 18 and you believe yourself to be a victim of image-based sexual abuse, you have to go to the Internet Watch Foundation or to the government agency CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection command). But these agencies mostly deal with child sexual abuse and taking down publicly posted images, not other forms of peer-to-peer sexual harassment.

If a boy sends an unwanted dick pic to a girl, and asks her to send a nude photo in return, it’s technically an offence. But it’s a very minor offence – the sheer volume of internet sexual abuse means that it’s almost impossible to secure a conviction.

Equally, if teenagers were sent unsolicited naked pictures through a social media site, they can report it to the site managers. But very little is ever done. 

And, as I’ve said, it can be very hard for girls to report these things to school authorities: they’re likely to be framed as a bitch, or harassed as a snitch. Or they can be stigmatised for having had something like this happen to them.

Tackling the empathy gap

This is why we really need education to nip it in the bud. We need to try to show that sending somebody something they don’t want is a form of abuse and harassment.

But advice on dealing with all this is unexpectedly absent from the new relationships and sex education guidelines. So, if pupils are being harassed by a peer, are they being given any strategies to handle it? 

There’s a digital empathy gap, because teenagers (but also often adults) aren’t applying the same logic to digital image abuse as they would to abuse in real life. They aren’t thinking about the ethics of consent around digital images. So we need to open up that conversation in schools: we need to make it clear that sexual consent is about far more than what happens in the bedroom. 

To address these challenges, we’ve launched a new online sexual harassment policy for schools, which maps out various forms of digital sexual abuse and a range of platform-specific reporting strategies. You can join the training sessions by registering here

Jessica Ringrose is head of the sociology section at UCL Institute of Education, and co-director of the UCL Centre for Sociology of Education and Equity 

Jessica Ringrose is currently running a survey, measuring the extent of image-based sexual abuse suffered by pupils aged between 13 and 18. Take the survey here

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