Make threatening to post revenge porn a crime, campaigners urge

Laws failing to protect women against ‘insidious and powerful way that perpetrators of domestic abuse seek to control their victims,’ say domestic abuse charity Refuge and Victims’ Commissioner

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Monday 06 July 2020 17:36 BST
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Refuge's specialist tech abuse team found the problem affects millions of women and girls across England and Wales
Refuge's specialist tech abuse team found the problem affects millions of women and girls across England and Wales

Threatening to share sexual images of others should be made a specific criminal offence, campaigners have urged as new figures suggest millions of people have been targeted by ex-partners.

The domestic abuse charity Refuge urged the government to use the Domestic Abuse Bill to introduce the offence as the legislation is debated in parliament at the report stage on Monday.

It said millions of women and girls across England and Wales suffered threats over intimate photos or videos but faced obstacles to getting help from the police.

Revenge porn – defined as revealing private sexual images or videos without the consent of the person with the aim of provoking distress – was made a criminal offence in 2015. But threatening to share intimate images is not a crime, which Refuge said was a legal loophole which abusers can exploit.

According to research by Refuge, one in 14 adults in England and Wales – about 4.4 million people – have been subjected to threats to share intimate images or footage. Such threats were most common among those aged between 18 and 34 – with one in seven young women having suffered threats.

The survey found 72 per cent of women who have received threats to leak images were threatened by a current or former partner, and 83 per cent of those women also experienced other forms of abuse. Refuge said this showed the problem should be seen as a domestic abuse issue.

Natasha Saunders, a 31-year-old domestic abuse survivor, said: “I’d been in a relationship with my ex-husband for six months when he first ordered me to remove my clothes and pose for intimate photos. In the beginning, I thought taking these photos was an act of intimacy, but they were actually being used as another form of domestic abuse – and as another way to control me.

“He would berate me and mock my appearance until I gave in. Posing for these photos made me feel so dirty and worthless, but I was just a teenager and I wanted to make him happy. I never imagined these pictures would become leverage for my abuser’s campaign of isolation and coercive control. The threat of those intimate photos being shared was my worst nightmare – I had no choice but to comply with his continued abuse or face potential shame and humiliation.”

More than eight in 10 victims said such threats had affected their mental health, with more than 10 per cent feeling suicidal and one in seven feeling at greater risk of physical violence.

Another domestic abuse victim, who did not want her name used, said: “My ex coerced me into having sex with him on camera. He was always trying to control me, and when I stood up to his abuse he threatened to use the footage against me. We’re not together anymore and I’ve no idea if he still has the footage, I’m constantly thinking, who might he share this with?

“It’s had a huge effect on my life. I find it impossible to trust people now because of what happened to me.”

Ellie Butt, of Refuge, said: “The law urgently needs to change and the bill provides the government with the perfect opportunity to act quickly and decisively. Sharing an intimate image is already a crime – rightly so – but now the law needs to move with the times and recognise that threats to share these images causes serious harm regardless of whether the threat is then carried out.

“The results of our survey are clear – this is a domestic abuse issue impacting millions of women and girls across England and Wales. Eighty-five per cent of respondents to our survey want to see this legislative change, and this cannot be ignored. We hope the government will hear this call and act quickly.”

Dame Vera Baird QC, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, agreed it was “imperative” such threats were made a criminal offence.

“The threat to share an intimate image – so-called ‘revenge porn’ – is an insidious and powerful way that perpetrators of domestic abuse seek to control their victims, and yet the law does not provide the protection that is needed,” she said.

“Threats to share these images play on fear and shame, and can be particularly dangerous where there might be multiple perpetrators or so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse is a factor. What’s more, the advent of new technologies enable perpetrators to make these threats even where such images do not exist, but there is no clear criminal sanction for this behaviour.”

Refuge is demanding the government to change Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 to explicitly make threats to share graphic photos or footage a crime.

A government spokesperson said: “Revenge porn is a terrible abuse of trust and since changing the law, more than 700 people have been convicted with over 150 going straight to prison.

“Those who threaten to share such images can already be prosecuted under existing offences, but we have asked the Law Commission to make sure our laws are keeping pace with these evolving crimes.”

The Independent has previously reported how three in four domestic abuse victims are exposed to “controlling, humiliating or monitoring” behaviour by their former partners using technology.

Refuge found 4,004 women seeking help last year – around three-quarters of the total – had faced abuse from their ex-partner perpetrated over technology.

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