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Responding to image-based abuse

Dr Asher Flynn, Monash University
12 DEC 2017

Image-based abuse happens when a nude or sexual image is taken or shared of a person without their permission. It also includes threatening to take or share a nude or sexual image of another person. Abusers can be intimate partners, ex-partners, family members, friends, people you work with or strangers. People use this type of abuse for many different reasons, including for revenge, money or to embarrass or control another person.

The following case study contains two types of image-based abuse: the threat to distribute an intimate image, and the non-consensual distribution of an intimate image.

Case Study

Zainab is a 24-year-old law student. She grew up in Lakemba in New South Wales and moved to Glebe when she was 18. Zainab began a relationship with a fellow university student, Sam, when she was 19. Zainab and Sam were together for almost 3 years. During their relationship, Zainab and Sam consensually photographed several of their sexual encounters. They considered it a fun way to express their affection for each other, and they enjoyed re-visiting the images when they were apart. Towards the end of their relationship, Sam started acting quite jealous. He threatened to distribute the photographs of Zainab to her family, friends and around the university if she left him for anyone else. Zainab was fearful of the implications of this for her future career prospects as a lawyer and the humiliation it would cause her Muslim family. For these reasons, she stayed in the relationship with Sam for another 6 months, before they eventually broke up. Sam promised Zainab that he had deleted the photos.

One day Zainab was at work when she was approached by two men with cameras who tried to take photographs of her. She had to hide out the back of the café, and her boss suggested they report it to police. She didn’t want to do this. Later that week, a student from her course approached Zainab and told her she had seen sexual images of her on a Tumblr page. She said the image was accompanied by what appeared to be her home and work address, alongside some horrific comments encouraging others to film sexual and physical assaults of her. The student showed Zainab the site and it contained several of the photographs she had taken with Sam. Zainab was terrified and approached Women’s Legal Service NSW for help.

 

Step 1: This is not Zainab’s Fault

It is important when someone discloses their experiences with image-based abuse that they receive support and assistance, including confirmation that the abuse is not their fault. In Zainab’s case, it doesn’t matter whether she consensually shared images of herself with Sam, or if she agreed for him to take pictures of her or them in the first place. Sam sharing and threatening to share images with other people without Zainab’s permission means he is to blame. Also to blame are others who go onto share these images without consent, or behave in harassing and abusive ways.

People who have experienced image-based abuse may want emotional support. For confidential information, referral and counselling, Zainab should be directed to contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. Her doctor or GP can also refer her to a psychologist or counsellor.

 

Step 2: Office of the eSafety Commissioner Image-Based Abuse Reporting Portal

When someone has experienced image-based abuse, often they just want to get the image deleted, removed or taken down.

In Zainab’s case, she should be directed to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner website which provides detailed information on how to approach different websites and social media platforms to request content be removed. Importantly, the eSafety website also contains an image-based abuse reporting portal, where Zainab could report her experiences of image-based abuse and receive assistance, including:

  • Getting information on how to approach Tumblr to have it removed herself.
  • Having the eSafety Commission approach Tumblr on Zainab’s behalf to request the image be removed.
  • The use of digital-recognition software and technology to identify other sites where Zainab’s image may have been posted.

This service is available to anyone who has experienced image-based abuse.

 

Step 3: Reporting to Police

New South Wales, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have specific laws on image-based abuse which make it illegal to:

  • Record or capture intimate images without permission.
  • Distribute intimate images without permission.
  • Threaten to record or distribute intimate images.

As Zainab lives in NSW and the abuse occurred there, she can report Sam’s abuse to police under section 91Q and 91R of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

Reporting image-based abuse to the police can be a daunting experience, particularly for those from already marginalised groups. Those who have experienced image-based abuse can request to have specialist police officers assist them in the following circumstances:

  • If family or domestic violence is involved, they can ask to speak with a specialist Domestic Violence Officer.
  • If the individual is LBGTIQ, they can ask to speak with a Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officer.
  • If the individual is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, they can ask to speak to an Aboriginal Liaison Officer.
  • If the individual is from a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Community, they can ask to speak to an Ethnic Community Liaison Officer or a Multicultural Community Liaison Officer.

Before Zainab reports to police, she should be advised to collect as much information about the abuse as possible. This may include screenshots of the images and the website addresses and details of any social media sites (in this case Tumblr) where the images have appeared. Zainab should be advised to record the time and date she collects the evidence and if possible, the time and date the content was shared. She should also tell the police any other information that might be important, such as the username of the person or people who shared or commented on the images.

 

What if Zainab lived in a state or territory without specific image-based abuse laws? 

If Zainab resided outside NSW, she could still report the abuse to police even if there were no specific criminal offences from image-based abuse. Under Australian federal law, it is a crime to use a carriage service (such as the internet or a mobile phone) to menace, harass or cause offence. It might also be possible to charge abusers for stalking, surveillance devices, blackmail or indecency offences in her state or territory jurisdiction.

 

Step 4: Legal Advice

Zainab may like to get some advice from a lawyer about the options available to her, including civil laws relating to anti-discrimination, copyright, breach of confidence and intervention orders. As Zainab has approached the Women’s Legal Service NSW, she may be able to get this assistance there. Otherwise, she could also be directed to a Community Legal Centre for free advice, or potentially Legal Aid NSW.