Intimate Image Abuse
I work closely with politicians, civil society organisations and victim-survivors to strengthen laws tackling all forms of image-based sexual abuse - a term which my colleague Erika Rackley and I developed to better describe all forms of taking, sharing or creating intimate images without consent, such as 'revenge porn', upskirting, deepfakes and downblousing.
Since 2015, I’ve been calling for a comprehensive, consent-based criminal law covering all forms of intimate image abuse, with my research laying the foundations for current proposals. In 2019 my colleagues and I published the landmark report Shattering Lives and Myths revealing the systematic injustices experienced by survivors across the UK.
My research has also had international impact, shaping law reforms and debates across Australia, New Zealand and working with colleagues in South Korea, Iceland, Singapore, Jersey, Ireland, the US and many other countries. I’m glad to be part of this global movement to support survivors of image-based sexual abuse and ensure better legal responses.
Clare McGlynn warns of 'epidemic' of deepfake porn in the BBC news video from May 2021
Intimate image abuse includes image-based sexual abuse, ‘revenge porn’, upskirting, downblousing, deepfake porn, collector culture and many more forms of abuse.
New Criminal Laws on Intimate Image Abuse
The law on intimate image abuse is finally changing in England & Wales, criminalising the non-consensual taking and/or sharing of intimate images, regardless of the motives of the offender and extending anonymity to complainants. These are welcome changes that I and others such as Dame Maria Miller MP have been calling for since 2015. You can read more about this path to change, and how victims’ voices are finally being heard, in my blog for The Conversation. My research with colleagues has long established that the existing law fails victims, as I explained in this Huffington Post blog, this news report and in my comments to Parliament’s Women & Equalities Committee inquiry into public sexual harassment.
There remain gaps in the law, particularly around protections for women from black and minoritised communities where there can be different ideas of what is an ‘intimate image’. Also, the non-consensual sharing of sex worker images is not included. Vital to note that these changes relate to the criminal law and only, therefore, providing a partial set of remedies for victims. What is required is a comprehensive, holistic set of legal protections that includes civil law provisions enabling victims to get material deleted and taken-down from the internet without requiring a criminal conviction. For more on the background to these changes and what else still needs to be done, read my policy briefing on how the law should be comprehensively reformed.
The Government’s proposals are based on Law Commission recommendations which drew on my foundational research with Erika Rackley. Way back in 2016-2017, we argued for comprehensive, consent-based laws covering all forms of intimate image abuse; a call we repeated in 2019 following our research with victim-survivors who demanded change (read our report Shattering Lives and Myths: a report on image-based sexual abuse and our blog with Kelly Johnson).
Clare McGlynn, Erika Rackley, Dame Maria Miller MP and Nicola Henry at the Parliamentary launch of the Shattering Lives report in July 2019
Criminalising Sharing of Deepfake Porn
In 2021, I warned we were facing an epidemic of deepfake porn, as part of a BBC news report and short news film featuring one of the victim-survivors my colleagues and I had interviewed as part of our research. Judith (not her real name) had her ordinary images photoshopped to make them sexually explicit and in the report she shared the devastating impact this has had on her. The problem of deepfakes is getting more and more stark, with the technology getting easier to use, as I explained in this news report for ITV.
To understand the power and violation of deepfake pornography, a powerful new documentary interviews Northern Irish politician Cara Hunter who, days before an election, had fake porn distributed against her will. I contributed to the documentary, explaining the lack of legal redress and need for politicians to act. Watch the documentary here.
We must now focus attention on how search services such as Google facilitate deepfake porn abuse by highly ranking some of the most pernicious sites dedicated to deepfake porn. Read more in my comment with Fiona Vera-Gray.
For many years, my colleagues and I have been calling for the criminal law to include altered or manipulated images, reflecting victim’s experiences. We put forward amendments in 2019 as part of the proposed upskirting law, as reported in The Guardian, where I commented: “It would be easy to extend the bill so that it covers images which have been altered and clearly criminalise a practice that victims say they find incredibly distressing,”
You can read more on the harms of deepfake porn in this report in The Sun, together with my now familiar comment about the need for law reform.
