The revelations this week of yet another vile website where men and boys trade in the non-consensual images of women and girls has police and many in the broader Australian public concerned about these harassing behaviours.
Yet some of the media and public discussions of these image-sharing websites and forums also show a disturbing similarity to other examples of sexual harassment or violence against women.
Many, it would seem, are all too ready to shift the blame towards the victims. Advice circulating via various public statements, media coverage and school-based education resources repeatedly tells girls and young women to “be careful what you share” because these images will be “out there forever”.
‘Be careful what you share’
There are several problems with this kind of response.
Perhaps most importantly, such advice contributes to the shaming and humiliation of victims by placing the responsibility back onto them for their humiliation. Feelings of shame and humiliation are common reasons many victims give for not making reports to police about sexual forms of harassment and abuse.
The acting Children’s eSafety Commissioner has called on victims in the most recent case to come forward with information to assist in what may be an international child-exploitation material investigation. So, avoiding sentiments that may further marginalise victims is particularly important.
Advice to victims “not to share intimate or private images” is also problematic. It obscures the variety of methods that harassers use to obtain images.
While little information is publicly available in this most recent case about the range of images and how they were all obtained, research suggests privacy of images is not always in the victim’s control.
In ongoing research, my colleagues and I have found that, while many images of women and girls are obtained from public or semi-public social media accounts, many others are obtained illegally through hacking accounts and internet-enabled devices, through “upskirting” and “creep shots”, as well as through images originally shared privately with an intimate partner.
A further problem is that we seem to reserve a special kind of victim-blaming when it comes to sexual forms of violence, abuse or harassment. No-one ever told a victim of identity fraud that they should never have stored their money electronically in the first place, or how silly they were to make purchases online.
We seem to understand that cybercriminals exploit, trick and hack victims’ information in a range of ways to commit their crimes. We don’t expect people to avoid all forms of e-commerce simply to prevent themselves from being victimised.
Yet last year, when nude images of hundreds of Queensland women were posted online, authorities reportedly warned victims about storing sensitive images on their digital devices at all.
A broader trend?
It is important to provide everyone with advice on how to protect their information online and to be aware of the potential for exploitation and abuse of their material.
But the line between providing advice and placing responsibility back onto victims is easy to cross. Often it lies in the balance of the messages directed to both perpetrators and victims.
How much of the media coverage comprises “stern warnings” to potential victims as compared to potential perpetrators? How often are there calls for witnesses or bystanders to report their peers’ concerning behaviour? What further information about common patterns in crime and violence, or how victims can get help, is included?
There are more positive examples. When nude photos of South Australian women were found to have been shared online last year, authorities took care to balance advice to victims on protecting their information alongside statements that emphasised:
None of the women were to blame for the manner in which their stolen property had been used.
Yet research into media coverage of violence against women generally has repeatedly found that a majority of reports tend to focus overwhelmingly on the features of individual “incidents” and the behaviours of victims, rather than in-depth coverage of the broader issues of gender-based violence with a focus on the perpetrators.
Crucially, the harms of such image-trading sites are not only in what the images contain, but also in how they are being used. From “revenge porn” sites to “blokes advice” pages to online forums designed to solicit creepshots and share identifying information about women and girls, there’s a clear pattern in how those involved treat women as second-class citizens and mere sexual objects.
Particularly troubling is the “pack mentality” of some online groups. Communities and localised groups that provide male peer support for sexual violence and abuse have been linked with higher rates of violence perpetration, for example.
The problem thus goes far beyond the trading in images (whether obtained from public sources or illegally) to broader issues of sexual and gender-based harassment of women and girls.
Some images that are not at all sexually explicit are likewise posted alongside women’s identifying information. This encourages others to engage in stalking, voyeurism and/or account-hacking in order to contribute further images. Our research has found these associated behaviours can be very dangerous. In some cases, they have been linked to further targeted harassment of individual women.
Take away the images, regardless of how they were originally obtained, and we still have a social problem that no amount of advice to victims is going to solve.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Authors: Anastasia Powell, Senior Research and ARC DECRA Fellow, Justice and Legal Studies, RMIT University