MP Maria Miller has held an expert led Parliamentary briefing, and renewed her call for a change in the law, as part of the Government’s Online Harms Bill, following a significant increase in reports of online intimate sexual image abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. The making and sharing of intimate images online without consent can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. The current laws are fragmented and have not kept up with new technology; making them patchy in their effectiveness and in reversing a growing trend towards distributing intimate images without consent.
The Revenge Porn Helpline, a specialist organization that offers support and legal advice to victims, has removed 15,857 non-consensual images from April to August of 2020. The Helpline received 3,146 new cases from victims in 2020, a 87% increase on the previous year. Sophie Mortimer, Manager of the Helpline, said the figures were likely to be the ‘tip of the iceberg’, with many victims afraid to report abuse or unaware that images had been circulated online. The Helpline has removed nearly 140,000 individual non-consensual images since opening in 2015.
The Government has recently published their full response to the Online Harms White Paper, in which the government commits to introducing regulations to make tech companies legally responsible for the online safety of their users, overseen by Ofcom. Maria wants this new legislation to also outlaw all sharing of intimate sexual images where there is not consent and to make sure the law is future proofed against constantly changing use of technology to generate and distribute intimate sexual images without consent including “deep fake” and cyber flashing.
Former Women and Equalities Minister and Select Committee chair Maria Miller said,
“For people of any age, phones, email and social media are a vital component of everyday life, for learning, working and being part of the community. I want the online world to be a safe place and not a place of attacks, threats and humiliation. Regulation, as we already have for UK television, is an important and positive step forward but when it comes to outlawing the distribution of intimate sexual images without consent we need stronger and clearer laws that cover not just social media but email and text too where 1 in 5 such images is distributed. The law as it currently stands is a patchwork of offences, out-of-date for modern use. Therefore, alongside the government’s proposed Online Harms legislation, I want to see a strengthening of the criminal law to make it unlawful to take, make or share (or threaten to share) intimate sexual images without consent and to give victims a clear right to anonymity as is the case now with a range of sexual abuse crimes.”
Professor Clare McGlynn QC (Hon), a expert in the legal regulation of pornography, image-based sexual abuse and sexual violence, has worked with MP Maria Miller for several years for changes to the law. Professor McGlynn outlined the shortcomings of the current legal framework:
‘The current laws are confusing, make prosecutions more difficult and fail to recognise the nature of this abuse. As it stands, non-consensual sharing is only an offence if proven there’s a direct intention to cause distress. And for voyeurism, it is only an offence if motivated by sexual gratification. In reality, there are multiple overlapping perpetrator motivations for image-based sexual abuse, such as: power, financial gain, humour or status-building, to name a few.
The law should focus on the core wrong of non-consent and should not require proof of perpetrator motives. Threats to distribute images without consent should also be criminalised. The law should also extend to cover deepfakes, which the 2015 Act does not currently include. “
At the briefing, the domestic abuse service provider Refuge added its support to change law and spoke of its own campaign ‘The Naked Threat’, which calls to outlaw the threat to share intimate images in an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill, currently in the House of Lords. A recent nation-wide survey by Refuge indicates that threats to share intimate images is experienced by 1 in 14 adults in England and Wales, equivalent to 4.4 million people. Eleanor Butt, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Refuge, said:
“Threatening to share intimate images is a form of coercive and controlling behaviour that disproportionately affects young women, with a staggering 1 in 7 aged between 18 and 34 having received such threats
What’s more, the overwhelming majority of women who experienced these threats received them from partners or ex-partners and also experienced other forms of abuse. This is a form of domestic abuse which has an enormous impact on women with over 80% saying it impacted their mental health, and 1 in 10 women having suicidal thoughts following the threat. The law urgently needs changing to make this form of abuse a crime.”
Rosie Lewis, Deputy Director of the Angelou Centre, a specialist domestic abuse serve provider led by and for Black and minoritised women, also emphasised how this was a ‘silenced’ form of sexual violence, and that the 2015 Act lacks the flexibility to address ever-evolving forms of harm and abuse:
“The Angelou Centre often sees cases where victims are reluctant to report intimate image-based abuse, partly out of fear and also because the current law doesn’t grant complainants the anonymity that victims of forced marriage and female genital mutilation are entitled to.”
The Law Commission is currently conducting a review of the existing criminal law as it relates to taking, making and sharing intimate images without consent and will, if necessary, will provide recommendations for reform. The review is currently in its pre-consultation stage.
#MyImageMyChoice campaign, is calling for an overhaul of current laws. The group’s petition, on the Change.org website, has been signed more than 44,000 times.