Finally, the criminal law in England & Wales has been reformed to criminalise sharing deepfake porn in the Online Safety Act 2023. The EU is also considering legislation. Criminal laws will not solve this problem, but they are a necessary first start, making it clear this is harmful, unacceptable behaviour.
'Collector Culture' - trading and sharing intimate images
Collector culture is the term for the swapping, collating and posting of nude images of women without their consent, usually amongst groups of men in private chats or online forums. I’ve been supporting the Revenge Porn Helpline and survivors to increase awareness of this form of image-based sexual abuse, and worked with many dedicated journalists raising women’s voices, including in many international reports.
In 2022, the flagship BBC documentary series Panorama broadcast a new investigation on collector culture, highlighting the growing trade in intimate images. In the documentary, I discussed how the law fails to cover this form of abuse and that it’s prevalence means it’s being perpetrated by many ordinary men. I spoke on BBC Breakfast TV about the programme and you can read the BBC news report and watch the programme on BBC iPlayer here. You can see excerpts from the documentary via Twitter here and here.
Also on collector culture, I contributed to a Guardian article sharing women’s experiences where I commented that while people would like to think perpetrators of intimate image abuse are either perverts or an extremely malicious, the ‘truth is that it’s everyday men and boys’. What we see is that closed groups, lad chats, bonding over explicit images and ‘banter’ has become ubiquitous.
BBC Panorama 'The Secret World of Trading Nudes', August 2022
Influencing Upskirting Law
Current law reform proposals in the Online Safety Bill build on the upskirting law reforms from 2019. Thanks to a tireless campaign from victims of upskirting, the forward thinking of MPs such as Wera Hobhouse MP who introduced a private member’s bill, Maria Miller MP who put together a cross-party coalition of MPs calling for change, and a Press Association investigation, the Government adopted a new law criminalising some forms of upskirting.
Prior to that, in 2015, I had raised the gaps in English criminal law on upskirting in an ITV news report and blog. In 2018 I underlined the scale of the issue for Sky News commenting that: "The Government's continuing failure to provide an effective criminal law against upskirting breaches women's human rights. We are entitled to protection from degrading and abusive treatment, whether offline or online. We are also entitled to a law that is fit for purpose, a law that treats this abuse as a form of sexual offence and that provides anonymity to all complainants. Only then will victims feel more willing to come forward and report to the police and support prosecutions."
During the 2019 Parliamentary debates, I worked with Maria Miller MP and others to argue for law reforms to cover all forms of upskirting. My evidence to Parliament set out the case for a comprehensive law which then formed the basis for Dame Maria Miller’s cross-party amendments: my comments were discussed widely in the press and I took part in many media discussions including on BBC Woman’s Hour.
The Government rejected the argument for a comprehensive law, opting for a more restrictive approach. However, it did offer the concession of a Law Commission investigation into the whole area of intimate image abuse – which is why we are currently discussing possible law reforms (nearly 4 years on).
Government launches review into digital sex crimes, 5News
UK Laws on Intimate Image Abuse
New Northern Irish Laws on Intimate Image Abuse
In 2022, Northern Ireland became the first UK jurisdiction, and one of the few across the world, to criminalise downblousing – where images are taken of women’s breasts or underwear without their consent. The new Act also introduced an upskirting offence that is far more comprehensive than English law and a cyberflashing criminal offence.
The upskirting law was introduced following an inspiring campaign by two women teachers after a male pupil took photos and videos up their skirts. Refusing to accept the police refusal to take action, they challenged police and prosecutors, secured a conviction, and then demanded law reform. I’m honoured to have collaborated with these women over the years, supporting their campaign for justice and working on law reform options, together with their union the NASUWT.
