Meet Social Science Scholar Guisella Cruz

With the generosity of the Social Science Scholars Program, this past summer I had the privilege of immersing myself in research assessing the consequences of image-based sexual abuse on BIPOC youth. I conducted this research with Dr. Brendan Lantz & Dr. Marin Wenger at the College of Criminology and have been able to learn from NGOs like End Cyber Abuse in the UK. Image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) is “the disclosure of sexually explicit images without consent and for no legitimate purpose” (Franks 2017). IBSA is a very public form of sexual abuse and distribution methods may include distribution through texts, groupchats, sharing on social media, displaying images for others to see on one’s digital device, or even printing and distributing this private content by hand. Distribution may be in one’s place of work, school, family functions, church and/or place of worship. IBSA targets children, women, and the LGBTQIA community. Since IBSA is an emerging form of sexual abuse, there is limited research on victimization rates among youth in the US. IBSA is also largely technology based which means it has ever changing impacts as technology advances.

IBSA can significantly impact an individuals quality of life and causes significant mental distress such as PTSD, Anxiety, Depression, Anorexia and/or Bulimia, Body Dysmorphia, Severe Trust Issues, Lower Self-Esteem, Somatic-Symptom Disorder, Shame, Guilt, Harassment, and Cyber-Bullying. Since survivors of IBSA are a vulnerable population, it was pivotal that my methodology focused on being respectful of survivors and their experiences to ensure I don’t retrigger survivors of IBSA throughout the interview. I am recruiting survivors of IBSA who are between the ages of 18 through 28 since this is the generation of youth who grew up with cell-phones and social media as this form of sexual abuse emerged without any protection for survivors. Recruitment efforts for this study started as a snowball sample and has continued with a post shared on social media to aid in recruiting survivors of IBSA.

For my study I will be facilitating interviews with a thematic interview guide. Interviews were chosen rather than surveys since oftentimes when survivors of IBSA are victimized, they are stripped of their ability to tell their story. This element is important to this study since an interview empowers participants to share their story rather than a survey or questionnaire framing their experience for them. The thematic interview guide assesses the experience of survivors and community relations such as how survivors recall being treated in comparison to the offender. My study aims to understand whether IBSA victimization impacts the understanding of consent survivors have and whether it is impacted by having a support system. Survivors will be asked to share if there were any potential interventions they found helpful or which they would have had access to, to better understand how to support survivors in the future.

Studies have found the symptoms survivors of IBSA experience overlap with the symptoms survivors of sexual violence and child sexual abuse experience. Research also indicates children who experience sexual violence are more vulnerable to revictimization in the future. I am curious to see if the same takes place with youth who are victimized by IBSA since the impact on their mental health overlap. Additionally, we know community interactions impact the healing of those who have experienced sexual violence and having a strong support system is incredibly important since it helps survivors heal and overcome victimization. I am assessing what this means for survivors who were victimized by IBSA throughout their youth since it is a public form of sexual abuse taking place during a really defining time in an individuals life as youth are coming to understand their identity.

 Since survivors have similiar symptoms to those who are sexually abused and raped and are often publically humiliated throughout and after victimization, preliminary findings indicate survivors of IBSA are vulnerable to sexual violence in adolence and adulthood and may also have a distorted sense of consent. This study is ongoing and I am excited to share and publish my findings once I obtain my results.

            The generosity of the Social Science Scholars program has changed my life and career interests. Immersing myself in this new field has inspired me to create a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting the experiences of Black and Brown survivors of IBSA. I will continue researching the ever-changing impacts IBSA has on young girls and LGBTQIA youth.

Guissella is a third-year student majoring in sociology. She is a Service Scholar, a UROP Leader, a Garnet and Gold Scholar and a 2021 Global Scholar. She was a research assistant at FSU’s Center for Human Rights and took part in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. She continues conducting research with Dr. Brendan Lantz and Dr. Marin Wenger, investigating the relationship between Confederate monuments and hate crimes. Guissella presented her research at the 2020 Undergraduate Research Symposium and the 2021 Florida Undergraduate Research Conference. She also is an Honors in the Major candidate, investigating how the prevalence of cyber-based image abuse varies across racial and socioeconomic lines. She served as a legislative intern in the Florida Senate in 2020 and is currently a 2021 legislative intern with the Pittman Law Group. Guissella aspires to become an intellectual property lawyer and create a boutique firm, providing pro bono services for financially vulnerable individuals victimized by Cyber Sexual Abuse.

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