Tasmania's 'revenge porn' problem

MORE THAN VENGEANCE: Perpetrators of image-based abuse are not all out for revenge, despite what the term 'revenge porn' may suggest. Some abusers just want to shame their victims, others to extort them.
MORE THAN VENGEANCE: Perpetrators of image-based abuse are not all out for revenge, despite what the term 'revenge porn' may suggest. Some abusers just want to shame their victims, others to extort them.

Nearly all of us have had at least one naked nightmare.

They start like any other dream: in a disorienting blur.

Then, before you know it, you’re completely exposed in a public place.

It’s usually around this time that you wake with a start, an intense feeling of relief washing over you as you realise it was just a dream.

That’s not the case for everyone, though.

There are increasing numbers of people in Australia who never wake up from their naked nightmares.

These are the victims of ‘revenge porn’.

The term revenge porn is used to denote image-based abuse or exploitation.

It is often linked to ‘sexting’, the act of sharing intimate images of oneself with another person via one’s mobile phone.

Revenge porn is an overly reductive term, coined after an apparent spike in instances where a jilted ex-lover would broadcast an intimate image or images of their former partner through channels like social media as a means of getting ‘revenge’.

Yet it turns out revenge is just one of many different motives perpetrators of image-based abuse have for non-consensually distributing intimate images of another person.

Smartphones have facilitated the proliferation of image-based abuse by putting a camera in everyone’s pocket, along with countless ways for us to share information with each other.

Some have also argued that increased access to pornography has promoted the objectification of women, thus providing a hotbed for image-based abuse.

A recent Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology study of image-based abuse found that one-in-five Australians, both men and women, reported experiencing at least one form of this abuse.

However, the study found that both men and women were more likely to report that their abuser was male.

The problem has been so pronounced in Australia that a Senate inquiry was established in 2015 to get to the bottom of it.

Here in Tasmania, we are far from immune to the dangers of image-based abuse.

In 2015, a Tasmanian man was convicted of raping a young woman, after he had threatened to publish a photo she had sent him of her breasts, thereby forcing her to have sex with him.

But many more cases go unprosecuted.

Tasmania’s relatively small population can make the experience of image-based abuse doubly devastating for victims, as the likelihood of word spreading fast is high.

Sexual Assault Support Service Tasmania chief executive Jill Maxwell said her organisation was seeing increasing numbers of women and girls reporting image-based abuse.

“It is not just used for blackmailing,” Ms Maxwell said.

“We are seeing it used to punish a woman or often men are posting images of women for a laugh.”

Ms Maxwell stressed that adults should be “free” to share intimate images of themselves if they so desired.

“It is so easy to question why a woman has shared a picture … but we should be focusing on why a person is sharing an intimate image of another without their consent,” she said.

Ms Maxwell described image-based abuse as “a form of sexual violence”.

“Sharing images without consent is about an abuse of power and the lack of respect for women,” she said.

As with all forms of sexual abuse, victim-blaming serves to perpetuate the problem, foisting culpability onto victims and so making it easier for perpetrators to offend.

“We know that the only cause of sexual assault is the rapist themselves,” Ms Maxwell said.

Sexual Assault Support Service chief executive Jill Maxwell

Sexual Assault Support Service chief executive Jill Maxwell

“We need to keep up with this same framework in relation to online abuse.”

The age-old archetype of the scarlet woman fuels the spread of image-based abuse, making women and girls reluctant to report abuse for fear of reputational ruin.

Indeed, it is from this very archetype that victim-blaming arises.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Tasmania Police has received a “limited” number of reports of image-based abuse.

Acting Assistant Operations Commissioner Robert Bonde warned Tasmanians against sharing intimate images of themselves with other people.

“Once [the images] have left your device, you no longer have control over where they may go,” he said.

RMIT Associate Professor Nicola Henry co-authored the aforementioned study of image-based abuse.

She said it was important that police received appropriate training around how best to handle cases of image-based abuse.

“It’s not uncommon for police and for other members of the community to say, ‘You shouldn’t take images in the first place’,” Dr Henry said.

“What victims of image-based abuse need is empathy and support and compassion, not victim-blaming.”

Dr Henry said the term ‘revenge porn’ did not capture the broad and complex array of motives that informed the offending of perpetrators of image-based abuse.

She said surveys such as the one she had helped conduct tended only to pick up on victims who had become aware that their image had already been shared.

The statistics, then, were likely to be underestimates.

What victims of image-based abuse need is empathy and support and compassion, not victim-blaming.

Nicola Henry, RMIT associate professor

“Our study’s shown that it is quite prevalent in our community and the harms … are serious in many cases,” Dr Henry said.

The causes of image-based abuse, she said, needed to be understood in the same context as domestic and sexual violence.

“I think they are very much related, and, in some cases, a part of a domestic violence pattern,” Dr Henry said.

“There are certain instances where victims are being sexually assaulted and the perpetrators have recorded those images and shared them afterwards.

“What we’re dealing with is an issue that relates to gender and to sexuality.”

‘Blame and Shame’ is a five-part series from Fairfax Media, seeking to shed light on image-based abuse in Tasmania. Look out for part two on Tuesday.