‘Be careful posting images online’ is just another form of modern-day victim-blaming

By Anastasia PowellHateSpeech

The revelations this week of yet another vile website where men and boys trade in the non-consensual images of women and girls has police and many in the broader Australian public concerned about these harassing behaviours.

Yet some of the media and public discussions of these image-sharing websites and forums also show a disturbing similarity to other examples of sexual harassment or violence against women.

Many, it would seem, are all too ready to shift the blame towards the victims. Advice circulating via various public statements, media coverageand school-based education resources repeatedly tells girls and young women to “be careful what you share” because these images will be “out there forever”.

‘Be careful what you share’

There are several problems with this kind of response.

Perhaps most importantly, such advice contributes to the shaming and humiliation of victims by placing the responsibility back onto them for their humiliation. Feelings of shame and humiliation are common reasons many victims give for not making reports to police about sexual forms of harassment and abuse.

The acting Children’s eSafety Commissioner has called on victims in the most recent case to come forward with information to assist in what may be an international child-exploitation material investigation. So, avoiding sentiments that may further marginalise victims is particularly important.

Advice to victims “not to share intimate or private images” is also problematic. It obscures the variety of methods that harassers use to obtain images.

While little information is publicly available in this most recent case about the range of images and how they were all obtained, research suggests privacy of images is not always in the victim’s control.

In ongoing research, my colleagues and I have found that, while many images of women and girls are obtained from public or semi-public social media accounts, many others are obtained illegally through hacking accounts and internet-enabled devices, through “upskirting” and “creep shots”, as well as through images originally shared privately with an intimate partner.

A further problem is that we seem to reserve a special kind of victim-blaming when it comes to sexual forms of violence, abuse or harassment. No-one ever told a victim of identity fraud that they should never have stored their money electronically in the first place, or how silly they were to make purchases online.

We seem to understand that cybercriminals exploit, trick and hack victims’ information in a range of ways to commit their crimes. We don’t expect people to avoid all forms of e-commerce simply to prevent themselves from being victimised.

Yet last year, when nude images of hundreds of Queensland women were posted online, authorities reportedly warned victims about storing sensitive images on their digital devices at all.

A broader trend?

It is important to provide everyone with advice on how to protect their information online and to be aware of the potential for exploitation and abuse of their material.

But the line between providing advice and placing responsibility back onto victims is easy to cross. Often it lies in the balance of the messages directed to both perpetrators and victims……

Read the full article on The Conversation.

Notes from the Field: Canada

Rape Culture Talk

According to Dr Anastasia Powell a Senior Research Fellow in Justice and Legal Studies at RMIT University and visiting scholar at the University Of Alberta (Canada)

“Communications technologies are increasingly being used by perpetrators to stalk, harass and coerce women.”

Dr Powell gave a public lecture at the University of Alberta last week in which she discussed the ways that technologies, such as smartphones, online sites and social media, are more than mere tools in violence against women but also extend the harms of violence in various ways.

“Too often people dismiss and minimise online communications as less serious forms of abuse. Police have been known to tell women, ‘just turn off your cell phone, deactivate your Facebook account, don’t go online’. Its something I have heard frequently from women’s and legal services both in Australia, and during my interviews with services here in Canada.” But Dr Powell argues that “such advice significantly underestimates both the nature of these violences, and the fact that online communications are embedded not only in our social lives, but also our professional lives. You can deactivate Facebook, but if your abusive ex-partner is posting nude images of you online, that will still come up if an employer Googles your name. It will still be used by others as a basis for harassing you. Turning women away from technology is not the answer.”

Over the last five years Dr Powell’s research, including with her collaborator Dr Nicola Henry, has uncovered a wide range of technology-facilitated sexual violence.

“We’ve found that perpetrators are using the threat of distributing nude images as a way to control and coerce women. In some cases, the threat is made to prevent women taking out a protection order or leaving an abusive relationship. In other cases, the threat is made in order to coerce a sexual relationship. That’s not just an ‘online’ harm – that’s a sexual assault.” 

In addressing such technology-facilitated violence, Dr Powell says we need a combination of legal reform, training for police and courts, as well as prevention and education that challenges a ‘rape culture’: 

“There is still some controversy around the concept of a ‘rape culture’. But I think it is a very useful concept for thinking about the various ways societies minimise sexual violence and harassment, blames victims, while making excuses for the perpetrators. We have to challenge those attitudes in our communities, as well as in the practices of our legal and educational institutions, if we are going to achieve real and sustainable change to prevent sexual violence in all its forms.” 

Dr Powell is now writing a case study of Canadian legal and other responses to technology-facilitated sexual violence, drawing on interviews conducted during her recent visit.