RESEARCH: IMAGE-BASED SEXUAL ABUSE

A BRIEF EXPLANATION

  • The offender wrongs the victim. It concerns infringements of privacy, sexual autonomy and non-consensual objectification.
  • The offender’s conduct is harmful in principle. If a victim has died, or is (as of yet) unaware of their victimisation, or claims not to be harmed, it may appear as though no harm materialises. However, it is common for the criminal law to consider an objectified harm separated from the victim’s claims.
  • Image-based sexual abuse creates and contributes to unsafe (online) spaces for women in particular. Women are being limited (or limit themselves) to express themselves in ways they might otherwise have liked to in order to try to avoid victimisation.

Image-based sexual abuse should be treated as a form of sexual abuse. Victims show the same trauma-symptoms as victims of rape. Despite this, offenders are hardly reproached. ‘Second-degree’ offenders can also continue spreading abusive images without facing criminal repercussions. Victims’ human rights are severely infringed and are not properly protected.

In my doctoral research, I consider the requirements for criminalisation in general, and whether image-based sexual abuse meets those requirements in particular. One of the criteria of criminalisation is that the conduct of the offender wrongs the victim. My research mainly focuses on that aspect, and I aim to contribute to the thinking on the nature of wrongs in image-based sexual abuse. I consider the infringement of sexual autonomy, a breach of privacy, and sexual objectification through non-consensual publication. I consider these wrongs in relation to image-based sexual abuse as a concept.

Emma Holten speaks about her experience as a victim of image-based sexual abuse.

A second requirement for criminalisation is that the offender’s conduct is harmful (in principle). There has been more academic research into the harms of image-based sexual abuse in the last few years, in addition to victims speaking out. The harms of image-based sexual abuse are really severe: victims feel isolated, cut off and judged. On multiple occasions, victims have felt so desparate they comitted suicide. I have admiration for victims who, despite the hell they are already going through, have been able to become activists against image-based sexual abuse. Merely surviving this conduct is already such an achievement. Emma Holten has been really successful at explaining the big misunderstood problem of image-based sexual abuse: it is not the nudity in itself (even though most people would probably prefer not to be naked in public) but the fact that it was not her choice and happened against her will. Victims are denied exercising autonomy over who gets to have access to their nudity and/or sexuality.

Another woman whose story has left a great impression on me, is Annmarie Chiarini. She wrote on her victimisation and the necessity for (good) laws criminalisating image-based sexual abuse. She wrote in The Guardian: “I begged and pleaded for him not to carry out his threat. Then he said the words that would change the course of my life: “I will destroy you.” I called the Baltimore County police and through my sobs tried to explain what was happening and why I needed help. The dispatcher sent an officer to my home who looked down on me as I explained that I wanted him to stop a threat. It was the first of many times I would be told, “There is nothing I can do. No crime had been committed.””

Even after her ex-partner executed his threat, she still did not get the appropriate help.

“I called the police and again an officer stood in my home, looked down on me and said, “Nothing we can do. No crime here.” I went to a local police precinct hoping someone else would know more than the cops I spoke with. I stood by fighting tears while three officers looked over the auction printouts I brought and snickered. The blond one who finally came over to talk to me seemed amused. It was my first experience with overt victim blaming. And because it came from someone charged to protect and serve, it drove my shame and embarrassment to a paralyzing level.”

[…]

Since I don’t have that peace, I still face some of the fears I did the day I first brought my case to law enforcement, but I have embraced my role as the voice for those who have not yet found their voices. And I will speak up.”

(Click here for an external link to the full article on The Guardian).