What you need to know about image-based abuse

in News

You’ve heard of ‘sexting’ and ‘nudes’, and you know that things can go wrong. But what do we mean by ‘image-based abuse’? And what can schools do about it?

So, what is image-based abuse?

Image-based abuse occurs when someone shares, or threatens to share, an intimate image or video without the consent of the person depicted. This can include images that have been digitally altered.

However, this does not mean that all images are bad. We know that 75 per cent of 14-17-year-olds share nudes, and that's not going to stop. What's important is that any images are shared with consent from the person in the photo. Without it, image-based abuse is present.  You might have heard this behaviour dubbed ‘revenge porn’, but this is not a helpful term. In fact, image-based abuse takes many different forms.

Scenarios of image-based abuse include:

  • Your partner shows an intimate image of you to their friends without your consent.
  • An acquaintance creates a fake explicit image of you and posts it on social media without your consent.
  • Your ex-partner demands you resume the relationship and threatens to send your family an intimate video of you if you refuse.
  • Someone blackmails you by claiming they’ve hacked your device and can share your intimate photographs.
  • Someone records you secretly in a public toilet or changing room and posts it online.

Other terms you might have heard, and their meaning include: 

  • Sexting’ or ‘nudes’: using technology to send or receive sexually explicit or suggestive images or videos. Young people might agree to send and receive nudes in order to feel fun, flirty, confident or sexy, as a present or a joke, or just because they’ve already received one. But if nudes are shared without consent, it becomes image-based abuse. Learn more about the ‘four stages of nudes’ here.
  • Sextortion’: the threat to share intimate or embarrassing sexual images without consent, usually in order to obtain more images, sexual acts or money. Sextortion is one form of image-based abuse.
  • Digital dating abuse’: using technology to harass a partner, with the aim of controlling, intimidating or annoying them. Digital dating abuse can involve image-based abuse and/or other behaviours, such as sending a partner threatening messages, hacking their accounts or stopping them using technology.

How common is image-based abuse?

According to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, one-third of the reports they receive about image-based abuse involve children under 18.

And one recent survey of more than 4,000 Australian adults found that one in 10 had had their intimate images shared without their consent.

How does image-based abuse affect people?

Everyone’s experience is different. But many people describe feeling angry, humiliated, embarrassed, socially isolated, worried and/or afraid for their safety.

Who is affected?

Young people in their teens and twenties are more vulnerable than older Australians to image-based abuse, according to recent research.

Both men and women can be victims or perpetrators. However, women are more likely to:

  • experience image-based abuse from a partner or ex-partner
  • experience image-based abuse alongside other abusive behaviours like stalking
  • report negative impacts, such as fear for their physical safety.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people with disabilities, are subjected to image-based abuse at especially high rates.

Why does it happen?

Some people use image-based abuse to get things they want, such as power, popularity, sexual gratification or money.

Most image-based abuse starts between people who know each other – e.g. partners, ex-partners, relatives, friends or acquaintances. Sometimes image-based abuse happens alongside other forms of abuse, such as family violence, sexual harassment or trafficking.

This points to the critical importance of respect in all relationships, including respect for other people’s privacy, dignity, independence, reputation and happiness.

Unfortunately, some factors make it easier for image-based abuse to continue. These include:

  • the blaming of victims
  • the belief that the objectification of girls and women is acceptable
  • the reach and ease of technology
  • young people’s limited life experience and greater susceptibility to peer influences and impulsive decision-making.

What does the law say?

Laws about image-based abuse and sexting are complicated and vary between jurisdictions. For example, sexting is illegal under Commonwealth law if it involves anyone under 18 – even if it’s private and consensual – but some states have defences or exceptions to these laws for consensual sexting between young people of similar ages.

Contact Youth Law Australia to learn about the laws where you live.

What can educators do?

Check out this guide for schools by the eSafety Commissioner and the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation. It explains the steps for responding to image-based abuse of students.

Meanwhile, we encourage schools to keep working with all students to promote respectful relationships and smart, safe and responsible use of technology. eSmart Schools supports schools on this journey.

Another great resource for schools is the Connect workshop: ‘Share This – Respectful Relationships, Consent and Image-Based Abuse’.  

What can everyone do?

If you know someone who is experiencing or has experienced image-based abuse, here are some ways to help:

  • Make sure they are safe and at no risk of harming themselves. In an emergency call 000.
  • Reassure them that you will support them and not blame them, even if they agreed to take or send an intimate image. No one deserves to have their images shared without their consent.
  • If the person is in an abusive relationship, contact 1800 RESPECT to make a safety plan.
  • Help make a report to the police or the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, who can get abusive material removed online.
  • Connect them with professional support – e.g. Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), eheadspace, or a trusted GP or psychologist.
  • Reassure them that things will get better and that they are not alone.
  • Help them take care of themselves and do things that help them feel calm and happy.
  • Continue to have conversations about respect, consent and kindness. This great resource by the Supré Foundation and the Alannah & Madeline Foundation can help you get started.


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