Cancelling the culture of online grooming and sexual assault

Photo by Jay Wennington / Unsplash
Photo by Jay Wennington / Unsplash

Earlier this month, Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information announced that it would form a new Alliance for Action to address the issues of online sexual grooming and abuse of girls and women. But while this might be a positive step towards protecting children and youth against the dangers lurking online, some stakeholders have suggested preventative measures like a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum and establishing an eSafety Commissioner.

As a teenager, Rachel’s (not her real name) foray into the online world included playing games and conducting video calls on applications such as Viber and Tango. Initially, she created accounts on these platforms to video call her friends but started receiving messages from mostly male strangers on the internet. 

This escalated to requests to call them: “They were like, ‘Oh, just talk to me. Don’t worry, it’s just a number, there’s nothing to be scared of. I won’t tell anybody’,” she reveals. 

“I thought that it was normal. I thought [that] these people [were] genuinely just being nice to me,” says the 21-year-old. “I didn’t [feel] like there was something off.” 

But alarm bells did go off when things started getting uncomfortable for Rachel. Some of these faceless netizens offered to buy her clothes and asked her to send them photos of herself wearing the outfits. She declined. These online encounters eventually led to one of her perpetrators stalking her in real life, after she blocked him from contacting her. 

For Abigail (not her real name), her experiences in the virtual world were traumatising from the start. 

“I experienced it in my first relationship. He convinced me to perform [sexual] acts to strangers online via a platform, Omegle,” she shares. “Back then, they always ask you [for your] age, sex, location. That’s how people got to know each other. 

“In the beginning, I wanted to do it because it was my way of showing him that I trust him. But subsequently, when one of the videos leaked out onto a pornography site, I only found out years later [when] one of his friends stumbled upon the video,” she says. 

According to Abigail, it was not clear whether her ex leaked the video, or someone had hacked into Omegle, ripped the file and posted it on the porno site. 

She adds, “There were other occasions [when] men have sent me photos [‘dick pics’ and topless ones] without me asking for them… And sometimes when I tried to brush them off or to be cordial about it, they’ll most likely just get mad and say abusive things.” 

Rachel and Abigail’s encounters are not uncommon, especially during the pandemic with more time spent at home. As screen time and social media use continue to rise among children and youth, they are also being exposed to inappropriate sexual content and online grooming, making them more susceptible to sexual abuse. 

Children and young people are spending an increasing amount of time online, exposing them to online sexual grooming. (Source: Media Literacy Council)

In 2020, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore surveyed 100 parents of children aged five to 14 years old for insights into their child’s lifestyle habits. It found that 20 per cent of kids spent over four hours on screen viewing daily, which exceeded the recommended two hours per day. And that 70 per cent of respondents were concerned about the amount of time their child was glued to their screens.

A 2018 study published by digital education think tank DQ Institute polled 3,600 children aged eight to 12 years and found that those in Singapore spent an average of 35 hours a week online, three hours more than their peers in 29 other countries. If they owned a mobile phone, this figure increased to 45 hours per week. More than half said they experienced “unsavoury behaviour online”. 

Online sexual grooming has typically been described by experts as a slow, methodical and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimised, exploited and abused for sexual purposes. It can take place on social media, messaging and gaming platforms. Anyone can be a victim. 

On International Women’s Day (8 March), Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann announced that a new Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) group would be formed to combat issues of online grooming and sexual abuse affecting  girls and women. 

Shailey Hingorani, Head of Research and Communications at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), notes that there has been a growing trend of technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV) at AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC). According to data released in December 2020, it saw the highest number of TFSV in 2019, with the number of cases tripling across four years

“We are pleased to see the [Singapore] government’s commitment to tackling technology-facilitated sexual violence. We hope that we can offer assistance and insights to the group, based on SACC’s experiences working with survivors,” she says. 

Cancelling the culture of online grooming and sexual assault
Online sexual grooming is a rising trend in recent years, with the advancement of technology and social media. (Photo by Sergey Zolkin / Unsplash)

Supporting existing initiatives

Anita Low-Lim from social service agency TOUCH Community Services agrees that a nationwide initiative is a “positive step forward” and “something the community needs”. It would include “a wider range of perspectives, for a more comprehensive approach” to tackling sexual abuse and online grooming.  

“It is good that the AfA is formed, and will look at all of these things and hopefully provide some type of structure to how we can handle this particular topic [of online grooming and sexual abuse],” says Mrs Low-Lim, the Senior Director at TOUCH Integrated Family Group, who is also a member of the Media Literacy Council.

“It will bring a different perspective, given the number of people who will be involved, and the resources that will complement the efforts of the [representatives] in the Alliance. We look forward to the impact that [it] can make to the lives of families.” TOUCH Community Services runs initiatives that promote cyber wellness within communities, while offering counselling to students and families pre-and post-intervention.

“(G)round agencies like us (TOUCH) definitely can support the national agenda in the work that we do, as we reach out to families [and] to schools,” she says. It is useful [to] have a multi-pronged approach to have different stakeholders involved, because we all contribute in different ways. I think [that’s] the value of the alliance – that [it] brings together different people [who] see things from different [perspectives], and [makes] sure that we cover as much ground as possible.” 