The women gave evidence before Northern Irish Assembly’s Justice Committee arguing that the upskirting proposal must be strengthened, a recommendation I supported in my oral evidence to the Committee. I also recommended strict limits on a downblousing law, as well as a new law criminalising cyberflashing. I urged the Assembly to blaze a trail and introduce the strongest, victim-centred laws across the UK. The Justice Committee generously described my evidence as ‘compelling’ and recommended changes to the upskirting law and that there should be a cyberflashing offence.
The Minister Naomi Long agreed and the new set of laws came into force at the end of 2022 which are the most comprehensive across the UK.
Scots Law on Intimate Image Abuse
In Scotland, I gave oral evidence to their Parliamentary Justice Committee as part of their inquiry in 2015 into new criminal laws covering non-consensual sharing of intimate images. My evidence with Erika Rackley helped ensure the new law covered distribution of all intimate images, including upskirt images. Scots law is currently broader than English law, as it includes altered/deepfake imagery and a recklessness standard regarding the intent to cause distress. Nonetheless, it would still benefit from a more comprehensive, consent-based approach.
Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliamentry Justice Committee, November 2015
EU & Worldwide Laws
Proposed EU Directive on Violence Against Women
The European Commission has proposed a new Directive on violence against women, including setting minimum standards for criminal laws on sharing intimate images without consent. Together with Carlotta Rigotti, I have published the first comprehensive analysis of these proposals, with recommendations to strengthen the provisions. Our policy briefing has been widely distributed to anti-violence organisations, MEPs and EU officials and we are working with civil society to ensure this law is amended to respond better to the interests and experiences of victim-survivors.
EU Digital Services Act
The EU recently adopted landmark legislation to regulate online harms. However, this legislation failed to address the easy availability of non-consensual pornography on mainstream porn websites. During the legislative process, MEPs and online abuse charity HateAid developed proposals to hold large porn companies accountable for the non-consensual sexual imagery on their websites. Together with Prof Lorna Woods, I wrote an expert opinion justifying these provisions which were taken up by the European Parliament.
Unfortunately, the measures did not make it into the law as finally adopted. I commented on this disappointing result, stating that: “As ever, online abuse against women and girls gets marginalized and minimized’. It was clear that protections for women were ‘traded away’.
Law Reform Around the World
I work closely with survivors, governments and civil society organisations to support law reform in many different countries around the world. For example, in 2021 I gave oral evidence to the New Zealand Parliament’s Justice Committee regarding their proposals to strengthen laws on intimate image abuse, and my research with colleagues has helped shape legislative changes across many different Australian states. I have also shared my expertise with advisors, government officials, women’s rights organisations and anti-violence charities to help shape new laws across Ireland, Iceland, the US, Singapore, Jersey and more. For example, in 2019, I travelled to South Korea to meet with the Minister for Gender Equality and the Director of the Advocacy Centre for Online Abuse to discuss how to target perpetrators and support survivors.
Meeting with Korean Minister for Gender Equality & Director of Advocacy Centre for Online Sexual Abuse, South Korea, November 2019
The Term 'Image Based Sexual Abuse'
We’re all familiar with the terms ‘revenge porn’, upskirting, downblousing and deepfakes – each describing specific acts involving the taking, creating or sharing of intimate images without consent. When the world first started listening to women sharing their experiences of abuse, the term ‘revenge porn’ was used all the time. But this term has always been inaccurate, and victims explain how it is victim-blaming. The common use of the term ‘revenge porn’ is one of the reasons why laws are so limited – as they focus just on the vengeful ex-partner.
Therefore, back in 2016, my colleague Erika Rackley and I wanted a term that described all forms of taking and sharing sexual images without consent and one that reflected victim’s experiences of this as a form of sexual assault. We developed the term and concept of image-based sexual abuse and first used it in a submission to the Scottish Parliament, then a blog, a policy brief and fleshed it out in our academic work.
This term better explains the nature and harms of these various forms of abuse that are all connected and share common characteristics, and are part of a spectrum or continuum of forms of sexual violence, as we discuss in our research. It is also a term that is future-proofed, enables us to draft more effective legal responses and reflects victims’ experiences of abuse.
