Shattering Lives and Myths


Profs Clare McGlynn and Prof Erica Rackley

Publication date: 

1st Jul 2019

How do victim-survivors experience image-based sexual abuse? The study, which was co-authored by professor Erika Rackley, from the University of Kent, and Dr Kelly Johnson of Durham University, called for image-based abuses to be reclassified as sexual offences.

It warned that current laws were a “patchwork of piecemeal and out-of-date provisions with many significant gaps”, with some requiring proof of sexual gratification or distress as motives for a charge. 

Urgent legal changes are needed to protect the victims of revenge porn and other image-based sexual abuse, victims have said. One woman told how she attempted to kill herself after being coerced into making explicit videos that were shared across the internet, then told that police could not help. Others said they were “living in fear” over the possibility that loved ones and work colleagues would see images. They said they isolated themselves or were obsessively checking the internet to see what had been posted and where.

The academic report found that despite the creation of laws making revenge porn and upskirting illegal, police were being hampered by restrictions and emerging offences were not covered. For example, there are no specific laws to tackle “cyberflashing”, where victims are sent unsolicited sexual photos, and “deepfake” pornography that sees victims’ faces added to explicit videos. A two-year review of existing legislation was started by the Law Commission last week, but academics said the proposals were “not enough” to tackle wide-ranging abuses.

“While it’s welcome the government has recognised the need for comprehensive law reform, for women and men being victimised right now, this is justice delayed,” said author Clare McGlynn, a Durham University professor. “Image-based sexual abuse shatters lives.” The report found that “immediate legal changes” were needed to grant victims anonymity and enable them to report offences without fear of drawing more harassment. 

Academics called for the government to create an Office for Online Safety to provide assistance for victims wanting to remove images of themselves, alongside specialist emotional and legal support.

Professor Rackley said image-based sexual abuse was “constant, ongoing and relentless”. She added: “It not only shatters their lives, but also the lives of those who love and support them.”Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, told the Press Association the law needed to catch up with technology.

She said: “What this report does is provide even more evidence of the impact that image-based sexual abuse can have on individuals. “The law is supposed to treat crimes that happen online in the same way it would treat that offence happening on the street, say, so one hopes that the government is taking note that things need to change. There needs to be a specific offence for image-based sexual abuse.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are completely committed to ensuring the internet is as safe as it can be for UK citizens and to clamp down on online abuse. We are clear that if it's unacceptable offline, it's unacceptable online. This is why we’ve set out world-leading plans in our White Paper to put a new duty of care on online platforms towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator with teeth. “On top of that we have asked the Law Commission to review the current law on image-based sexual abuse to ensure it is fit for purpose.”