Does the Government fully understand how harmful upskirting, sharing sexual images without consent and other forms of image-based sexual abuse really are? We are not convinced – nor are victims – because despite widespread calls to strengthen the law, the Government continues to resist demands.
Just last week, as part of the 16 days of the Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, victims shared with us their worry that politicians and policy makers do not fully understand the seriousness – or the ‘essence’ – of the harms they experience.
What is striking from our discussions with victims is how many describe their lives in terms of Before and After. They talk of immense ‘social rupture’ – marking the moment they became aware of their victimisation as one of sudden violation and utter devastation. One woman said to us: ‘my whole world just crumbled’: and this ‘destroyed everything’ when she learned her images were shared without her consent and uploaded to pornography websites. Victims spoke of their experiences as causing radical change in their lives – they distinguished between their life experiences and sense of self Before and After the abuse.
This experience of ‘social rupture’ is similar to that felt by victims of other forms of sexual violence such as rape. This might help to explain why many victims, such as actor Jennifer Lawrence, describe the non-consensual sharing of their intimate images as a form of sexual assault.
Victims also talk about the persistence and constancy of the harms caused by image-based sexual abuse; often because once intimate images have been shared they often remain ‘out there’ on the internet, forever discoverable. Victims feel a constant, on-going sense of foreboding: waiting for the next cycle of humiliation, harassment and abuse; waiting for the next person to say to them, ‘I’ve seen your videos’. One woman said to us: ‘There is no end to it, there is no stop, there is no final..’
Another woman told us about how she constantly lives in fear, where she is ‘haunted’ by the images and ‘tortured’ by her lack of control over them. For some victims we spoke to, even many years after their images were taken or shared without consent, the continuous possibility and ubiquity of the images meant all their interpersonal interactions (both online and offline) were affected - underpinned by the concern that each person they meet might know about, or have seen, their intimate images. They were constantly second-guessing each and every social interaction.
These experiences of ‘social rupture’ and of constant harm help us to better understand the pervasiveness and persistence of the impact of image-based sexual abuse. The effects of taking or sharing intimate images without consent can prove ongoing and the harms enduring: it’s constant.
We all need to recognise the enduring and constant nature of the harms of upskirting, ‘revenge porn’ and all other forms of image-based sexual abuse. Too often, these abuses are dismissed as not really being that significant: ‘just turn your phone off’, or ‘just move on’, being common responses.
Recognising the social rupture of victims’ lives - the Before and After - means we need to invest in sustainable and long-term emotional support for all victims. We must also give practical and legal support to help them ‘take back control’, as one victim suggested: help to take down images, to support them through the criminal justice system, to take civil actions against perpetrators. We need to build on the success of the Revenge Porn Helpline to ensure support and advice for all who need it.
We need to modernise and strengthen our laws to combat all forms of image-based sexual abuse and to protect all victims. At the moment, victims whose sexual images are shared without consent have no automatic right to anonymity, but if someone takes an image of you in the gym changing room without your consent, you are entitled to anonymity. This and more anomalies do not make sense and leave victims, police and prosecutors confused, meaning fewer reports to police and fewer prosecutions. And the current Upskirting Bill going through Parliament will only cover some forms of upskirting.
Victims are also telling us that we must do more to prevent these abuses in the first place. This means public campaigns and it means far better education in schools – the Government’s latest proposals on relationships and sex education are really disappointing. What’s needed is education and culture change to make everyone realise that taking or sharing a sexual video without consent is as obviously wrong as walking out of a shop without paying for your chocolate bar.
So, let’s listen to what victims are telling us and act now before too many more women and men experience social rupture and have to endure the constant harms of image-based sexual abuse.