The term image-based sexual abuse is now used internationally by governments, politicians, academics, media, regulatory bodies, media guidelines, civil society organisations, playwrights and most importantly by victim-survivors. I also now interchangeably use the terms image-based sexual abuse and intimate image abuse, with the latter having the benefit of including a potentially wider range of abusive imagery which is not always sexualised.
Towards an EU criminal law on violence against women: The ambitions and limitations of the Commission’s proposal to criminalise image-based sexual abuse
Rigotti, Carlotta & McGlynn, Clare (2022), New Journal of European Criminal Law 13(4), 452-477
In March 2022, the European Commission proposed a new landmark Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence which includes measures on the non-consensual distribution of intimate and manipulated images. In this article, we provide a new analysis of current Member State laws covering all forms of image-based sexual abuse, as well as the first detailed examination of the Commission’s proposals to tackle this form of violence against women. We suggest that the Commission’s proposal is characterised by both its ambition and limitations. It is ambitious in its attempts to set minimum rules in challenging areas of criminal law and, in doing so, recognises the serious harms of image-based sexual abuse. At the same time, by seeking to expand the reach of EU criminal law, inevitably requiring compromise, the scope of the proposed measures is somewhat limited. Such compromises and limitations risk entrenching hierarchies between different forms of abuse and, ultimately, the proposal fails to provide a comprehensive response reflective of victims’ experiences.
Nicola Henry, Nicola Gavey, Clare McGlynn, & Erika Rackley, (2022), Criminology & Criminal Justice
The non-consensual taking or sharing of intimate images, also known as ‘image-based sexual abuse’, has become a widespread problem. While there has been growing attention to this phenomenon, little empirical research has investigated victim-survivor experiences. Drawing on interviews with 25 victim-survivors, this article focusses on the different responses to image-based sexual abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand. We found that victim-survivors had diverse and often multiple experiences of image-based sexual abuse, perpetrated for a variety of reasons, which extended beyond the paradigm of malicious ex-partners seeking revenge. Some participants described the harms experienced as ‘devastating’: a form of ‘social rupture’. Few had formally reported to police or pursued other justice options. While participants held different justice ideals, all sought recognition of the harms perpetrated against them. Yet they faced multiple obstacles when navigating justice, redress and support options. The authors conclude that far-reaching change is needed to improve legislative, policy and prevention responses to image-based sexual abuse.
Image-based sexual abuse: a study on the causes and consequences of non-consensual nude or sexual imagery
Nicola Henry, Clare McGlynn, A Flynn, K Johnson, A Powell and A Scott (2021), Routledge
This book investigates the causes and consequences of image-based sexual abuse in a digital era. Image-based sexual abuse refers to the taking or sharing of nude or sexual photographs or videos of another person without their consent. This book investigates the pervasiveness and experiences of these harms, as well as the raft of legal and non-legal measures that have been introduced to better respond to and prevent image-based sexual abuse. The book draws on ground-breaking empirical research, and is the largest study to date of victim experiences, including surveys in the UK, New Zealand and Australia with over 6,000 respondents and over 100 victim-survivor and stakeholder interviews.
Clare McGlynn, Erika Rackley, Kelly Johnson et al (2019), Durham University; University of Kent
This report reveals the findings from over 50 interviews with victim-survivors and stakeholders on their experiences and recommendations of all forms of image-based sexual abuse, including forms of ‘revenge porn’, upskirting, fakeporn and threats. We find that image-based sexual abuse shatters lives and the criminal justice system is failing survivors. The report provides detailed evidence of systematic failures and includes recommendations for law and policy reform. The Report was launched at a roundtable in Parliament, chaired by Maria Miller MP and was discussed widely across the media, including reports in the Independent, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Times.
