Cyber Flashing And Deepfake Porn Are Harming Women Right Now – They Need More Urgent Protection

It's welcome the government is looking at comprehensive law reform on image-based abuse – but for women being victimised right now, this is justice being delayed.

The government has announced a review of laws on image-based sexual abuse, including so-called ‘revenge porn’, deepfake porn and cyber flashing. It is also considering extending automatic anonymity to victims reporting to the police. While it is welcome that the government has recognised the need for comprehensive law reform, in practice this is justice being delayed.

Take anonymity first. Victims have been calling for automatic anonymity for many years, telling us they are reluctant to report to the police for fear of their names being spread over the internet. Repeated polls have found extensive public support for anonymity. Further, over the last few years, the government has understood the need to protect victims and encourage them to report to the police, rightly extending anonymity to victims of forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Making this change is simple and straightforward and if we acted now, we might see many more offenders brought to justice and victims protected.

Next deepfake pornography, where ordinary images or videos are altered to make them pornographic. Again, we have known that this is a growing problem for many years, with my colleague Erika Rackley and I calling for change back in 2016. That same year, Scots law was changed to criminalise sharing sexual images without consent and they included ‘fakeporn’ within their law. As do the laws in many other countries around the world. It’s not that new an issue and it’s not that difficult to take the first steps to criminalise it.

The problem of cyber flashing has been rightly brought to public attention over the past year, with many women coming forward to report their experiences and say they’ve had enough of this form of harassment. Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee called for action, with many other politicians supporting them and the campaigning work of HuffPost. Again, Scotland has already criminalised this practice, and many other countries have undertaken reviews and legislated accordingly.

Therefore, while there are difficult issues around laws relating to hate crime, offensive speech and the political use of deepfakes, there are some easy and straightforward actions that could be taken now to protect victims and enable justice. In fact, the government had the opportunity to make these changes when legislating on upskirting, but chose not to.

Nonetheless, reforming the law is only ever a first step, and we must focus on education and cultural change. But the law does send a strong signal of what is right and wrong and unfortunately we are now going to have to wait that bit longer for a clear message that any form of non-consensual taking or sharing of sexual images, including threats and altered images, is criminal conduct.

The government says that it wishes to consult on these issues. A major new report – Shattering Lives and Myths – is being launched on Monday which makes recommendations for change drawing on interviews with over 50 victims and stakeholders, including lawyers, police and voluntary organisations supporting victim-survivors. This will hopefully inform these debates while also showing how urgent action is. The harms of image-based sexual abuse are significant and if the government truly understands this, it would take some action now.

The least the government could do, while we wait for justice, is to increase its financial support for victims, through specialist organisations such as the Revenge Porn Helpline, Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis.

Clare McGlynn is a professor of law at Durham University, specialising in image-base sexual abuse, sexual violence and pornography

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