• The Convergence

The Next Epidemic: Digital Sex Crime and Technology-Facilitated Sexual Violence in Singapore

By Kai Ting, Editor



Photo: Hokyoung Kim/Human Rights Watch

In 2018, intimate videos of local entrepreneur and content creator ​​Ms Christabel Chua and her ex-boyfriend Mr Joal Ong were leaked by an anonymous source and disseminated online without her consent. Since the incident, Chua became a subject of lewd discussions on forums, and received numerous rude and inappropriate messages. In an open letter on Harper’s Bazaar, Chua shared that this had left her “scared, humiliated [and] violated”. [1]


A year later, Ms Monica Baey took to Instagram to express her unhappiness over the punishment meted out for a fellow student who was issued only a 12-month conditional warning from police and a one-semester suspension from the university after secretly filming her in the shower at her hostel back in November 2018. [2] Since then, many have broken their silence to share their experiences of abuse and harassment on social media to demonstrate the prevalence of such depraved acts in Singapore and the need for greater support systems for victims.


Explaining Technology-Facilitated Sexual Violence (TFSV)


Conventionally, acts of sexual assault occur in offline spaces such as schools and workplaces, where perpetrators can easily assert power and control over their victims. [3] For instance, sexual harassment in the workplace may involve a boss coercing a subordinate into a sexual situation with threats of dismissal. [4] Within an academic setting, this can involve students submitting to unwelcome sexual advances from faculty staff, out of fear of being given a failing grade. However, with technology becoming a critical underpinning in our daily lives, sexual violence today has shifted to the cyberspace, materialising in what is termed “technology-facilitated sexual violence”.


According to AWARE, technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV) is defined by unwanted sexual behaviour transmitted by digital communications technology, such as social media, messaging platforms, digital cameras and dating apps. These actions range from unwanted explicit sexual messages and calls, including attempts to coerce sex or a relationship, to a specific category of image-based sexual abuse. Image-based sexual abuse refers to the non-consensual creation, obtainment and/or distribution of sexual images or videos of another person. These images include both nude photos that were taken with consent, and images taken without the subject’s knowledge through up skirting and voyeurism using devices like hidden cameras. [5]


Despite its relative covertness, online forms of sexual harassment should not be viewed separately from those that take place offline as technology can emanate from and facilitate harmful in-person sexual assault. Non-consensual dissemination of obscene materials online is often accompanied by offline abuse like stalking, intimidation, sexual harassment and assault.


Unlike physical forms of harassment, TFSV enables individuals to perpetrate harm without the use of physical force, intimidation, unsolicited physical contact or verbal expressions like suggestive remarks or obscene language in real time. In addition, technology has allowed perpetrators to hide behind the cloak of anonymity when circulating and distributing explicit materials in the digital world. These complicate the remedy of sexual violence, as it becomes increasingly difficult to track and punish perpetrators.


Emotional and Mental Implications of TFSV


Like any physical forms of sexual violence, the harms experienced by victims of TFSV are extensive. These include feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and shame, which may lead to suicidal ideation. Victims may also face reputation damages, financial strains from having to pay for take-down requests, social isolation and potential professional repercussions. [6] They also face the inescapable fear of their photos or videos reappearing even if they have succeeded in having them removed from websites, as anyone who has previously viewed them could have taken a screenshot and share it with new recipients.


In addition, perpetrators, such as those taking up skirt videos or filming in toilets, may choose their victims randomly. While sexual violence is a reality for people of all genders, research has shown that the vast majority of victims of sexual violence are females. [7] These may cause many women and girls to feel deeply uncomfortable in public spaces, nervous and worried that they might be filmed by hidden cameras. [8] As the prevalence of image-hosting platforms has made digital sex crimes less detectable in recent times, this leads victims down a rabbit hole.


Furthermore, responders may blame victims for taking photos that depict them engaging in sexual conduct or sharing intimate images with their intended recipients. However, this diminishes the responsibility of the perpetrator and assigns blame to the victim. [9] At the heart of victim-blaming, comments that fixate on the victim’s decisions, such as their choice of attire, discourages individuals from making police reports and seeking further support. According to AWARE, victim-blaming also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the basic principle that consent is specific. [10] In other words, a person sending intimate images to one person is not blanket consent to share that image with anyone else.


Rise in Digital Sex Crimes During COVID-19


As the COVID-19 pandemic saw the introduction of social isolation measures and lockdown conditions in many countries, it also witnessed a surge in gender-based sexual violence that disproportionately affects women and girls. [11] Even before the pandemic, it was estimated that 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes. [12] During COVID-19, violence against women and girls was projected to increase exponentially including in the form of TFSV.


