Why is abusive image-sharing often not thought of as abuse?

In the first research of its kind to explore potential links between nude image-sharing and domestic abuse, Revealing Reality conducted detailed interviews with people aged 16-30 from across the UK and with a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations..

Our researchers, who interviewed both victims and perpetrators of abusive image-sharing, gathered evidence of a range of image-based abusive behaviours, including:

  • The creation of nude images without consent
  • The sharing on or posting online of nude images without consent
  • Coercive behaviour involving nude images. This included coercion to elicit nude images, and coercion involving the threat of sharing on nude images or posting them online.

Among the participants, the researchers observed that once nude images have been shared within a relationship, boys/men and girls/women often have differing views about who ‘owns’ the image, what it can be used for and whether it can be kept – but these are rarely openly discussed at the time the image is created or shared.

Both victims and perpetrators of non-consensual and/or coercive nude-image creation and sharing did not always consider the behaviour as abusive.

Men and boys were more likely to say they sent nude images in the hope they’d be sent nude images in return. They also tended to see an exchange of nude images as more transactional, and often believed once they had been sent a nude image, they ‘owned’ it and it was theirs to keep forever. Women and girls didn’t always agree, with many saying they expected their partners to delete the images if a relationship ended.

Damon De Ionno, managing director of Revealing Reality, said: “Many of the people we interviewed – both victims of image-based abuse and perpetrators – didn’t define their experiences as abusive. Many also struggled to articulate concrete definitions of consent when it came to the creation, sharing or ownership of nude images.

“Among the research participants, we observed often differing motivations between men and women who shared nude images, and differing assumptions over who ‘owned’ the images and how they could be ‘used’ once they had been created. This may go some way to explaining why men and boys are more likely to have shared on a nude image of someone else, or felt able to justify their behaviour.”

Practitioners working to end violence against women and girls and to reform the law welcomed Revealing Reality’s research for providing vital evidence of real-life behaviour.

Professor Clare McGlynn, KC (Hon), Durham Law School at Durham University, who has played a central role in the adoption of new laws across the UK criminalising the non-consensual taking or sharing of intimate images, said: “This important new research sheds light on troubling attitudes amongst young men about sexual image sharing without consent. The normalisation of abusive behaviour and levels of coercion in the study show we must renew our determination to act.

“Many of the troubling and harmful behaviours found in this new study are not crimes, as the law is piecemeal, confusing and fails victims. We need a comprehensive law, based on consent, that can clearly send a message that abusive image-sharing, as identified in this study, is wrong.

“It is deeply concerning that many young men appear not to understand just how abusive and harmful it can be to share sexual images without consent.

“The study particularly shows how common it is for images to be taken without consent, as well as then shared on. This suggests a high level of hidden harm and victimisation as many women simply will not know images of them have been taken without their agreement.

“The research shows the vital need for young women and men to have more conversations about what is ethical in their relationships, such as retaining nude images without the other person’s agreement at the end of a relationship.”

Anthea Sully, chief executive of White Ribbon UK, which seeks to change harmful attitudes and behaviours around masculinity that perpetuate violence against women and girls, said the research demonstrated how important it is to educate young people.

She said: “A crucial part of our awareness-raising work at White Ribbon UK is to show people how violence operates on a continuum. Often when we talk about men’s violence against women and girls, we think of extreme physical violence. But women are exposed to the fear of violence – and the threat of this fear – from young ages and in contexts where harmful definitions of what it means to be a man are tolerated.

“The findings in this report demonstrate how important it is to educate young people on the values they should foster to stop violence before it starts, and to engage with them to understand how acting with respect, compassion and empathy might look in real-life circumstances.”

Jonathan Baggaley, chief executive of the PSHE Association, said: “This important Revealing Reality research highlights deeply concerning misunderstandings about what constitutes abusive behaviour. Therefore universal PSHE education on topics such as consent, coercion and the signs and features of abuse is critical to safeguarding – not only while people are in school but throughout their lives – and nothing must undermine access for all.”

Kate Worthington, senior helpline practitioner at the Revenge Porn Helpline, said: “Whilst UK legislation distinguishes the difference between the sharing of adult intimate image abuse and child sexual abuse, this research highlights the similarities in behaviours experienced by both adults and children and the complex consequences both types of offence can have on a victim’s long term mental health.

“The use of voices and case studies from those who have been affected is vital to ensuring the crimes and associated behaviours are understood and being responded to effectively. This learning is essential to be used to implement preventative tools and supportive measures.

“The use of technology to facilitate abuse is becoming more common and intricate as the availability and accessibility to online spaces increase; our understanding of this is crucial to stay one step ahead.”

Signposting to support services:

Support for adults:

Support for children:

  • The Internet Watch Foundation work to remove child sexual image abuse material when it has been shared online.
  • Childline works with the IWF on a tool called Report Remove which can be used by children 13+ to report where their nude or sexual content has been shared online.