Domestic abuse bill will criminalise threatening to share intimate images
Recent amendments to the domestic abuse bill will see threatening to share intimate photos criminalised, after concerns shown in the growing rates of such incidents. Anna Shaw discusses the change and importance of such a step for victims of abuse.
Since 2015, it has been a criminal offence to share private sexual images without consent, and with the aim of causing distress. This has resulted in the conviction of 700 abusers, with over 150 sent to prison. However, threatening to share such images is currently not a crime. Lord Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions, has described the existing legislation as “wholly inadequate” in that it only provides ‘protection’ from image-based abuse once the images or footage have already been shared.
An amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill will rectify this legal loophole through making the threat to share intimate images- or ‘revenge porn’- a criminal offence, punishable by a prison sentence of up to two years. The amendment is currently under review in the House of Lords and is expected to pass into law, having received cross-party support.
The Domestic Abuse Bill itself is a legislative landmark. When enacted, the Bill will create a statutory definition of domestic abuse, thus distinguishing it from other types of physical violence, whilst also including emotional abuse, economic abuse, coercion and control within its remit. It will also make non-fatal strangulation an offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. The Bill was initially proposed in 2019 but its passing was delayed by the Government’s prorogation of Parliament. ‘Passing the Domestic Abuse Bill’ was subsequently included in the main parties’ manifestos for the election of December 2019.
The urgency of the Bill becoming law cannot be overstated. In the UK, two women every week are killed by a current or previous partner, and more than one in four women experience domestic abuse at some point. Indeed, incidences of domestic abuse account for one in every 10 offences recorded by the police. This high rate of domestic abuse has been compounded by the Covid-19 lockdown measures, which have trapped survivors at home with abusers. However, David Wright, director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, has voiced concerns that “something more long-term has happened”, meaning that this level of domestic abuse “could be the new normal” unless action is taken.
Furthermore, the Bill’s criminalisation of threats to share intimate images is much needed. A survey commissioned by the charity Refuge found that one in every 14 adults in England and Wales have been threatened with the leaking of their intimate images. Women between 18 and 34 were disproportionately affected, with one in seven receiving this type of threat. Of all the women who had received such threats, 72 per cent were threatened by a current or previous partner.
The amendment is critical in providing a preventative, rather than remedial, measure to protect victims of domestic abuse
Moreover, calls to the government-funded Revenge Porn Helpline rose by 73 per cent between 2019 and 2020. In 2020 alone, 3,136 cases were opened- the highest amount since the helpline began in 2015. There has also been an increase in incidences of webcam blackmail- or ‘sextortion’- wherein organised gangs trick individuals into sending explicit images and then demand payment to not release them. For campaigners, this makes the successful passing of the Domestic Abuse Bill all the more urgent.
Indeed, campaigners have long sought the introduction of the amendment that criminalises the threat of ‘revenge porn’. Refuge’s ‘Naked Threat’ campaign has been highly successful, with approximately 45,000 people signing their open letter to the government. It has also drawn support from celebrities, including Refuge ambassador Olivia Colman, whose video message to Home Secretary Priti Patel has garnered more than 200,000 views.
Similarly, Love Island’s Zara McDermott has worked to publicise the issue through making a BBC Three Documentary on her experiences. In the documentary, she describes how having her explicit images leaked at age 14, and again when she was 21, drastically impacted her mental health. As a result, McDermott is motivated to increase awareness of the issue: “I want victims to have better support… [I want] a lot less emphasis placed on the victim in terms of ownership and accountability”.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is far from perfect: as Labour MP Jess Philips details, it could be better in supporting migrant victims and children impacted by domestic abuse. Nevertheless, it is a significant step in more closely aligning the law with reality. Particularly through criminalising threats to share intimate images, the amendment is critical in providing a preventative, rather than remedial, measure to protect victims of domestic abuse.