Australia: Time for stronger laws against revenge porn

One in five Australians have been affected by so-called "revenge porn" – also known as image-based abuse – in which intimate images were posted online without permission, according to the shock results of a new university report, Not Just 'Revenge Pornography': Australians' Experiences of Image-Based Abuse.

The report is based on the findings of a study by RMIT and Monash University which involved a survey of more than 4,200 Australians and found that the trend had more than doubled over the past two years.

Sharing intimate photos and videos increases risk of image-based abuse

Teenagers and people who share intimate photos and videos were at greatest risk of becoming victims of the photos being spread widely over the internet and social media by someone who betrays that initial private sharing.

But victims weren't just those who had shared "sexual selfies". The survey found that one in ten people who had never shared a naked photo of themselves online had also become victims of hacking or ex-partners who sought to humiliate, harass and hurt by distributing previously private intimate images to pornographic websites.

Marginalised groups more likely to be victims of image-based abuse

The research also showed that marginalised groups are especially vulnerable, with image-based abuse affecting one in two Indigenous Australians and one in two people with a disability. The risk of victimisation is also higher for young people and lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians.

The most common types of abuse were taking sexual or nude images without consent (20 per cent), distributing images without consent (11 per cent) and threatening to share images (9 per cent).

Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found that men and women were equally likely to be the victims. While 54 per cent of perpetrators were male, a third were female and the rest unknown.

One in three Australians aged between 16 and 19 reported image-based abuse — more than any other age group — and the perpetrators were more often friends or family members than jilted ex-lovers.

Impact of revenge porn on victims

Chief researcher Dr Nicola Henry said: "Images are being used to control, abuse, and humiliate people in ways that go well beyond the relationship-gone-sour scenario."

Eighty per cent of victims reported high levels of psychological distress, depression and anxiety disorder. Almost half said they feared for their safety.

The impact on the victim can be horrendous, including immense emotional trauma, breakdown of relationships and destruction of the victim's career.

NSW government's declared intention to criminalise revenge porn

In September 2016 the NSW government announced that it would bring in tough new laws to criminalise revenge porn. (See Moving ahead on new law to stop revenge porn, Ministerial media releases, Justice Department, NSW Government.) However, so far we have heard nothing and it is high time the government finally acted.

I have had victims crying in my office because they were devastated by the betrayal and cruelty of this type of act, only to learn that there is no law specifically stating it is a crime.

Image-based abuse a legal grey area in NSW

Cases can be brought under section 474.17 of the Criminal Code, which makes it a federal offence to use "a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence", but it needs updating to recognise modern technology and is a legal grey area.

Section 578C of the Crimes Act 1900 makes it a crime to publish an indecent article and this law has been used successfully to prosecute a man who posted intimate photos of his ex-girlfriend on Facebook out of revenge for their break-up. He got six months' jail. (See Police v Ravshan Usmanov [2011] NSWLC 40.)

However, the judge commented that there was a lack of clear laws in NSW to pursue such an offence. Only Victoria and South Australia have laws that make distributing intimate and sexually explicit images without consent a criminal offence, with penalties of up to two years in jail. It is also a crime in these states to threaten to distribute such an image.

Since September 2016 the NSW government has been assessing questions such as a legal definition of "intimate images", as well as how the offence should apply to children and young people who are the largest group posting these images.

These may be tricky legal matters, but if judges have the discretion to sort out the genuine cases, no more time should be taken to introduce such laws, as this is a fast-growing problem that affects an increasing number of people.

Anneka Frayne
Defamation law
Stacks Law Firm

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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