New research has found that non-consensual sharing of intimate images bear many of the hallmarks of domestic abuse

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Young people are experiencing ‘image-based abuse’ whereby they are coerced into creating or sharing nudes, or where the nude images are created and shared without consent, while failing to recognise the behaviour as a form of domestic abuse.

A new report by the think tank Revealing Reality, funded by the Home Office, has found that despite image-based abuse being a form of coercive control, victims rarely frame the behaviours as falling foul of domestic abuse and sexual harassment laws. 

Damon De Ionno, managing director of Revealing Reality, said: “Many of the people we interviewed – both victims of image-based abuse and perpetrators – didn’t define their experiences as abusive. Many also struggled to articulate concrete definitions of consent when it came to the creation, sharing or ownership of nude images.”

Image-based abuse impacts both men and women, however the research found that men and boys were more likely to share images without their partner’s consent, and women and girls were more likely to be victims of this form of abuse. 

Troublingly, many of the examples shared in the report came from school students, who had been victimised by fellow pupils. For many boys, sharing nudes was seen as a way to gain respect from their male peers. 

And while men and boys were more likely to ask for nudes for their own sexual gratification, women and girls sent naked images in order to please or appease their partner – as opposed to finding the activity sexually stimulating. This difference in motivation helps to explain how demanding nudes can be a form of coercive control.

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The report was published the same day that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation released its findings on the harms of pornography. 

The APPG found that illegal content is freely accessible on mainstream porn websites, including explicit content that has been shared without the consent of all the participants. 

This was the experience of Kate, 24, who along with a friend had sent nude images to two men they had been chatting to. She later discovered that one of the men had posted the images on a porn site. “He was pretending to be us posing in the pictures and then talking to people as us,” she told the Revealing Reality researchers. 

The APPG’s report has recommended that platforms take steps to legally verify that “every individual featured in pornographic content on their platform… gave permission for the content to be published there”.

Men described sharing images without consent among their friends, such as on group chats. They often did not see these actions as abusive, and explained the actions as a way of showing off to their peers about their sexual prowess.

The taking and sharing of images without consent exposed some disturbing misogynistic attitudes towards women. 

Khalil, a 29-year-old man who had taken photos of ‘hook-ups’ that he shared with friends, said that women who had casual sex “can’t expect him to respect you”.

Such attitudes help to fuel abusive behaviour both when it comes to nude image sharing, and wider issues of sexual violence. The belief that once a woman consents to one sex act, she has consented to all other kinds of sexual contact, has long been used to justify rape and deny women access to justice.

Professor Clare McGlynn, of Durham University’s Law School, described these stories as examples of “troubling attitudes amongst young men about sexual image sharing without consent. The normalisation of abusive behaviour and levels of coercion in the study show we must renew our determination to act”.

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As well as sharing nudes without their consent, Revealing Reality heard from women who did not know the images existed at all. 

Charlotte was still a child when her boyfriend took nude photos of her without her knowledge. She described how the pair were having sex and it was “so bad” as he was “pulling my hair and I remember it being really sore and I just wasn’t enjoying it too much and then he took a photo of it”. 

She had no idea the images existed until she became pregnant and her boyfriend threatened to share them unless she kept quiet about the pregnancy. 

The experience had a long-term impact on Charlotte’s mental wellbeing and her ability to trust people. 

“I was so embarrassed, because when you’re really intimate with someone you trust and he’s asking me to do things that I necessarily wouldn’t really want to do and then he takes a photo of me doing that… it’s things like that that just made me lose trust in a lot of people and made me stop wanting to have relationships with other people,” she said.

“It is deeply concerning that many young men appear not to understand just how abusive and harmful it can be to share sexual images without consent,” added McGlynn. 

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