LGBTQ+ community grapples with hidden wave of digital abuse

Sexual and gender minority relationships suffer from a higher rate of intimate abuse, new studies reveal. Technology is part of the problem
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The number of domestic violence victims in the UK receiving help for technology-facilitated abuse rose by 258% between 2018 and 2022, according to Refuge, the UK’s largest specialist provider of gender-based violence support services. 

Technology-facilitated abuse falls on a wide spectrum of offences, ranging from image and text message harassment online to coercive and controlling behaviour using smart home devices. Devices such as smart lightbulbs, fitness trackers and item-finding software can form part of abusive practices. This includes ‘stalkerware’, also called ‘spyware, which is malicious software that allows unauthorised people to monitor the digital activity of others covertly. Secretly installed through dual-use apps, stalkerware is often masked by socially accepted labels such as ‘parental control’. 

A 2019 investigation found that the market for stalking functionality is targeted at demographics beyond parents. Researchers in 2018 discovered that vendors promote these apps without branding them as spyware (which would violate marketplace terms and conditions). Instead, they use search terms such as ‘catch’, ‘cheating’, ‘girlfriend’ and ‘spouse’. One such example is found in a tutorial video for the FlexiSPY app, which states that the functionality can be used to ‘protect your relationships’. Through creative marketing techniques, vendors have ensured that stalkerware can proliferate and become a significant tool for malicious control in intimate relationships.

The sexual orientation factor

Abuse is commonly portrayed as a heterosexual experience with male perpetrators and female victims, but a 2023 Australian study challenges the assumption. It indicates that the prevalence of technology-facilitated abuse might actually be higher in sexual and gender minority relationships than in heteronormative ones. 

Evidence suggests that LGBTQ+ individuals experience physical intimate partner violence at similar or even higher rates than heterosexual couples. One study estimates that 43.8% of lesbian women and 37.3% of bisexual men experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, compared to 29% for men and 35% for women in heterosexual relationships. Despite this, little is known about how technology-facilitated abuse specifically affects sexual and gender minorities across the world. This blind spot is a particularly serious problem for LGBTQ+ minorities, who are already disproportionately exposed to a range of adverse social and health outcomes, including substance abuse, depression, and suicide.

The data gap 

Pioneering research initiatives such as the 2018 IoT Project at UCL uncovered many of the consequences of technology-facilitated domestic abuse, including its potential escalation to physical violence and the lifelong difficulty of feeling trust and safety. However, few studies have specifically considered the sexual and gender identities of victims. Efforts to incorporate intersectionality in debates surrounding technology-facilitated abuse have predominantly focused on female victims and demographic characteristics related to ethnicity, age, or socioeconomic background. 

In studies that consider sexual and gender minorities, findings on digital abuse do not capture the specific dynamics of intimate partner relationships. For instance, a 2023 international study established that LGBTQ+ individuals are disproportionately targeted by abusers online due to their sexual and gender orientations. A high proportion of the participants reported that the perpetrators of the most serious incidents were either male or anonymous. Despite the progress in researching sexual and gender minorities, there remains a notable gap in addressing the impact of technology on domestic abuse.

The lack of data not only results in the underreporting of victimhood in policy and academia but also underscores a critical point for support services: individuals struggle to recognise their experiences as crimes due to entrenched stereotypes. This lack of awareness reinforces a hierarchy of victimhood, where certain types of victims or forms of victimisation receive more attention, resources, and empathy than others. 

In addition to the lack of resources, LGBTQ+ communities face additional barriers. Research consistently shows that women often face poor responses from authorities when reporting crimes of stalking, which in turn makes them hesitant to report such crimes. Victims in the sexual and gender minority community – who struggle to identify themselves as victims altogether – are likely to be even more reluctant to seek help. This perpetuates a cycle where LGBTQ+ individuals remain isolated, silent, and beyond the reach of support services.

Measures are being taken to mitigate the harm experienced by female victims of cyberstalking offenses. In the United Kingdom, law enforcement is trialling technology-centric mechanisms to improve the identification, investigation, and ‘victim journeys’ of those who report stalking. The missing dimension, however, is the inclusion of LGBTQ+ perspectives.

Addressing this gap in information would foster recognition, validate experiences, and ensure targeted support for those who may struggle to identify their experiences as crimes under the UK Domestic Abuse Bill. If nothing is done, victims will either stay in unsafe relationships or remove their digital presence to escape coercive control. Ultimately, the current situation perpetuates a wider systemic exclusion of vulnerable individuals.

An inclusive research agenda

The adoption of an intersectional perspective will improve our understanding of how biases rooted in sexual and gender identities contribute to vulnerabilities. Centralised coordination of data collection would avoid fragmented efforts. This is especially true for intersectional approaches, where historical fears of stigmatisation have silenced public debates and hindered the collection of basic data for addressing policy issues. 

Drawing upon the UK’s LGBT Action Plan announced in 2018, a multi-stakeholder task force would encourage collaboration between government, academia, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, and support services. It could build on the success of the 2018 LGBT survey, which became the largest of its kind worldwide, to further close the research gap by formulating and initiating data collection on the prevalence of technology-facilitated abuse.

A task multi-stakeholder force could also use its diverse expertise to spearhead national participatory action research, develop inclusive policies, and identify appropriate areas for intervention. As a forward-thinking strategy, this intersectional approach can facilitate targeted research that will benefit policy making and create a permissive environment for further academic inquiry.

A more inclusive research agenda would not only strengthen government and academia but signal the intention to properly safeguard the well-being of vulnerable individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. Failing to address this issue risks neglecting the diverse digital vulnerabilities and distinctive challenges experienced by sexual and gender minorities.