Threatening To Share Sexual Images Ruins Lives. It’s Time To Make It A Crime

Photographed by Kate Anglestein
"It's horrible knowing it's out there. He’s still got it. I've got no control over what happens to it now," says Jennifer*. "It’s horrific." For the last eight years, she has been living with the threat that her abusive ex-husband will send footage of them having sex to her children, family and anyone with whom she forms any kind of relationship.
"He just started filming in the middle of us having sex one day. There was no discussion, no ‘Is this all right? Is this something you would be up for?’ He wanted me to go on top, which was unusual for us. That was more what I was uncomfortable with at first, because I didn't really know what to do on top. I was really confused." 
The 40-year-old, who moved to Cornwall to escape her ex with their three children, believes he shot the footage to weaponise it against her when she got social services involved after he hit their youngest son. At the time, he shared it with his army colleagues, their eldest son and even with the judge during subsequent family proceedings – and the constant threat that he will share it with others continues to plague Jennifer’s life.
As a result, Jennifer has complex PTSD and lives with ongoing feelings of guilt and shame. "I used to work in the retail industry and I don't feel confident enough to do that anymore. I've taken on lower paid cleaning work so I don't have to see the general public, because if someone looks at me funny, I think, Have you [seen it]? Do you know?"

Sharing intimate images or footage of someone without their consent – known as revenge porn – has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015 but there is currently no specific law that criminalises threats to share intimate images without consent.

Jennifer can’t bring herself to do anything sexual with anyone – including with herself ("I feel so dirty") – and she hasn’t had a relationship since the incident. "When someone asks me out for a drink, I can't do it. Men have become threatening to me. It’s not their fault and that's not to say I think everybody's the same, but you can't tell what might happen." She also doesn’t want to live with the risk of her ex sending the video to a new partner. "I don't want to have that conversation with anyone."
Sharing intimate images or footage of someone without their consent – known as revenge porn – has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015 but there is currently no specific law that criminalises threats to share intimate images without consent. Threats can be part of a prosecution for harassment or coercive control but not on their own, so there’s little the police can do, and it’s ruining the lives of (predominantly female) victims every day. Scotland, by contrast, has long recognised the harm caused by threats to share intimate images and it is illegal there.
Threats like these are distressingly common. One in seven 18 to 34-year-old women in England and Wales have experienced threats to share intimate images or videos, according to new research by Refuge. Almost three-quarters (72%) of women who have received threats to share were threatened by a current or former partner, and 83% of those who were threatened by a current or former partner also experienced other forms of abuse. These threats should therefore, arguably, be treated as a domestic abuse issue.
Not least because of the crippling impact they can have on women’s mental and physical wellbeing and entire lives: 83% of those questioned by Refuge said it affected their mental health and emotional wellbeing, over one in 10 women felt suicidal because of the threat and one in seven felt at greater risk of physical violence.
Like Jennifer, 31-year-old Natasha Saunders, based in the East Midlands, experienced threats as part of a physically, sexually and psychologically abusive relationship. Her ex-husband took intimate photos throughout their eight-year relationship and eventually used them against her. "At first I thought I was pleasing him and that it was just a bit of fun but pretty soon I got uncomfortable with getting dressed up for him." Not only did he share the photos of Natasha with women on dating sites, he also threatened to send them to her family and friends.
"We were at home and I wanted to go and meet my mum at the train station, a 10-minute walk away, but he told me I couldn't go. I challenged that and his response was that he would send the images he'd taken of me to my parents to show them what a 'slut' I was," Natasha recalls. "I was beyond mortified, and confused at why he would even think that, let alone say it."
The threat of being slut shamed before those closest to her dashed Natasha’s self-confidence and affected her mental and physical health. "It didn't stop when I left him either, I was so worried that he may go on to share the media he had of me. I've also had various health issues over the years which have been impacted, if not directly caused by, the stress he heaped on me during and after our relationship."

One in seven 18 to 34-year-old women in England and Wales have experienced threats to share intimate images or videos.

Now that her ex-husband is in prison with a 12-year sentence, having been found guilty of three counts of rape and one count of sexual assault by penetration, Natasha can look back with hindsight on how much the threat of having her intimate images shared affected her daily life. "The fear of him sharing those images with people I love and care about, or generally with strangers on the internet, was always in the back of my mind. There wasn't a day I didn't worry about it.
"Threats to kill and threats to extort money are both illegal, so why are threats to share not?" Natasha wonders. "It would not only provide support for survivors of domestic abuse, it would also aid justice being served to their abusers."
Of course, threats to share intimate images are not only made in the context of abusive relationships. "The law therefore needs to apply in all circumstances, not only in cases of domestic abuse and violence," says Professor Clare McGlynn, a law professor at Durham University and expert on sexual violence and image-based sexual abuse, including revenge porn. McGlynn has long been calling for a comprehensive criminal law to cover all forms of image-based sexual abuse, including threats. It’s such a common occurrence, she explains, because "threats are about exercising power and control over someone else."
"Shattering Lives and Myths", a report by McGlynn and colleagues, published last July, shone light on the harms that threats cause. "Threats are experienced as life-threatening and paralysing," the report concluded. Victims are "held in a state of ongoing fear that their images will be shared," McGlynn says. "Criminalisation can send a clear message that threats are wrong and society does not tolerate such actions."
Refuge recently launched a campaign, The Naked Threat – which is backed by the Victims Commissioner and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner – calling on the government to use the Domestic Abuse Bill to amend the law to criminalise threats to share and ultimately end this form of coercive control. This simple legal change would make a huge difference to women and girls’ lives, the charity argues.
"A clear law criminalising threats to share intimate and sexual images could also lead to social media companies creating more robust systems to report illegal threats made on their platforms, and take action," says Ellie Butt, Refuge’s head of policy and public affairs. 
Refuge is urging anyone who supports this change in the law to spend a few minutes emailing government ministers to show their support. "Parliament is going on recess for the summer, but when it returns in September, the Domestic Abuse Bill will be back on the table, so we need to show the government that this is something they have to pay attention to." 
Changing the law is a good start to signal that the behaviour is unacceptable, says Sophie Mortimer, manager of the Revenge Porn Helpline, which also supports the criminalisation of threats because currently "police struggle to investigate and the criminal justice system struggles to prosecute." "But we also need to see education for young people on healthy, respectful relationships and awareness raising of the seriousness of the issue and the reality of the harm caused."
This also means empathising with victims and their potentially dangerous circumstances, Natasha concludes. "Saying 'don't let the photos be taken in the first place' is like saying it's okay to rape a woman in a short skirt, or that you deserve to have a car crash when you drive a car. It's not fair to make a judgement on something you haven't experienced, especially when the foundation of any intimate relationship should be trust. It's a betrayal of that trust and a betrayal of women's rights. The sooner this form of abuse is outlawed, the better."
*Name has been changed to protect the victim’s identity.
If you are affected by this issue, support is available 24/7 from Refuge's National Domestic Abuse Helpline either by phone on 0808 2000 247 or online at where there is a live chat service available between 3pm and 6pm, Monday to Friday. 
The Revenge Porn Helpline is also available Monday to Friday to support any adult in the UK who has had their intimate images shared without their consent, or who is being threatened with the prospect of their images being shared.

More from Global News

R29 Original Series