Image based sexual abuse: Ireland’s digital pandemic?

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Brianna Walsh investigates the impact on Irish women and Irish law in response to the recent leak of thousands of intimate images online.

Earlier this year, young people were being advised to have sex online or over the phone to prevent the possible spread of Covid-19. In November, up to 140,000 intimate and sexual photographs of women and underage girls were leaked. 

This summer, the HSE directed those planning on engaging in “sexting” to check the national youth organisation website, SpunOut, in order to find out information, and consider “the number of safety issues” involved in the practice. On the site participants were urged to protect themselves while sexting by only sharing images with people they trust, refraining from showing their faces, and understanding what may happen if they break up with their partner. Meanwhile, there is no specific legislation in place to protect adult victims of image-based sexual assault. 

Linda Hayden of the Victims Alliance described how the voluntary, image-based crime department of the lobby group became aware of thousands of photographs being shared among Irish men across messaging platform Discord on the 17th of November. It began with a file containing 6,000 photographs and quickly escalated into something “bigger than we thought”. The group uncovered up to 140,000 photographs, including a folder that they suspected held underage images. The documents were passed on to the Gardaí and now remain in their possession. Hayden assured young women who may be affected to try and remain calm.

The Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has since stated that they have found no images of child abuse and that gardaí have not received any complaints alleging image-based sexual abuse, coercion or harassment in relation to the Discord server. The Victims Alliance have since disputed this claim publicly. Speaking before Harris made these claims, Hayden stated “It’s worrying for a lot of people. I’m worried myself – but I’m trying not to worry until I have something to worry about. The Garda investigation is going to take time, but there are great supports there in Women’s Aid and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.”

Although the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) has no “special information”, CEO Noeline Blackwell noted; “even before the leaking, there is a real likelihood that the storing and sharing of those images was abusive behaviour because from what we know, you would have to question how it could have been consensual… now for sure, as they are more widely distributed through leaking, the potential for abuse has heightened.”

It is difficult to measure the prevalence of image-based sexual abuse in Ireland, as there is little data to give a good understanding of it. Blackwell mentions the common instance where photographs may be shared in the context of a break-up. However, in cases such as the Discord leak, there is the “added complication that the abuse is going on without the victim even knowing that it is taking place”. “People who share will do it quietly and in encrypted groups because they know it's not something you’d [share publicly]… the secrecy around it has not given victims the opportunity to come out and be scandalised by this behaviour!”

Outrage sparked on Twitter in response to these events, perhaps highlighting the prominence of this problem in Ireland. A petition to criminalise revenge porn has amassed over 68,000 signatures, while an online “Rally Against Revenge Porn” was organised for Saturday 28th November. Figures such as Aileen Quigley have also spoken out. Aileen’s daughter Dara took her own life in 2017 after a video of her walking naked and being detained under the Mental Health Act was captured on CCTV and shared to WhatsApp by a member of the Gardaí. The footage went on to be shared over 125,000 times. 

If that is consensual it is none of our business in the DRCC. It is the abuse of that consent that makes the behaviour wrong.

Hayden emphasised the “huge amount of victim-blaming” since the outbreak of these images. This rhetoric tends to occur in cases of non-consensual image sharing, in which the sender of the picture is expected to assume responsibility for any recipient's choice to share it, it being thought that they should have considered the fall-out from the beginning, and avoided showing their face. “It is a variation on ‘you shouldn’t have worn that skirt, had that drink, taken that photo’”, says Blackwell, “to be really, really clear, it is a form of sexual activity or communication. If that is consensual it is none of our business in the DRCC. It is the abuse of that consent that makes the behaviour wrong.”

While it is possible to bring a case under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act for harassment if there are multiple images of a victim shared online, Hayden “firmly believes” this exploitation can be attributed to the lack of legislation specifically criminalising image-based sexual abuse. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee intends to bring provisions before the Government to make the sharing of “intimate images” without consent illegal, regardless of the motivation of the perpetrator. These provisions will be incorporated in the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill, due to be debated in the Dáil in December of 2020. Blackwell pointed out the origins of this Bill, a Law Reform Commission Report from four years ago; “A lot of people who had a phone in 2016 don’t have the same phone now. The digital world is moving so fast, the Bill hasn’t… in reality, we need a new offence which takes account of the world in which we live…”

Blackwell stressed the urgency required to implement the legislation and ensure social media companies rapidly take down images through strengthened codes of conduct and obligations on digital providers. 

Hayden welcomed the legislation but argued that it is “not strong enough in its current form.” “There are a number of amendments needed… countries like Australia and New Zealand have particularly robust laws on it…[The government] need to talk to victim’s groups, it needs to be a 360° approach… there needs to be consultation with swift action to plug these massive holes.”

Both advocates indicated the need for further reform to address the deeper prejudices underlying this issue. “There is a certain level at which this is done by young people who know no better – they literally do not see the harm. We all need more education about the actual harmful impact of sexual abuse of all sorts… we’re still caught in the business of ‘if you can’t show a bruise or black eye, it’s not really sexual abuse’… We need to understand what trauma means. We understand war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress.”

“We need to disapprove of anybody engaging in this behaviour. We need to be open to discussing and hearing how damaging this is.” Hayden reinforced the normality associated with this type of abuse. “You have five hundred guys on a discord server at 4 pm on a Wednesday afternoon. Get your brothers, cousins, sons. Sit down and have a conversation… think about the impact [of their actions] on the person.”

The Victims Alliance are developing a ‘locker room talk’ programme with NUIG, to tackle misogyny in sporting organisations. Older men will be encouraged to train their younger peers “in terms of the language that they use”. The plan is to trial the scheme in a few smaller clubs, before consulting the Minister for Sport and rolling it out across the country. From there, the Minister for Education is the next target of the lobby group. Hayden concludes; “As a society, we need to take a hard look at how women are treated”.

If you, or a friend, are affected by any of the issues discussed, you are encouraged to reach out to the support networks available:

Women’s Aid 1800341900  

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 1800 77 8888 www.drccie 

Men’s Aid 01 554 3811