This can be attributed to increased technology usage as a result of remote learning and working. It was reported that the internet usage had increased between 50 to 70 percent as a result of quarantine measures and self-isolation policies globally. [13] Coupled with stress, fear and sense of helplessness associated with lockdown conditions and restricted movements, this results in an uptick in the perpetration of violence against women. It is estimated that rates of sexual violence tend to increase during states of emergency such as natural disasters and health crises. For instance, reports of sexual assault among women in the United States increased by over 45 per cent during Hurricane Katrina and the recovery period. [14]


For students, the shift to remote learning also means that outside of their curriculum time, they could spend more time unsupervised online. This increases their exposure to offenders through various channels such as online gaming platforms, messaging apps and social media. Furthermore, it may be difficult for younger children to differentiate between friends they know offline and the ‘new friends’ they make online, which in fact are online groomers lurking behind throwaway accounts.


TFSV in Singapore


TFSV Cases in Singapore. Photo: AWARE SAAC

In 2020, AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) saw 191 cases of TFSV cases, a 36 per cent increase from 2019. [15] While TFSV can be committed by anyone (family members, colleagues, acquaintances and intimate partners), recent statistics by SACC have reported that it was more common for the perpetrators to be known to the survivor. In 2020, the highest reported category of perpetrators was intimate partners, followed by acquaintances, then contacts from dating apps. [16]


Over the years, illicit Telegram chat groups such as the now defunct SG Nasi Lemak circulated explicit images and videos of women, many of which were captured or distributed without their consent. In many instances, personal details of the victim were shared alongside their images. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of image-based sexual abuse cases also doubled from 30 to 64, of which half of them were committed by an intimate partner. [17]


In order to safeguard public health and well-being, schools in Singapore adopted a home-based learning model at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak where students are taught part of their school curriculum through online platforms like Google Meets and Zoom. As a result, more children are likely to fall victim to online sexual grooming when they have unsupervised access to digital devices. In 2020, it was reported that about one in five children aged 8 to 12 has experienced ‘risky contact’, which is defined as meeting online strangers in real life or getting unwanted online contact of a sexual nature. [18]


Government Responses to Sex Crimes


As conversations about gender equality and sexual offences reignite, harrowing accounts from survivors of sexual assault has galvanised a growing movement to improve protections for women and girls in Singapore. In recognition of emerging crime trends like voyeurism, policymakers have been prompted to revise existing laws and policies to tackle TFSV.


In June 2021, the Protection from Harassment Court was established to oversee all criminal and civil matters under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). These include cyberbullying, doxxing, unlawful stalking and other acts intended to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” to another person. Under the POHA, any individual who is convicted will be liable to a maximum fine of $5000, and/or an imprisonment term of up to 6 months. These maximum penalties are doubled for repeat offenders. [19]


Amendments to the POHA, which was enacted in 2014, were also introduced to enhance protection for victims of harassment and simplify the process for them to obtain relief such as applications for Protection Orders and orders in relation to falsehoods. Instead of having to travel to filing bureaus to file an Originating Summons in the presence of a supporting affidavit, victims can now file a claim online and at a lower cost through the State Courts' Community Justice and Tribunals System. [20]


Among other changes, Protection Orders and Expedited Protection Order will also be extended to persons related to the victim as they may be at risk of harassment by the perpetrator as well. Hearings will also be conducted more quickly in the new specialised court, which targets to conduct hearings for Protection Orders and Expedited Protection Orders within 4 weeks and 48-72 hours of the application respectively. This will be reduced to within 24 hours when there is a risk of violence or actual violence. [21]


In addition, new provisions were enacted in the Singapore Penal Code to deal with criminal acts such as voyeurism and the non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate images. Under Section 377BC of the Penal Code, any individual who distributes or possess voyeuristic content can face imprisonment of up to 5 years, and the imposition of a fine or corporal punishment. Furthermore, offence of voyeurism, which was previously dealt with under Section 509 ‘Insulting of Modesty of a Woman’ in the Penal Code, is now pursuant to Section 377BA of the Penal Code which uses gender-neutral language. [22]


While this is a step in the right direction towards simplifying the court process for victims of online harassment to seek help more easily, it is a matter of time before law enforcement fails to keep up with the manifestation of other forms of sex crimes like online child exploitation and intimate partner sexual violence. Furthermore, the application for Protection Orders may be expensive and emotionally taxing to victims. The process of gathering evidence and making reports may also expose victims to re-traumatisation and discomfort, especially if they have to revisit and share details about the incident.


