New research shows huge scale of online violence against women in the UK

Online violence and abuse

New research has revealed the scale of abuse women and girls in the UK face online, with LGB+ women, and those aged 16 to 24 experiencing the highest rates of abuse.

Researchers from The Open University carried out the UK’s largest-ever study into societal attitudes and experiences of online violence against women and girls (OVAWG) across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The first-of-its-kind report surveyed 7,500 people aged 16 or older, via YouGov. 

Online violence and abuse can be sexual, psychological or emotional, and includes trolling, physical threats and the sharing of non-consensual sexual images. It is prevalent on social media platforms and in chatrooms.

Comparing responses across the nations of the United Kingdom, the research showed women and girls in Scotland were more likely to have witnessed online violence (35 per cent) compared with women in England (30 per cent), Wales and Northern Ireland (27 per cent).

Women in Scotland and Wales were also found to be most likely to have experienced violence (17 per cent).

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‘Creating new ways for violence against women ‘

The study found that, on average, more than one in 10 women in England have experienced online violence while three in 10 have witnessed online violence. These figures are higher among women aged between 16 and 24 (25 per cent) and LGB+ women (35 per cent). 

For women who have experienced online violence, 13 per cent said that it later progressed to violence in the real world.

Andrea Simon, the director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), noted that technological developments are “creating new ways for violence against women and girls to be perpetrated”. 

She added: “This abuse is connected to the threat of violence women and girls face offline – it cannot be minimised or ignored.”

The study revealed the scale of the abuse women and girls are subjected to online. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Project lead professor Olga Jurasz, a professor of law at The Open University and director of the Observatory on Online Violence Against Women, added: “Online violence against women and girls can take many forms, such as trolling, threats, abuse, unwanted sexual remarks, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos and messages, and it disproportionately affects women. 

“This can have a serious impact on women’s wellbeing and their behaviour, including a negative impact on mental and physical health, having to implement measures to protect themselves, and a change in willingness or ability to express views online. 

“This new research, the first ever to be conducted into OVAWG at this scale across the four nations, shows just how widespread the issue is and will provide policy makers with a foundation to help reduce instances and to improve outcomes for those affected.”

The research also found the top perceived reasons for why people commit online violence against women and girls are the anonymity of being online (49 per cent), the ease of getting away with it (47 per cent) and misogyny (43 per cent). 

Researchers also found gender divides between men and women’s perceptions of online violence and whether it could be stamped out. 

Men in England were less likely than women to support making online violence against women and girls a criminal offence, with more than 50 per cent of men supporting such a move compared with more than 69 per cent of women. 

Men (19 per cent) were also more likely than women (10 per cent) to believe that legally prohibiting online violence would limit their freedom of expression. 

‘Online and digital platforms are virtually unregulated’

The research also revealed a lack of confidence among women in reporting such abuse, and the feeling that the authorities would not deal with it effectively. 

The study found women who have experienced online violence are more likely to have turned to friends (29 per cent) or family (16 per cent), rather than the police (six per cent), for support. 

More than half of the women surveyed in England (57 per cent) felt the police lacked the resources needed to tackle the problem effectively, while nearly three quarters of women in England who say they reported online violence to the police were not satisfied with the outcome.

Professor Lynne Gabriel, the president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), praised the researchers for their study, stating the “scale of their research project is welcomed” but its “findings less so”. 

She went to say: “Online and digital platforms are virtually unregulated and, as these findings show, there are individuals who cannot moderate their online behaviour.

“Most humans condemn toxic and harmful behaviour against others and, whatever stance we take on the regulation of human behaviours, abuse is always unacceptable. It is disturbing that as a human race we continue to perpetrate abuse.

“This research will provide valuable evidence for many, including counselling and mental-health professionals, policy-makers, educators, researchers and social media platforms who are looking to stop online violence against women and girls.

“The laws we have in place are ineffective at tackling online violence against women and girls – we’re pleased to see that 68 per cent of women and girls agree. 

“We call on the government to make sure its new guidance in the Online Safety Bill is effectively enforced and as robust as the Code of Practice we developed with specialist partners and legal experts,” Gabriel added.

Anyone who has witnessed or experienced a hate crime is urged to call the police on 101, Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or visit the True Vision website. In an emergency, always dial 999.