Erika Rackley, Clare McGlynn, Kelly Johnson et al (2021), Feminist Legal Studies 29(3): 293-322
Despite apparent political concern and action – often fuelled by high-profile cases and campaigns – legislative and institutional responses to image-based sexual abuse in the UK have been ad hoc, piecemeal and inconsistent. In practice, victim-survivors are being consistently failed: by the law, by the police and criminal justice system, by traditional and social media, website operators, and by their employers, universities and schools. Drawing on data from the first multi-jurisdictional study of the nature and harms of, and legal/policy responses to, image-based sexual abuse, this article argues for a new joined-up approach that supports victim-survivors of image-based sexual abuse to ‘reclaim control’. It argues for a comprehensive, multi-layered, multi-institutional and multi-agency response, led by a government- and industry-funded online or e-safety organisation, which not only recognises the diversity of victim-survivor experiences and the intersection of image-based sexual abuse with other forms of sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, but which also enables victim-survivors to reclaim control within and beyond the criminal justice system.
Clare McGlynn, Kelly Johnson, Erika Rackley et al (2020), Social and Legal Studies
Abstract: Beyond ‘scandals’ and the public testimonies of victim-survivors, surprisingly little is known about the nature and extent of the harms of ‘image-based sexual abuse’, a term that includes all non-consensual taking and/or sharing of nude or sexual images. Accordingly, this article examines the findings from the first cross-national qualitative study on this issue, drawing on interviews with 75 victim-survivors of image-based sexual abuse in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. We adopt a feminist phenomenological approach that permits more nuanced and holistic understandings of victim-survivors’ experiences, moving beyond medicalised, trauma-based accounts of harm. Our analysis develops five interconnected accounts of the harms experienced, that we have termed social rupture, constancy, existential threat, isolation and constrained liberty. Our findings shed new light on the nature and significance of the harms of image-based sexual abuse that emphasises the need for more comprehensive and effective responses to these abuses.
The psychology of nonconsensual porn: Understanding and addressing a growing form of sexual violence
Asia Eaton and Clare McGlynn, (2020), Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Abstract: As of 2020, legal protections for victims of image-based sexual abuse in the U.S. remain inadequate. For example, no federal law yet criminalizes the sharing of sexually-intimate material without a person’s consent (i.e., nonconsensual porn), and existing state laws are patchy and problematic. Part of the reason for this problem may be that U.S. lawmakers and the general public have yet to grasp that nonconsensual porn is a form of sexual abuse, with many of the same devastating, recurring, and lifelong consequences for victims. This review of psychological research on nonconsensual porn includes frameworks for understating this image-based sexual abuse, correlates and consequences of victimization, victim blame, and the nature of perpetration. Then, we analyze U.S. laws on nonconsensual porn in light of this review, and argue for comprehensive legislative solutions.
Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 37(3): 534-561, 2017
Advances in technology have transformed and expanded the ways in which sexual violence can be perpetrated. One new manifestation of such violence is the non-consensual creation and/or distribution of private sexual images: what we conceptualise as ‘image-based sexual abuse’. This article delineates the scope of this new concept and identifies the individual and collective harms it engenders. We argue that the individual harms of physical and mental illness, together with the loss of dignity, privacy and sexual autonomy, combine to constitute a form of cultural harm that impacts directly on individuals, as well as on society as a whole. While recognising the limits of law, we conclude by considering the options for redress and the role of law, seeking to justify the deployment of the expressive and coercive powers of criminal and civil law as a means of encouraging cultural change.
Clare McGlynn, Erika Rackley and Ruth Houghton (2017), Feminist legal studies 25(1): 25-46
In the last few years, many countries have introduced laws combating the phenomenon colloquially known as ‘revenge porn’. While new laws criminalising this practice represent a positive step forwards, the legislative response has been piecemeal and typically focuses only on the practices of vengeful ex-partners. Drawing on Liz Kelly’s (Surviving sexual violence. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1988) pioneering work, we suggest that ‘revenge porn’ should be understood as just one form of a range of gendered, sexualised forms of abuse which have common characteristics, forming what we are conceptualising as the ‘continuum of image-based sexual abuse’. Further, we argue that image-based sexual abuse is on a continuum with other forms of sexual violence. We suggest that this twin approach may enable a more comprehensive legislative and policy response that, in turn, will better reflect the harms to victim-survivors and lead to more appropriate and effective educative and preventative strategies.