OPINION: Postgraduate student of international development, WEL member, and host of feminist group, ‘Fight for your Right to Book Club’, Emma McKenzie looks at the pace of State and Federal Government action against perpetrators of image-based abuse.


Everyone has had that nightmare.

You know, the one where you’re at work and all of a sudden you’re naked in front of all your work colleagues.

You feel exposed, vulnerable, and like your entire world is crashing down around you. (Say goodbye to your career as a politician!)

Then you wake up and thankfully it was only a dream.

Well, for the victims of image-based abuse, commonly referred to as 'revenge porn', this is a terrifying and ongoing reality.

Digital technology is moving at such a dizzying speed that our Federal and State legal systems have struggled to respond to the vast number of digital crimes that are being invented with every technological advancement.

What is image-based abuse?

Image-based abuse occurs when perpetrators publish nude or elicit images of a person without their consent, but also includes perpetrators who send sexual images to a person without their consent. (And you thought that friend who shares photos of food on social media was despicable!)

Currently, 1 in 5 Australians have suffered image based abuse; that statistic being greater for Indigenous and disabled Australians for whom it is a staggering 1 in 2, with women being the overwhelming majority of those targeted.

Non-consensual sharing of intimate images is also a common form of domestic and family violence - a tactic often used as a threat or to control.

So how does it happen?

While many of us regret a number of choices throughout our lives (cue lowrise bellbottoms, shiny cargo pants and butterfly clips), those fun and flirty selfies that many have been sent to intimate, trusted partners, are proving to be the lower back tattoo of the social media age.

With far greater damaging effects than any tattoo, image-based abuse can have an invasive and prolonged effect on the mental health, relationships and careers of its victims, who are often then victim-blamed by the community and even by current policy.

For example, did you know that in certain states of the US, selfies are considered ‘consensual’ by law?

In Australia, we're witnessing a similar victim blaming culture around image-based abuse; to address the issue, much of the focus has been to fund education teaching people to refrain from sexting - which is esentially the same as telling young people to practise abstinence. 

The Federal Government has proposed $4.8 million in funding these very programs, without much legislative focus on prosecuting perpetrators. 

So far, both South Australia and Victoria have moved into the digital age, with both states having made it a criminal offence to threaten to, or distribute an intimate image without consent.

There are currently no Federal laws - and therefore no consistency - in persecuting image-based abuse. In many cases, courts have resorted to utilising outdated legislation to prosecute offenders using the law "using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence" law - which about as effective as trying to use a Nintendo 64 to watch Netflix.

It is clear, that in order to prevent these crimes, Australia needs move fast.

- Federal laws need to order offenders to take down abusive images, destroy them and take measures to ensure they are never redistributed.

- If the content is republished, perpetrators must be held accountable as sex offenders.

- Further, sites that host and then protect this sort of content must also be held to account. This includes media websites who often further perpetuate the spreading of illicit images in the cases of persons with high public profiles.

- Federal legislation must cover threats as intention to harm or as blackmail.

- Secondary sharing of content must be prosecuted. 

If our Federal and State Governments are to live up to their promises of better protecting women and children from this devastating form of abuse, it's imperative that they step into the arena where many crimes are now being committed.

After all, there's no difference between 'online' and 'real life' anymore - for abuse victims, it's all too real.