Research tackles image-based abuse and instigates legislative reform

The alarming prevalence and harmful effects of image-based sexual abuse is a strong focus of RMIT researcher Professor Nicola Henry. Her work has increased understanding of the issue and led to significant legislative reform in Australia and internationally.

The term ‘image-based abuse’, which was first introduced by Henry and her team, refers to taking, creating, distributing, or making threats to distribute, nude or sexual images of a person without their consent.

Nationwide survey highlights extent of the issue

A 2019 national survey run by Henry and her team showed that one in three respondents reported having experienced at least form of image-based abuse.

“Through the 75 victim interviews we conducted in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, we found there were significant harms that could result from image-based abuse including depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation,” Henry said.

“More recently, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, there was a huge spike in image-based abuse complaints reported to the eSafety Commissioner,” she said.

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All federal, state and territory governments, except Tasmania, have introduced new criminal offences to tackle image-based abuse, and additionally, perpetrators and technology companies can also face civil penalties under the new federal Online Safety Act.

Ongoing positive impacts of the research

Working closely with the eSafety Commissioner and other partners, Henry and her teams have also informed many activities to combat the issue, including:

  • Increased Federal Government funding to tackle tech-facilitated abuse.
  • Development of an image-based abuse portal and reporting platform to empower those affected or needing to learn more about image-based abuse and how to get help.
  • Training and education videos for an online course: Online Training on Technology-Facilitated Abuse for Frontline Domestic Violence Workers.
  • An eSafety national advertising campaign giving information and support to victim-survivors to help them get images removed from online sites; guide them on how to communicate with someone who has their intimate images; and give them advice about collecting evidence and the laws in their jurisdiction.
  • Co-development of toolkits to provide a framework and practical steps to help make public transport safer for women and girls, providing stakeholders with direction about how to reduce their fear and risk.

International influence highlights include:

  • Expert advice and formal consultations to large social media platform organisations including Facebook/Meta, TikTok and Google. This has led to significant practice and policy changes and improved processes for removing content; preventing non-consensual images or offensive content from being uploaded; and penalising and educating users who engage in image-based abuse, technology-facilitated abuse or sharing of offensive content.
  • Presented to British Parliament in 2019 and consulted for the UK Law Commission inquiry into image-based sexual abuse (2021-22) to raise awareness of image-based abuse and inform British parliamentarians about the nature, prevalence and impacts of image-based abuse. This has led to law reform and policy changes in the UK to ensure better responses for victim-survivors and improved health outcomes.
  • Feedback on proposed legislation on image-based abuse in Aotearoa, New Zealand, leading to changes to New Zealand’s law in 2021.
  • Feedback on the Canadian Digital Inclusion Lab for United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution regarding violence against women (2018) to help improve responses internationally to image-based abuse and technology-facilitated abuse by international organisations.
  • Feedback to the US International Centre for Research on Women’s Technical Advisory Group (funded by the World Bank and the Sexual Violence Research Initiative) to aid development of global measures for technology-facilitated gender-based violence.

‘Image-based abuse’ term now used globally

Henry said “image-based abuse” or “image-based sexual abuse” are widely used terms which better capture the range of offences occurring than the former colloquial description of “revenge porn”.

“Other terms that had been previously used didn’t cover the range of different motivations or experiences beyond the revenge,” Henry said.

“The term ‘image-based abuse’ covers a much wider range of abusive behaviours involving the creating, sharing, or threats to share, intimate photographs or videos without a person’s consent, including as a tool of abuse or control in the context of domestic violence,” she said.

“For example, “image-based abuse” also captures instances where material was shared as a form of blackmail or extortion in a domestic violence relationship that is characterised by power and control.”

The term is now cited and used across the globe and by mental health support agencies including Beyond Blue and Headspace to raise awareness and give advice around the issue.

Next steps

Professor Henry and her team are currently working on an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship project which examines the role of digital platforms and tools to address image-based abuse. As part of that project, they have designed and developed an image-based abuse chatbot (called Umibot) to provide information, general advice and support to victim-survivors, perpetrators and bystanders of image-based abuse.

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.

aboriginal flag
torres strait flag

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business.