I am a digital sociologist and PhD researcher based at the University of Exeter. Over the past three months I have been carrying out research with the Revenge Porn Helpline, which supports adults who have had their intimate images shared without their consent, and the Professionals Online Safety Helpline (POSH), which supports members of the children’s workforce in dealing with all aspects of online abuse and safeguarding.
Broadly, the aim of this research project was to investigate the patterns of victimisation and perpetration which surround intimate image abuse in adults and under 18s. This research was both qualitative, in that it focused on detailed themes and subjective accounts, and comparative, in that it searched for similarities and differences between the two helpline data sets.
The results of this project revealed that adult victims of intimate image abuse are disproportionately female and that the impacts of intimate image abuse are highly gendered. It also found that two types of perpetrators of intimate image abuse exist. Type one perpetrators share images anonymously on large pornography sites, with motivations largely unknown, and type two perpetrators use threats to share images as part of a broader pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. Both types are predominately male.
Currently, the laws surrounding intimate image abuse do not classify it as a sexual offence or acknowledge its gendered nature. They also require that the perpetrator demonstrates an ‘intention to cause distress’ in order for him to be prosecuted. The findings of this study support arguments which suggest that these laws be adjusted so that the patterns of victimisation and perpetration surrounding intimate image abuse be adequately addressed.
This research also reveals that POSH dealt with a surprising lack of intimate image abuse cases in under 18s. This absence would appear to indicate that a lack of communication surrounding intimate image abuse is occurring between young people and professionals. Despite the lack of intimate image abuse, POSH frequently dealt with two distinct types of cyberbullying perpetration, which could be seen to mimic attributes of type one and two intimate image abuse, respectively. These similarities were not acknowledged by professionals and, as such, cyberbullying incidents were not always handled with due seriousness. This indicates a need to raise awareness of intimate image abuse, and other associated behaviours, in both young people and the professionals that care for them.