The number of sexual cyber crimes recorded by police has soared over the past three years, according to new research.
The Scottish Government has announced an expert group to tackle sexual crime as new analysis by statisticians revealed the scale of the problem.
Sexual crimes in the category that includes internet offences rose by 50% from 2,901 in 2013/14 to 4,360 by 2016/ 17.
The research estimates around half of the growth in all sexual crimes recorded by the police over the period is due to growth in cyber-enabled offences.
Analysis shows the growth has been driven by large increases in the crimes of “c ommunicating indecently” (up from 605 to 1,166) and “causing to view sexual activity or images” (from 229 to 1,030), with these categories now accounting for 20% of all sexual crimes.
Overall more than three-quarters (79%) of victims were female and more than half (59%) were under 16, while the vast majority of perpetrators were male.
In 2016-17 the victims and perpetrators were strangers in 42% of cases.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, who commissioned the research, said experts from the fields of justice, education and health would be asked to develop fresh action to prevent sexual crime and protect young people.
He said: “The sexual crimes research makes clear that more work is required to understand why particularly young males are behaving in this way and to prevent sexual offending.
“While we have taken considerable steps in this area, such as our recent ‘intimate images’ campaign, the national action plan on internet safety and our ‘Equally Safe’ strategy, I am bringing together an expert group to identify further steps needed to better-tackle and ultimately prevent such offending.”
The research was published alongside figures which showed recorded crime in Scotland dropped 3% from 246,243 in 2015-16 to 238,651 in 2016-17 – the lowest level since 1974.
Non-sexual violent crime increased by 6% to 7,164 while sexual crimes also rose 5% to 10,822 and c rimes of dishonesty, f ire-raising and vandalism all decreased.
Mr Matheson said: “Through our strong and sustained focus on prevention, violent crime is now almost half the level it was a decade ago.
“However, I’m determined to build on this, ensuring further progress in future years. That’s why I have asked for more detailed analysis into how violence, and the factors behind it, are changing and what is needed to secure further reductions in violence in future, with fewer victims and still safer communities.”
Solicitor General Alison Di Rollo QC, who recently hosted a summit on educating young people on sexual crimes, said: “Too many children and young people are coming into contact with our justice system as a result of sexual offending, and we know that technology has an increasingly significant part to play.
“I am delighted that this new expert group will now build on the success of the summit, and acting on the key messages we heard, identify and take the next steps to inform and protect our young people.
“COPFS will provide our experience and expertise to the group and together better tackle and prevent sexual offending among young people.”
Rape Crisis Scotland’s chief executive Sandy Brindley said the rise in online sexual crime was “significant and worrying”.
She added: “This is a wake-up call: now more than ever we can see the urgent need to challenge this behaviour by undertaking prevention work with young people across Scotland.
“In our work with young people in schools, they tell us of everyday sexual assault, harassment, and the sharing of intimate images without their consent .
“If we are serious about tackling the increasing levels of sexual crime being experienced by young people, we must ensure that every young person in Scotland has access to interventions* on consent and healthy relationships.”
Labour’s justice spokeswoman Claire Baker MSP said: “The rise in violent and sexual crime is deeply concerning and the SNP must not be complacent in tackling these issues.”
Meanwhile the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats highlighted a drop of 1.6 percentage points in the clear up rate for all recorded crime to 50%.
Tory Liam Kerr MSP said:”The fall in clear-up rates will be immensely concerning to people right across the country.
“We’re now in a situation where criminals know they literally have a 50/50 chance of getting away with their illegal activity.”
Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur said: ” The clear-up rate is at its lowest level since Police Scotland was established and people will be concerned that the SNP’s squeeze on the police is having an impact on their ability to clear up crime.”