Policy Responses in Institutes of Higher Learning


Age range of TFSV victim-survivors. Photo: AWARE SAAC

As individuals between the age of 18 and 24 are disproportionately affected by sexual misconduct over the years, this section will evaluate existing policy responses taken by institutes of higher learning (IHLs) to stem future occurrences of sexual harassment and assault cases. In 2020, it was reported that victim-survivors of TFSV ranged in age, with the youngest being a pre-adolescent and the oldest being 59 years old. [23] In addition, the highest number of cases fell into the 18-24 years age group in 2020, with these making up 43 percent of total cases. This is a significant jump from 2017-2019, where the number of cases for this age group made up less than 30 percent of TFSV cases.


Amid growing calls for better support for victims of sexual misconduct on campus, the NUS Victim Care Unit, now known as the NUS Care Unit, was set up to provide coordinated, end-to-end care for students who have experienced sexual misconduct of any kind. [24] These are among a raft of measures the university has put in place to safeguard students’ well-being and campus security. Other measures put in place include making students take compulsory modules on consent and respect, covering gaps in shower cubicles and increasing roving security patrols on campus.


There remains concerns in the adequacy, transparency and standards of policies for handling sexual harassment cases and providing support to victims. While individual IHLs have sought to improve their policies and support system for victims, protocol for disciplinary action for different cases of sexual harassment is not streamlined across IHLs. [25] Bystander intervention programmes and mandatory sexual harassment training for staff and students are rarely delivered, if developed at all. In addition, private universities are not held accountable by any organisation when handling sexual harassment and assault cases, and few have specific codes of conduct or victim care protocols. [26]


Alternative Solutions


As the dissemination of explicit media transcends jurisdictions, it becomes difficult for victims to completely erase their digital footprints. As such, combating digital sex crimes requires multi-stakeholder collaboration from companies like Telegram and WhatsApp. Messaging apps and social media platforms can look into providing swift assistance to victims such as removing non-consensual materials and suspending offending accounts.


However, take-down orders and the regulation of messaging applications only serve as immediate short-term solutions. TFSV and digital sex crimes will continue to be perpetrated as individuals can continue to circulate and disseminate intimate media online using throwaway accounts. Therefore, long-term policies should also look at raising awareness of TFSV in order to holistically mitigate the occurrence of digital sex crimes in Singapore.


The Singapore government has made significant efforts to tackle digital sex crimes through measures like legislature reform and increasing security measures in IHLs. Looking forward, what more can be done to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable?


One of the most fundamental solutions involves changing social attitudes that tolerate and even encourage abusive conduct toward women and girls. This can be done through sexuality education that counter the misogynist attitudes and problematic messages that mainstream pornography perpetuates about gender equality, power, consent and healthy relationships. It must be communicated that mass-marketed pornography provides adolescents a distorted view of sex, and these profit-driven content often misogynistic erroneous beliefs about sexual expectations, for example, that women are always ready for sex. [27]


Key themes of MOE Sexuality Education Curriculum. Photo: MOE

In 2020, Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Ms Sun Xueling shared that the ministry plans to introduce an updated character and citizenship (CCE) curriculum with a greater emphasis on moral values, cyber wellness and respecting boundaries. [28] The move also entails greater resource-sharing across IHLs and the standardisation of protocols and responses to issues that arise.


Moving away from an abstinence-focused sexuality education is a step in the right direction. However, the delivery of sexuality education must be conducted in a way that is not reductionist nor simplistic. As individuals are faced with asymmetrical power dynamics in real life, where the assailant is in a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim, concepts taught during sexuality education must go beyond black-and-white ‘no means-no’. Effective sexuality education should take into account real-life circumstances that are complex and nuanced - peer pressure, hormonal changes and assimilated gender norms. [29] These should be delivered to students in digestible forms to students without downplaying the severity of sexual violence.


Sexuality education in schools must also be coupled with parents talking to their children about safe and healthy sexual practices. A 2018 survey by AWARE found that a majority of students between the ages of 16 to 24 years old had rarely, or never, discussed sexual topics with their parents. [30] When parents avoid such topics, it perpetuates anachronous concepts of abstinence, and results in children turning to alternative sources of education such as pornography. These sources do not offer balanced introductions to human sexuality and gender relations, and are often unrealistic, exploitative and based on non-consensual scenarios.


According to a 2016 survey by Touch Cyber Wellness, 9 in 10 boys between the ages of 13 and 15 years have watched or read sexually explicit materials in Singapore. [31] As children increasingly turn to materials from pornographic sites (accidental or not) as their source of sex education, it is imperative for parents to start these conversations instead of avoiding or dismissing these topics as taboo.


Furthermore, parents play a vital role in protecting their children from online risks such as online grooming, sexting and pornography. As it is increasingly difficult to regulate their exposure to digital devices and the Internet, parents need to inculcate healthy digital habits in their children. This includes teaching them to discern what information they can share with fellow Internet users, and decipher that the conceptualisations of power portrayed by pornography is harmful.


