“Revenge porn” – the sharing of nude or sexual images without consent – has been widely understood as the spiteful actions of a jilted ex-lover. As the term has gained popularity, however, so too have understandings grown about the use of nude or sexual images as a tool of abuse and control by perpetrators of domestic violence.
But according to our new research, image-based abuse affects many Australians from across diverse communities and in different types of relationships. The picture is more complex than has previously been identified.
Our recent survey of 4,274 Australians aged 16 to 45 found that 23% reported having been a victim of image-based abuse.
Most common were sexual or nude images being taken of them without their consent. 20% of those surveyed reported these experiences.
Also common was sexual or nude images being sent onto others or distributed without consent. 11% of those surveyed reported these experiences.
Finally, 9% of survey respondents had experienced threats that a sexual or nude image would be sent onto others or distributed without their consent.
Some groups in Australia were more likely than others to report having been a victim. One in two Indigenous Australians, one in two Australians with a disability, and one in three lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians reported having suffered image-based abuse victimisation.
Also, 30.9% of those aged 16 to 19, and 27% of those aged 20 to 29, reported having been a victim.
Impacts of image-based abuse
Our survey found victims were almost twice as likely as non-victims to report experiencing high levels of psychological distress.
These impacts were highest for those who had experienced threats to distribute an image. 80% of these people reported high levels of psychological distress, consistent with a diagnosis of moderate to severe depression and/or anxiety disorder. This is a very important finding: it demonstrates the severity of the harm associated with image-based abuse victimisation.
Many victims also reported they were “very” or “extremely” fearful for their safety as a result.
Feeling afraid for your safety is an important indicator of potential stalking and/or domestic violence perpetration. Many legal definitions of stalking and abuse, such as for the purposes of an intervention or protection order, require victims to fear for their safety.
Yet there were also important differences in fear experienced by women compared to men.
Overall, our survey found both men and women were equally likely to report being a victim of image-based abuse. This shows such abuse is not exclusively a form of gender-based violence.
However, there do appear to be some very important differences in the nature and impacts of such abuse according to gender.
For example, the majority (54%) of victims reported the perpetrator was male. 33% of perpetrators were female. 13% were either unknown or a mixed group of both male and female perpetrators.
Both men and women experienced the majority of abuse from known persons such as an acquaintance, friend, or family member. Women (39%) were more likely than men (30%) to be victimised by an intimate partner or ex-partner.
These gendered patterns are similar to other forms of violence and abuse, where both men and women are most likely to experience abuse from male perpetrators, and where women are more likely than men to experience abuse from an intimate partner or ex-partner.
Women victims were also more likely than men to report feeling afraid for their safety.
For example, for images taken without consent, 32% of women victims reported fear for their safety, as compared to 23% of men. For images distributed without consent, 40% of women and 36% of men said they felt afraid. For images threatened, 50% of women and 42% of men reported they felt fearful for their safety.
Our survey has a key limitation: victims can only self-report their victimisation if they have become aware that a sexual or nude image of them was either taken or distributed without their consent. One only has to scratch the surface of content shared online to see there are many more sites and platforms dedicated to sharing women’s nude or sexual images without their consent than men’s.
Identifying these sites and the ways in which they operate is an important avenue for future research. It may shed further light on the gendered nature of image-based abuse.
Where to from here?
Tackling the harms of image-based abuse will require a combination of efforts.
Working alongside social media and website providers to better detect and remove material is vital to improving responses. Improving legal protections and providing information and support services for victims are also key priorities for reform. Information and support will need to cater to the different experiences of the diverse Australian community.
But whether nude or sexual images are being taken or shared by an intimate partner or ex-partner, a friend, family member or stranger, consent is crucial. That is what lies at the heart of this problem. It will take a long-term prevention plan to promote a culture of consent and respect in the digital age.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Anastasia Powell, Senior Research and ARC DECRA Fellow, Justice and Legal Studies, RMIT University; Asher Flynn, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Monash University, and Nicola Henry, Associate Professor & Vice-Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow, RMIT University