Domestic Abuse Bill

Written evidence submitted by Dr Ruth Lewis (Northumbria University), Dr Matthew Hall (Arden University), and Professor Jeff Hearn (University of Huddersfield and Hanken School of Economics, Finland) (DAB36)

Re: Domestic Violence Bill 2019-21

Summary

We welcome the review of legal protection for victims of domestic violence. Our work on online gendered violence, abuse and violations reveals the myriad ways in which domestic violence can be perpetrated online and through various electronic devices, as well as offline, ‘in real life’. Online gendered violence, abuse and violations involve the construction of new or different (distorted) realities, for both parties, under the control of the (ex-)partner. Accordingly, we encourage the Committee to extend the definition of domestic violence to reflect and incorporate this. Below we give details of some of the main ways in which domestic violence and coercive control can be perpetrated online and through electronic devices during and after the end of a relationship.

1. Who we are

We are a group of academics who have, collectively, decades of experience in researching and publishing about online and offline abuse, gender and sexuality. Dr Lewis conducted the first victimological survey of feminists who experience online abuse, the first British sociological examination of homicide and the first British evaluation of domestic abuse perpetrators’ programmes. Dr Hall has researched and analysed forum, chatroom, newspaper and video responses, and testimonial data on various online platforms such as Redditt, MacRumours, MyEx,com, The Candid Zone, 4VOO and YouTube. Professor Hearn was author of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Full Bid Proposal for Research Programme on Violence, led one of the first community-based studies of men’s violence to known women, and has conducted many studies on violence offline and online, with projects funded by UK, Finnish and Swedish research councils, Nordic Council, EU, Council of Europe, Sexual Violence Research Initiative, and Global Forum for Health Research.

2. Online abuse and use of electronic devices in domestic violence: During relationships, perpetrators may use electronic devices to exert power and control over their partners through surveillance of their movements. For example, mobile phones, surveillance equipment, webcams, motion detectors, and spyware are used to threaten, harass and stalk victims, and to restrict and monitor their movements and contacts with others, increasing their isolation, and dependence on and control by the perpetrator. They may also be pressured into being recorded or photographed in explicit sexual acts which may be leveraged, or posted online during, or after the relationship has ended to continue the violence, abuse and violation (Hall and Hearn, 2017, 2019; Hearn and Hall, 2019).

3. Use of electronic devices to extend the range of domestic violence in time and public space: While most, but not all, domestic violence is perpetrated in private, with few, if any witnesses, online abuse is often performed to an audience of hundreds or thousands of people who may be encouraged to join in the abuse – what can be thought of as (cyber, virtual or online) public space. This can include perpetration of online after the end of a relationship. For example, what has come to be called in popular media ‘revenge pornography’, but is better described as internet-based abuse or non-consensual online distribution of sexual or intimate visual and textual material, can continue for many years after the end of a relationship and after the end of direct physical and sexual violence ‘in real life’ (Hall and Hearn, 2017, 2019; Hearn and Hall, 2019). This can harm, demean and punish the targeted person for many years and in the sight of many others, thus damaging physical and mental health, reputation, work career, and with other negative effects.

4. Effects and impacts of online abuse and use of electronic devices in domestic violence: Online abuse can have profound impacts, just as offline abuse does. A survey of victims of online abuse (Lewis et al., 2017, 2018) found that, while a minority managed their reactions by ‘normalising’ the abuse, the majority found it ‘really traumatic’ and the impacts were increased by more frequent abuse. Domestic violence can have significant psychological and physical impacts; the psychological impacts of online gendered violence, abuse and violations differ somewhat. Our analysis (Hall and Hearn, 2017, 2019; Hearn and Hall, 2019) of) posts by (ex-)partners on former revenge porn website, MyEx.com, shows that perpetrators claimed victims/survivors were unhygienic, deceitful, poor partners and parents, sexually lacking or had non-normative desires, committed infidelity, were coquetting, prostitutes, violent and criminal. These posts were made public to be seen by the victim/survivor, their current and future family, friends and colleagues and unknown people. Thus victim/survivors report a range of significant impacts: humiliation, shame, embarrassment and reputation ruination with intimate partners, family, friends, work colleagues and in public; sexual shame and sexual problems; body image issues; education and employment disruptions; becoming paranoid and hyper-vigilant; having trust issues and, concerns for personal safety faced due to stalking, harassment and threats of being gang raped because their online and offline personal and professional information had also been published online, also known as ‘doxing’.

5. The unique nature of online abuse means that it may be experienced as both private – for example, the victim may view the messages when alone – and public – for example, if images or details of a victim are posted to a site with millions of viewers. Moreover, because of the longevity of postings on social media which can be circulated endlessly between different sites and users, the impacts of online abuse can last for a victim’s lifetime. This means, for example, that a private sexual image sent, consensually or under duress, by a teenager to her boyfriend may be posted by him online, shared with friendship groups and beyond, and may continue to exist on social media for the rest of the teenager’s life.

6. Clearly there are cross-overs between online domestic violence and online abuse that takes place outside the context of intimate relationships. Efforts are underway to improve legal and policy responses to online abuse more widely (for example, the Law Commission’s review of the criminal law regarding abusive and offensive online communications). Legal and policy responses are likely to be most effective when they recognise these overlaps, rather than seeing online abuse and domestic violence as distinct categories. For this reason, we encourage the Committee to extend the new definition of domestic abuse to reflect its occurrence in both online and offline environments.

Selected publications:

Hall, M. & Hearn, J. (2017). Revenge Pornography: Gender, sexuality and motivations. Routledge, London.  Republished in Korean by Hyundae Jisung, Paju, 2019.

Hall, M. & Hearn, J. (2018). Written evidence for the ‘Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places inquiry’. House of Commons Select Committee: The Women and Equalities Committee. June 6. SPP0100 http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/women-and-equalities-committee/sexual-harassment-of-women-and-girls-in-public-places/written/83268.html

Hall, M. & Hearn, J. (2018). Violation by sexual image distribution, "revenge pornography", cyberabuses, and prevention. Special contribution, in P. Madriaza (ed.) 6th International Report. Crime Prevention and Community Safety: Preventing Cybercrime, International Centre for the Prevention of Crime (ICPC), Montreal, pp . 103-105, 110. http://www.crime-prevention-intl.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/International_Report/ICPC_Report_2018.pdf

Hall, M. & Hearn, J. (2019). Revenge pornography and manhood acts: A discourse analysis of perpetrators’ accounts. Journal of Gender Studies, 28(2), 158-170. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09589236.2017.1417117

Hearn, J. & Hall, M. (2019). "This is my cheating ex": Gender and sexuality in revenge porn. Sexualities, 22(5-6), 860-882.  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1363460718779965

Lewis, R, Rowe, R, and Wiper, C (2017) ‘Online abuse of feminists as an emerging form of violence against women and girls’ British Journal of Criminology 57(6):1462-1481. https://academic.oup.com/bjc/article/57/6/1462/2623986

Lewis, R, Rowe, M and Wiper, C (2018) ‘Misogyny online: extending the boundaries of hate crime’ Journal of Gender-Based Violence 2(3): 519-536. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/jgbv/2018/00000002/00000003/art00008

June 2020

 

Prepared 11th June 2020