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Professor launches study to examine cyber sexual violence risk during COVID-19 pandemic

Professor launches study to examine cyber sexual violence risk during COVID-19 pandemic

July 29, 2020 at 5:06pm

An FIU social psychologist is studying cyber sexual violence among adults in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has caused a massive shift to web-based communication, leaving Americans vulnerable to unfamiliar, untested and insecure communication technologies.

Asia Eaton, an FIU associate professor in the Psychology Department, is looking at whether this shift may have facilitated an increase in cyber sexual violence during the pandemic — and its impact on the wellbeing of adults from different backgrounds.

In partnership with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) and with funding through a National Science Foundation rapid response grant, Eaton will study prevalence, risk factors and consequences of sexual cyber abuse during the pandemic including nonconsensual pornography, sexual extortion, recorded sexual assault, cyber stalking and cyber dating violence.

“This interdisciplinary, translational research draws from psychology, law and information technology to better understand cyber sexual violence and inform practice and policy for legislature, tech companies, law enforcement and social service providers,” Eaton said. “I’m also proud that it represents an equitable partnership between FIU and CCRI.”

In April, there were several reports of substantial increases in phishing and other cyberattacks. Phishing can give hackers access to usernames, passwords, financial information. It can also provide access to intimate images — giving perpetrators easy opportunities to commit sexual extortion and share nonconsensual pornography.

According to Eaton, hackers take advantage of new users’ lack of familiarity with privacy and security settings in various platforms, including videoconferencing applications, popular gaming sites and adult entertainment sites. The cyberattacks have become more targeted and sophisticated since the start of the pandemic.

Also in April — after most individuals had sheltered in place — the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative reported a 54 percent increase in calls to their Crisis Helpline, which provides access and communication to victims of nonconsensual pornography.

“At the same time that the potential for cyber sexual violence has increased, the available avenues for recourse have diminished,” said co-principal investigator Mary Anne Franks, president of CCRI and professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “The common recommendation for victims of online abuse to ‘just log off’ is not only inadequate but also virtually impossible to follow in the current environment.”

In addition to establishing prevalence of sexual cyberviolence, Eaton and the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, want to develop practical recommendations for users, service providers and technology companies to detect, remove and/or prevent sexual cyber abuse and reduce harm to victims.

Eaton is head of research for CCRI. Her research explores how gender intersects with identities including race, sexual orientation, age and class to affect individuals’ access to, and experience with, social power in intimate partner relationships and in the workplace. 

Results of the study should be available in a year.


Media contact:

Ayleen Barbel Fattal