Not yours to share
There are countless ways in which this revolution has transformed our lives and world. Unfortunately, however, the impact of digital technology, like any other powerful implement, depends entirely on the agenda and motives of the person wielding it.
The prospect of having intimate images or videos of ourselves circulated among friends & family or across every continent is a nightmare scenario for most of us, but it’s now a familiar part of the digital backdrop to a reality where exerting pressure on and hurting others in this way is just a touch or a swipe away for someone who is so minded.
The loss of control over intimate images or videos in the virtual world is mirrored horribly for many who have been through this experience in the powerlessness they feel as they navigate the all too real and altered reality they find themselves inhabiting as a result of this gross violation of trust. Fearing humiliation, blame and judgement from people they know (and people they don’t), and an equally agonizing and ongoing uncertainty about how widely the file has been shared and who has seen it are just two of many painful consequences individuals targeted in this way are forced to deal with as a result of someone else’s vindictive, abusive (and now criminal) behaviour.
For girls and young women, the pressure to share intimate images of themselves can be considerable. A request to a girl to ‘SAD’ [send a dirty] or similar, (depending on where this is happening geographically) from a boy can lead (in spite of his promises and assurances to the contrary), to sharing of the image in question throughout the school, leaving her feeling exposed and ashamed, as her body is subjected to comments and judgements by her peers. Very importantly, in the context of consent and sexual violence, she may have learnt that she should expect her sexual consent and boundaries not to be respected. This process and the culture underpinning it also reinforces the great emphasis placed on girls’ bodies and pressures on them to conform to body image ideals, which determine the ‘ideal’ body as white or light-skinned, slim, and without body hair. In the context of such pressures to perform and conform, some girls say what’s important to them is that their image is judged as “good enough”, and the issue of whether their consent is respected, or whether sharing their image constitutes a positive sexual experience for them in any sense, is (crucially and harmfully) obscured.
The threat to expose intimate images can be used as a lever by abusers to coerce a current or ex-partner or someone else they have targeted in order to exert control over them, and the shame and embarrassment those individuals feel at potential exposure can prevent many from coming forward or confiding in others for support or redress for this kind of blackmail and abuse. It’s easy to lose sight in a situation like this of the fact that you’ve done nothing wrong, but events like the suicides of Daniel Perry (who was bullied and blackmailed after being tricked into making explicit images of himself) in Fife in 2013 and of Tiziana Cantone in Italy last year highlight that the impact for some can be overwhelming and devastating.
People targeted in this way can sometimes feel that they are to blame and fear being seen as in some way complicit for the offences perpetrated against them, much in the same way that survivors of other forms of sexual violation experience shame and self-blame and a fear of being judged for what has happened. In some cases images have simply been stolen via hacking or lifted from Facebook or other social media platforms, as high profile cases involving Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Paris Hilton and others have shown. Images can also be generated in an instant simply by taking a screengrab from a momentary communication on platforms like Snapchat, and software like PhotoShop is sometimes used to fabricate malicious and pornographic depictions of people. Rape Crisis Centres have increasingly seen malicious sharing of intimate images (and threatening to do so) emerge as a factor in sexually abusive behaviour in recent years, as abusers diversify their tactics in attempts to degrade and manipulate those they target.
With non-consensual sharing of sexualised images as with other sexual crimes the key to progress both in terms of helping victims and deterring potential perpetrators is to highlight and identify sharing intimate images without consent as a serious wrong that will attract serious consequences for those who perpetrate it. Such a reminder is exactly what the news from the Scottish Government today has reinforced: non-consensual sharing of intimate images is now a criminal offence in Scotland. That reinforcement and framing of the harms abusers deliberately inflict without consideration of or fear of the consequences can now be prosecuted and their perpetrators forced to pay the price. The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Act now makes the sharing or threat of sharing private, intimate images/videos an offence punishable with up to 5 years imprisonment.
Digital technology has for far too long offered abusers yet another lever with which to exert power over those they seek to punish or exploit. Hopefully the punishment such perpetrators will now attract in their own right for these cowardly and damaging acts will make them think twice.