‘Sobering' survey finds 17% of Scottish women have suffered online violence

Research found 17% of women in Scotland have experienced threats, trolling, unwanted sexual remarks and other forms of abuse online (PA)
Katrine Bussey, PA Scotland Political Editor

Almost a fifth of women in Scotland have experienced online violence, “extremely sobering” new research has found, with almost three-quarters saying this should be made a crime.

Research by The Open University found 17% of women in Scotland have experienced online threats, trolling, unwanted sexual remarks and other forms of abuse.

This rose to more than a quarter (27%) amongst women aged between 16 and 24, while 45% of LGBT+ women said they have experienced online violence.

Of these women, one in nine (11%) said the online abuse had progressed to violence in real life.

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

More than 2,000 adults across Scotland were questioned for the research, which involved 7,500 people across the four nations.

Susan Stewart, director of The Open University in Scotland, said: “This new research represents the largest-ever study into societal attitudes and experiences of online violence against women and girls across the four nations.

“For Scotland, the results are extremely sobering and highlight how endemic online violence is and what serious impacts it is having on girls’ and women’s lives and on our society as a whole.”

The research revealed that of those who have experienced online violence in Scotland, 85% said it had impacted them, with 61% reporting a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Seven in 10 (71%) believe current legislation is not effective at tackling online violence against women and girls.

Almost three-quarters (73%) of women in Scotland and more than half (55%) of men want online violence to be made a crime – with this higher than in England, where 69% of women and 50% of men want such action.

The survey revealed a lack of confidence on the part of women and girls that the authorities will deal effectively with online violence – with almost a third (32%) of women in Scotland who have experienced this saying they would seek support from friends, while 4% would turn to the police.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) said they thought the police lack the resources needed to tackle online violence against women and girls effectively, while over three-quarters (76%) of women who did report online violence said they were not satisfied with the outcome.

To tackle the problem, Scots overwhelmingly support new devolved laws designed to address online violence against women and girls – with 76% of men and 82% of women in favour of this.

Susan Stewart, director of The Open University in Scotland, said it is hoped the research will ‘help better tackle online violence’ (Andrew O’Brien/The Open University/PA)

Ms Stewart said it is hoped the research will “open the dialogue among policymakers and authorities to help better tackle online violence and improve outcomes for those affected”.

Professor Olga Jurasz, a senior lecturer in law at The Open University who led the project, said: “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, among many other examples, and it disproportionately effects 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 from abuse, and a change in willingness or ability to express views online.”

Assistant Chief Constable Bex Smith of Police Scotland said the force is “committed to creating a society where women and girls live free from violence, abuse, exploitation and harassment”.

Progress has been made, she said, but: “We want to do more to support the right of women and girls to feel safe.

“By continuing to listen to the experiences of everyone, we will have a more informed approach and our Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy outlines the actions we will take as a service, along with our partners.

“We are committed to continually improving the service we provide, to build confidence in reporting and in policing more widely.

“Our role is crucial, but policing alone cannot stop this and we will continue to work with our partners to improve our response and drive the change needed to end violence against women and girls.”

Catherine Murphy, executive director at feminist campaign group Engender, said: “Violence against women and girls is endemic in Scotland and has devastating physical and psychological consequences, disproportionately impacting women of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalised groups. The new research from The Open University further confirms this fact.”

She said Engender wants the Scottish Government to adopt a digital health and safety at work framework “supporting employers to ensure women’s right to workplace safety is upheld online”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It’s extremely concerning that this new research shows that more than a quarter of women aged 16-24 have experienced online violence.

“The safety of women and girls is an absolute priority for the Scottish Government. That is why we will legislate in this Parliament to give effect to the ground-breaking recommendations for criminal law reform to address misogynistic harassment and abuse, both online and offline.

“Equally Safe, our gender-based strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls, is also focussed on preventing violence from occurring in the first place. Backed by £19 million of annual funding, it supports 121 projects with a clear focus on preventing totally unacceptable violence against women.”