Image-Based Abuse Is Growing In Australia — & Young People Are At The Centre Of It

Photo by Eylül Aslan
At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
While we don't often hear the term 'image-based abuse' in everyday conversations, it's a lot more common than you may think and a reality faced by many young Australians.
You may have heard stories about revenge porn, a naked photo being circulated without someone's consent, or an intimate image you didn't even know existed being seen by complete strangers. These are all examples of image-based abuse, which has become more frequent in the past 12 months.
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Australia’s independent online safety regulator, the eSafety Commission, received more than 1,000 reports of image-based abuse in the first quarter of 2022, compared to just over six hundred for the same period last year. More than 60% were from people aged 13 to 24, almost double the number received for the same period last year.

Consent education

'Teach Us Consent' founder Chanel Contos says the need for sexual consent education in an online context is critical as our lives continue to become enmeshed with the internet.
"I think we need to remember that for younger generations, the online and offline world have evolved to a point where online consent needs to be just as important of a conversation as real-world consent, because it is very real for them," Contos tells Refinery29 Australia.
The eSafety commission has launched SCROLL, a new youth campaign fronted by Gen Z creatives, providing guidance on what to do when things go wrong online.
Contos — whose own 'Teach Us Consent' campaign led the fight for conversations about consent to be included in the Australian school curriculum — says SCROLL's an important program because it acknowledges the realities of online behaviour without shaming young people.
"What tends to happen is we have this idea of, 'Just don't do it, don't send naked photos to anyone, don't take naked photos'... and that's the same as teaching abstinence to young children in this day and age where online and offline is morphed," she explains.
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"So the fact that we're pivoting the focus to when consent is being violated in situations, rather than telling young people not to do things, is going to be a really good shift in our understanding and keeping young people safe."

Image-based abuse and affirmative consent

RMIT Professor Dr Nicola Henry has been researching image-based abuse and affirmative consent over the past decade. A survey she conducted in 2016 found one in five Australian participants between 16 and 64 years of age said someone had shared or threatened to share a nude or sexual image of them without their consent. A subsequent survey she conducted in 2019 revealed the number was then one in three.
Dr Henry says three key behaviours were taken into account in defining image-based abuse during her research.
"The first is the non-consensual taking, creation or recording of an intimate image. So that can include things like upskirting on public transport or in shopping malls for instance. It can include creating what's known as deep fakes — using artificial intelligence and superimposing people's faces onto pornographic videos," she explains.
"The second example of image-based abuse is someone sharing or distributing intimate images. That can include things like posting videos or photos on pornography websites, social media sites, sending images via mobile phones or even printing out a photo... a lot of people call that revenge porn.
"The third one is making threats to share intimate images."
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Affirmative consent in relation to in-person sexual intercourse has been widely discussed in the media in the past year, and Dr Henry says it needs to be applied to online image interactions too.
"It's basically based on the idea that consent cannot be inferred if the other person does not say or do anything to express their willingness to engage in a sexual act," she explains.
"I think what we can do is apply some of those principles around affirmative consent to the sharing of images — you have to get someone's explicit, free and voluntary consent.
"If you want to share or you want to take images, you have to actively go out there and find out whether the other person consents to that. Affirmative consent or positive consent is really about asking, checking in and communicating."

Toxic masculinity

Contos says toxic masculinity plays a huge role in image-based abuse.
"It's all those factors that are so real in the real world like the idea of slut shaming and taboo around female sexualities," she says.
"The focus is then on the fact that that young girl or young person took that photo in the first place, rather than focusing on the idea that person A consensually sent it to person B. Then, person B non-consensually sent it to C, D and F, and that's where the problem lies."
Dr Henry says her research concluded "that gender plays a significant role" in the occurrence of image-based abuse.
She says there are instances where images of LGBTQ+ people are shared without their consent to out them to family and friends. Women in domestically violent relationships are often threatened by their partners to share intimate images because they're trying to control the victim or make them do something against their will.
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"There is such a diverse range of motivations," she explains. "Another one would be a typical kind of heterosexual guy who's showing off to his friends, and it's almost like a kind of trophy.
"It's like they've got this kind of evidence that they've scored on the weekend... the victim might never know that that image has been either taken or shared without their consent. There is that proof using images, boasting about their sexual prowess."

Reporting image-based abuse

All states and territories apart from Tasmania have their own laws related to image-based abuse and sharing private sexual material is also a federal crime. It can be reported to police or to the eSafety Commission, which allows people to report image-based abuse without having to tell a partner — and parent or teacher in the case of younger people.
"The good thing about eSafety, which I always say when I speak at schools, is that you can report without parents or teachers knowing which I think is really pivotal," says Contos.
"There just happens to be this idea in young people that things don't need to be reported if they happen online. So we need to change that. We need to give light to the prevalence of these issues so that resources are turned towards it."
Through online consent education that focuses on consent itself as opposed to slut-shaming or abstinence, the issue of image-based abuse can be better addressed in a world where the internet is most certainly here to stay.
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If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.
If something is going wrong online and you need help, head to esafety.gov.au for advice on what to do next and how to stay safe. Young people can also call Kids Helpline anytime on 1800 55 1800 for support.
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