Protecting women from image-based sexual violence and abuse
A couple of months ago, many women woke up feeling intensely violated and angry. A server containing thousands of nude photographs saved and shared without consent from the women in the images circulated online. This is sexual abuse.
The server was a collaborative effort by several men using Discord and other networks. Media ranged from private and paid content on OnlyFans, to screenshotted images or saved videos from social apps like Whatsapp and Snapchat. It included stolen content, non-consensual images of women sleeping or in changing rooms, images and videos sent consensually for private viewing and film-based child sexual abuse.
Cue the victim-blaming. The excuses, misogyny and degradation. For women, cue the fear, hurt, anxiety, and anger. We are all affected by the leak, whether it impacted us directly or not. This horrendous act of violence is not the fault of any woman who appeared in that folder. We live in a digital era. People will always take nudes and people will always send nudes. Often labelled “revenge porn”, the term does not capture the severity of the offence, implying that blame should be focused on the victim. It is never the fault of any person who has sent an intimate photograph to someone they trusted, or the fault of sex workers on private websites who have had their content stolen.
This culture of blame and entitlement is founded on the actions of perpetrators such as the men involved in this mass-scale act of violence. The absence of justice is the fault of an unconcerned, patriarchal culture and our judiciary system. Rape culture is prevalent in Ireland – violence against women and children has risen during the pandemic. There is nothing wrong with sexual expression and expecting respect; there is everything wrong with passing-on an intimate photograph, without the consent of the person in it.
When the scandal broke in November last year, image-based sexual abuse was not a criminal offence under Irish legislation. There was no penalty under Irish law, no consequence for harmful misogyny. It was not illegal for someone to share an image of me, a woman, online without my consent. There was nothing to protect me from blackmail, from attempted humiliation, from the unjust job losses that became a reality for women in the past. But speak out against the abuser? Well, that was defamation.
“There is nothing wrong with sexual expression and expecting respect; there is everything wrong with passing-on an intimate photograph, without the consent of the person in it.”
The HSE had encouraged phone, internet or “cybersex” instead of face-to-face physical contact amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, there was zero protection from the law. The fallout of mental health issues lands on the overstretched charities who work tirelessly fighting for change, for issues that require more than simply a legislative shift.
The publication of private images, videos and other content is an ultimate breach of privacy, trust, bodily autonomy and consent. Ireland has consistently failed to protect women and children, instead protecting abusers and criminals. Fighting against overt expressions of abuse is the beginning – further action must be taken toward dismantling and challenging the unhealthy, toxic attitudes toward women and sex ingrained in so many people’s psyches.
On the 17th of December 2020, under pressure following public and political outrage, the Harassment, Harmful Communication and Other Related Offences Act was passed in the Dáil. The law is welcome and long overdue; but concerns remain. As it stands, the statute of limitations is two years after the photo was taken, which urgently needs amendment to “after discovery”. Photos can be shared for years before victims become aware of its existence, as proven in this large-scale case at the end of 2020. This is a conversation for everyone, that does not end with legislation.
As a society, we need to educate young people and provide better sex education. Reports suggested 500 men were on the server. Much more presumably knew about it and said nothing. Many exist in separate group chats, where this behaviour is common. More are complicit in enabling this violence, by viewing the content and staying silent. By not calling out this behaviour, by not leaving these forums and group chats, by holding onto images they should have deleted previously.
Sharing private images in an attempt to humiliate or degrade adult women who are comfortable with their bodies, is a pathetic and desperate attempt at ego inflation. A short-term and feeble hit that comes with having a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense. The act is not about sex; it is about violence, power and control. This is a conversation ALL men need to have with each other and something that every individual should reflect on.
We all have mothers, sisters, partners and friends. But respect and consent should not only be understood by men in context to their own lives. These dehumanising attitudes and behaviours serve no purpose in the progressive Ireland we tirelessly fight to build. Do your part in ending the violence. It has no place in society.