Digital Citizenship and Consent


Apart from sexuality education from parents and in schools, it is necessary for people to understand the use of technology and digital sexual communication. This will allow individuals to better understand the differences between consuming consensually-produced pornographic materials, and creating or sharing images and video without consent. At present, the cyber wellness curriculum as part of the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) in schools is centred upon three principles - ‘Respect for Self and Others’, ‘Safe and Responsible Use’ and ‘Positive Peer Influence’. These aim to introduce students to the risks of harmful and illegal online behaviour while helping them make careful and well-considered decisions in cyberspace. [21]


Key messages of MOE Cyber Wellness Curriculum. Photo: MOE

As digital technologies become increasingly intertwined in our private lives, cyber wellness should be extended to workplaces where personal and professional boundaries are blurred due to Work-From-Home arrangements. In addition to regular training and courses on cyber security and new technologies in the workplace, employers should also promote proper netiquette among employees, and help them identify dangers on the Internet and protect themselves. [22] By extending cyber ethics education to the workplace, this enables individuals to be responsible users of digital technology, while encouraging them to take an active stance against sexual harassment and violence.


It is also important to understand consent beyond the context of participation in amorous relationships, such as in everyday situations when taking pictures of someone else and uploading them on social media without asking for permission. Such forms of bystander education can potentially combat cyber violence, as it urges individuals to report and speak up about the inappropriateness of non-consensual creation and distribution of obscene materials.


Adopting Trauma-Informed Practices


In addition to enforcing punitive measures against perpetrators, trauma-informed practices should be adopted to ensure that the processing of such cases is conducted in a manner that does not expose victims to re-traumatisation and discomfort.


Currently, the Singapore Police Force provides specialised modules on sensitivity training in their basic courses, covering theories on victim management, active listening skills and sexual crime investigation principles and processes. [23] Even with reforms towards a more victim-centric approach, there remains extremely low reporting rates of sexual offences in Singapore. Ms Shailey Hingorani, Head of Research and Advocacy in AWARE, remarked that among the centre's clients, who include survivors of other forms of sexual assault, seven in 10 choose not to file an official report.


This can be attributed to multiple reasons: the victim’s sense of stigma, compounded by a victim-blaming society, and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system. In addition, harmful beliefs and myths that individuals tend to ‘lie’ about their experiences of sexual assault and abuse create a context of suspicion and doubt, making it particularly difficult for victims to seek help or report their experiences. Therefore, a system that treats victims with sensitivity, empathy and respect is not only critical to their emotional and psychological recovery, but is also important to address the under-reporting of sex crimes and thus hold perpetrators accountable.


These practices must be extended to IHLs in Singapore, where victim-care protocols are insufficient and ambiguous. The Ministry of Education must work with educational institutions to develop policies for handling situations involving digital sex crimes and TFSV, including providing effective mechanisms for affected students and staff members to file complaints and hold those who have acted inappropriately accountable for their actions. Trained professionals like clinical psychologists and lawyers should also provide timely updates on the progress of a student’s case. In addition to victim support, standards of anti-harassment training should also be streamlined across IHLs to ensure the calibre of support and care provided to students and staff.


Educational institutions can also support an individual who has experienced any form of harassment or sexual violence through simple acts like allowing students to take time off from school, or ensuring that support pathways and resources for victims are easily accessible through university webpages.


Conclusion

Moving forward, we need to ensure that economic and technological development in Singapore is accompanied by advancements in gender equity. Similar to the building of a Smart Nation, the protection of the rights of women and girls is a whole-of-nation effort.


At the end of the day, policies and legal reforms are not enough to curb the occurrence of digital sex crimes and TFSV in Singapore. Sex crimes are taking on other forms as a result of new technology, and it is only a matter of time that legislators and institutions are unable to keep up. Therefore, holistic solutions are needed to curb such acts of violence - starting conversations on consent, sex and power in schools and at home, ensuring rights-based protections by government and companies, and providing trauma-informed support for victims of sex crimes. These must be coupled with efforts to address deeply-embedded patriarchal values, misogynistic attitudes and victim-blaming mindsets. Only when we change the ways we think about respect and human dignity then will we be able to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.




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Kai Ting is a Year 2 Political Science student and an Editor for The Convergence. She has a keen interest in socio-political affairs and inequality in the region, in particular social welfare development in Hong Kong and Korea. By introducing new perspectives to societal issues, she hopes that her writing can drive more active participation and robust discussions among individuals. When she is not pouring through her readings, she is probably exploring new cafe hideouts and hiking spots. Some of her other interests include film photography, nature walks and reading non-fiction titles.