Students in Singapore have also taken matters into their own hands. 

In 2019, undergraduates at the National University of Singapore formed Students for a Safer NUS, a community of students that seeks to improve the way sexual violence is handled on campus. It also encourages stronger support for victims of sexual assault.

One of the group’s members, Luke, says that internet-based sexual violence has been happening for a long time, but is only being recognised now. 

“The fact that such a group [Alliance for Action] is being formed to address multiple issues like grooming, which not a lot of people consider when it comes to sexual violence… is a welcome move,” he says. 

Cancelling the culture of online grooming and sexual assault
Educating today’s youth on cyber wellness practices is promoting a safer environment online for girls and women alike. (Photo by Van Tay Media / Unsplash)

Legal support for sexual harassment cases will also be fortified by the Protection From Harassment Court, staffed by judges trained to deal with (on and offline) harassment matters, says AWARE’s Ms Hingorani. The new court starts operating this year and will enhance the Protection from Harassment Act which came into effect in 2014. 

“This should increase access to justice for victims and reduce waiting time and costs in matters relating to online harassment,” she explains. 

More can be done beyond protection orders

Ms Hingorani hopes that authorities “consider stronger and quicker remedies beyond protection orders”, citing the time-sensitive nature of certain cyber-sexual crimes. 

She recommends the establishment of a local eSafety Commissioner, similar to an Australian governmental initiative that seeks to empower Australians to have safer and more positive experiences online. 

“The Australian eSafety Commissioner holds an independent statutory office and, among other things, helps facilitate the removal of intimate materials from online platforms, via enforceable removal notices to social media services, websites, hosting providers and perpetrators.” 

She also believes that comprehensive sexuality education is key to tackling online sexual violence, and the “best, most upstream way to prevent young people from turning to sexual violence of any kind. And this starts with recognising that TFSV, like “all forms of gender-based violence, is about power, control and a disregard of women’s consent and agency.”

“Surveys have shown that young people in Singapore suffer from a dearth of comprehensive information about sex and relationships, possibly due to a lack of comprehensive sexuality education in schools,” she asserts. 

“A strong sex education curriculum would cover not only physical health, but emotional well-being, empathy and respect for others, healthy relationships, gender dynamics and, particularly, consent – what it looks like, what it doesn’t look like, and how to negotiate it in a real-life scenario.” 

Cancelling culture of online grooming and sexual assault
Developing a strong sexuality education curriculum is instrumental to raising awareness of healthy boundaries and consent in relationships. (Photo by Warren Wong / Unsplash)

When it comes to the process of online sexual grooming, Mrs Low-Lim thinks that adopting an upstream approach is also essential to raising awareness among children and parents. 

Mrs Low-Lim explains that TOUCH Community Services teaches a three-stage grooming process, where the perpetrator first identifies the victim and then lures him or her by building trust and an emotional relationship. The final hook involves introducing sexual content or making a personal request, such as meeting the victim. 

“We outline these three [stages] for the student and parents so that they can understand or look out for these things when they’re interacting online,” she says. “It helps to initiate conversations at home, if the child brings the topic up.”

Educating potential perpetrators on appropriate boundaries is another area of concern. 

Nisha, another member of Students for a Safer NUS, adds that it is important to reinforce the concepts of consent and boundaries with potential perpetrators. 

“We are telling our women to be safe, [and] what they should do, but we are not telling perpetrators what they should not be doing,” she says. “We can definitely start at a younger generation, who are slowly getting exposed to everything online.” 

Fostering a safer environment

Social initiatives and survivors of sexual abuse and harassment are not the only factors for creating a safer online environment. Bystanders too have a role to play, adds Ms Hingorani, especially in preventing more instances of online harm. For instance, she suggests that they can refrain from consuming non-consensually produced photos. Or call friends out for sharing such pictures and videos. 

“We all have power to refuse to contribute to the practice of shaming and disrespecting women. If someone witnesses voyeurism taking place [in public], they can offer support by approaching the victim, and asking them if they are OK,” says Ms Hingorani.  

“They can then offer to accompany the victim to inform SMRT [train] staff should they wish to, or inform them of the options available for sexual assault survivors, such as SACC [AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre], in order to empower them to make their own decisions.”

Empathy is important when supporting victims. Says Abigail, “The intent [of the incoming Alliance For Action] has been stated, but action needs to be seen, and empathy has to be very prevalent in their actions if they want people to feel safe.”

Ms Low-Lim adds that being empathetic by offering a listening ear and helping hand can foster better parent-child relationships. Therefore, young online users must be assured that they will not get into trouble if something happens. 

“We advocate [that] parents have a very trusting relationship [with their children from young] – [which] means the child cannot be fearful. And one thing we remind parents is [not to] judge,” she reiterates. “[When] all these [judgements] come out, the child will not [confide] more. So empathy is a very important concept in helping a child, who already is suffering from abuse [or] harassment. Positive cyber-wellness is value-based. There must be a conducive environment for the user to navigate safely.”

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