Stories of teen sexting scandals, cyberbullying, and image-based sexual abuse have become commonplace fixtures of the digital age, with many adults struggling to identify ways to monitor young people’s digital engagement. In When Rape Goes Viral, Anna Gjika argues that rather than focusing on surveillance, we should examine such incidents for what they tell us about youth peer cultures and the gender norms and sexual ethics governing their interactions.

Drawing from interviews with teens and high-profile cases of mediated juvenile sexual assault, Gjika exposes the deeply unequal and heteronormative power dynamics informing teens’ intimate relationships and online practices, and she critically interrogates the role of digital cultures and broader social values in sanctioning abuse. The book also explores the consequences of social media and digital evidence for young victim-survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault, detailing the paradoxical capacities of technology for social and legal responses to gender-based violence.

Anna Gjika is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she teaches undergraduate courses on Crime and Society, the Sociology of Violence, and Gender and Crime. Her research explores the intersections of gendered violence and technology.

What motivated you to write this book?

Initially, when the Steubenville case made headlines in 2013, what perplexed me the most were the same questions that everyone else was asking, mainly: What were these kids thinking? Why would they record and share photos and videos of sexual violence on social media? In the months and years that followed, as similar cases arose, these questions went unanswered. Instead, media and public narratives focused on the risks that new technologies pose to adolescents, and young women, especially. Rather than explaining the motives and norms informing young people’s digital practices, a familiar discourse took over which framed technology as fundamentally responsible for teens behaving badly.

The reporting in Steubenville also featured heavy coverage of the role of digital evidence in the investigation and prosecution of the case. It was an interesting moment where many people were made aware of the thousands of pieces of evidence we produce daily through our digital engagement, and the potential of this digital trail for law enforcement, as applied to an ordinary investigation of sexual assault involving teens. There was an unspoken consensus that social media and mobile phones are powerful evidentiary tools and may finally present a solution to sexual violence cases being taken seriously by the criminal legal system— and to survivors finding justice. I found this troubling, considering that many of the cases making headlines during this period did not result in any criminal convictions, but did result in numerous young victims either attempting or committing suicide.

My new book is the outcome of this concern over how insufficiently we understand the causes of image-based abuse among youth, and the need for a more thorough examination of the social and legal afterlife of these digital artifacts.

Where should we focus our attention where teens, social media, and sexual harm are concerned?

For me, the question of why teens would publicize sexually harmful behavior on social media is key. Do they recognize the sexual violence – the illegality – of these encounters? What are their goals in documenting and sharing such behavior? How do group dynamics and norms impact both the perpetration of sexual assault, and the digital activities of young people in such settings?

The high-profile cases in my book help us explore the gendered landscape of adolescence,  analyze the peer cultures and sexual ethics that inform their interactions, and think through the ways that teens’ digital practices intersect with and are embedded in these dynamics.  Engaging with these questions also enables us to address image-based abuse and its evolving iterations among youth more broadly, including practices such as nonconsensual sharing of intimate images or creating and circulating AI-generated fake nude images of actual persons with male peers.

I also think – and other scholars have argued this as well – that where technology is concerned, we should examine platform design and affordances, and the ways they structure interactions. Social media and mobile technologies actively encourage the constant sharing of private material through easily available apps, and they reward us with likes, peer validation, and varying degrees of fame and visibility. My interviews with teens reveal how such features can encourage diminished ethical responsibility, commodification, and an instrumental attitude among users that makes digital abuse possible. Digital platforms trade on attention economies, which can feature positive behavior, but also indiscriminately reward cultures of humiliation, harassment, and exploitation. In the book, I argue that to understand sexual violence and its digital afterlife, we must consider how localized gender practices among youth intersect with these technological affordances and broader digital cultures.

What do you want readers to understand about the afterlife of digital activity?

I hope readers see that the afterlife of digital artifacts of sexual abuse and nonconsensual imagery is messy. Yes, the digital trail can be useful for investigating and prosecuting sexual harm, but the evidence these platforms gather does not necessarily bypass longstanding issues with criminal justice responses to sexual violence and its victims. Nor does the criminal legal system effectively recognize image-based abuse as an added form of victimization in these cases, and the new forms of consequences survivors experience. One of my goals in writing this book was to detail how ongoing gender, race, and class biases continue to inform how we circulate and respond to artifacts of abuse, and the implications of these attitudes and practices for social media’s potential to aid justice-seeking efforts both through and outside of the criminal legal system.

What kind of practices or changes would you advocate for making digital participation safer? How should try to address or prevent sexual assault and image-based abuse among young people?

The first step in addressing image-based abuse among adolescents is to recognize it as a form of gender-based violence, rather than just irresponsible digital praxis or cyberbullying. Doing so allows us to see that digital abuse is enabled by the same gender inequalities and rape culture that sanction sexual violence, and that successful intervention requires addressing the sexual and gender norms informing young people’s interactions and intimate relationships. My research reveals that traditional gender attitudes and heteronormative sex scrips continue to prevail in teens’ understandings of gender relations and sexual norms, including sexual violence. In the book, I detail the need for a comprehensive, standardized, and better funded sex education curriculum that centers sexual ethics, bodily autonomy, desire, and consent for youth if we want effective harm reduction and prevention. I also explain how such interventions must engage with social media practices, and include discussions of digital ethics, responsible digital citizenship, and safe exploration of practices such as privacy violations and digital mediations of sexuality.

In addition to educational initiatives, reducing tech-facilitated abuse and improving the safety of digital participation also means identifying broader legal, technological, and social interventions. Without giving away too much of the book here, I outline what this looks like in terms of recognizing the harms of image-based abuse, centering survivors’ justice needs, developing restorative interventions for perpetrators, and, importantly, holding tech platforms accountable.