Image-Based Sexual Abuse: A Little-Known Term, but a Pervasive Problem  

“Life-ruining.” “Hell on earth.” “A nightmare . . . which destroyed everything.”  

These are the words survivors used to describe their experiences of image-based sexual abuse (IBSA).  

If you don’t know what “image-based sexual abuse” is, you’re not the only one. But even if you haven’t heard the term before, chances are you’ve heard of people experiencing it. In fact, chances are quite high that it’s affected someone you know – or even you yourself. Because while “image-based sexual abuse” is a new and emerging term, it is an all-too-common phenomenon.  

So let’s start with more commonly known terms: 

Leaked nudes.  

Revenge pornography.  

Upskirting. 

Downblousing. 

Deepfake pornography.  

Do any of those sound more familiar? The various types of abuses these terms describe are all encompassed under the umbrella term of “image-based sexual abuse” (IBSA).  

What is Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA)? 

In a nutshell, IBSA is the creating, threatening to share, sharing, or using of recordings (still images or videos) of sexually explicit or sexualized materials without the consent of the person depicted and/or for purposes of exploitation. Common forms that image-based sexual abuse takes include:  

  • non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit or sexualized images (sometimes referred to as “revenge porn” or “leaked nudes”) 
  • non-consensual recording of a person in a sexual manner (including so-called “down blousing,” “upskirting,” or surreptitious recordings in places such as restrooms and locker rooms) 
  • pressuring or harassing someone into creating or sharing sexually explicit or sexualized images of themselves  
  • using sexually explicit images or sexualized materials in one’s possession for purposes of blackmailing the person(s) depicted in the images, including blackmailing them into producing more sexually explicit material (often referred to as “sextortion”)  
  • creating fake pornographic images of a person, by editing images of their face onto nude bodies (popularly referred to as “deepfake” or “cheap fake” pornography) 
  • sexual harassment or assault in virtual or augmented reality (such as sexual harassment via direct messaging or sexual assault of avatars) 

It only takes an instant for anyone to become a victim of IBSA, through any of the aforementioned ways. It only takes someone hitting the “record” or the “share” button. No age, gender, or socioeconomic status is free from the threat of IBSA. It can happen to anyone. It can and probably has happened to people you know.  

Survivors of Image-based Sexual Abuse Experience Significant, Ongoing Trauma  

Around the world, survivors of IBSA are speaking out about their trauma and bringing awareness to the issue. Survivors have described feeling “completely, completely broken,” “degraded,” “mortified,” and more. One survivor stated, “‘[it] transcends [everything], it impacts you emotionally, physiologically, professionally, in dating and relationships, in bloody every single factor of your life.” 

It is clear from survivor testimonies that one of the things which makes IBSA so devastating is it is almost impossible to put an end to the abuse. Once an image is on the internet, it is likely to remain on the internet forever. Even if a survivor succeeds in getting the original image taken down (which is by no means a guarantee), chances are the image will already have been downloaded, duplicated, and shared in multiple other places. This creates a never-ending cycle of abuse, from which survivors have seemingly no exit. As one survivor states, “there will never be a day in my entire lifetime that all of the images of me could ever be deleted.” Another survivor says, “There is no end to it, there is no stop, there is no finale. . . . It’s like, I’m quite aware that if I was to go on the internet or the porn websites now, I would . . . find the videos of me. . . . It’s a crime that doesn’t just happen and then that’s done. It’s something that is continual, and this could continue for I don’t know how long. It could go on for bloody ever.”  

Research backs up survivor testimony in evincing the severe damage and trauma IBSA causes. For example, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative conducted an online survey regarding non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit photos in 2017. The survey found that, compared to people without IBSA victimization, victims had “significantly worse mental health outcomes and higher levels of physiological problems.” A previous analysis noted that such distress can include high levels of anxiety, PTSD, depression, feelings of shame and humiliation, as well as loss of trust and sexual agency.  

The risk of suicide is also a very real issue for victims and there are many tragic stories of young people taking their own lives as a result of this type of online abuse. An informal survey showed that 51% of responding victims reported having contemplated suicide as a result of their IBSA experience.  

What Can Be Done?  

Clearly, in the face of such a grave problem, action must be taken. So what can be done to stem the growing epidemic of image-based sexual abuse?  

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), in partnership with survivors and other allies, is working hard to build solutions. Such solutions include: 

  • Survivor Leadership – NCOSE is advised and joined in advocacy by a network of survivors. 
  • Civil Litigation – NCOSE is filing lawsuits against major companies that facilitate the distribution of IBSA, and often profit from it (Learn more here)
  • Survivor Services – The NCOSE Law Center assists survivors in the process of requesting IBSA of them be taken down from online platforms. 
  • Corporate Accountability – NCOSE is calling for corporations like GoogleReddit, and Discord to create responsible practices and policies around IBSA. 
  • State Legislation – NCOSE is working to pass legislation in the two remaining U.S. states that do not have laws on non-consensually shared/recorded explicit content (sometimes called “revenge porn law”). These states are Massachusetts and South Carolina. 
  • National Legislation – NCOSE is pursuing federal legislation in the United States and abroad which would ensure that meaningful consent was collected by all persons depicted in sexually explicit materials. The federal legislation we are working to pass in the U.S. is called The Preventing Rampant Online Technological and Criminal Trafficking Act of 2022 (PROTECT Act)

The PROTECT Act: A Key Solution to IBSA

A key solution to IBSA, which absolutely must come to fruition, is The Preventing Rampant Online Technological and Criminal Trafficking Act of 2022 (PROTECT Act). The PROTECT Act, recently introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), increases accountability and responsibility for internet platforms to take the problem of IBSA seriously. If passed, the PROTECT Act would legally require all websites that allow pornographic content to obtain verified consent forms from individuals uploading content or appearing in uploaded content. It would also require websites to quickly remove images that have been created or uploaded without consent, once that content is reported. This would help millions of survivors whose lives are ruined by the endless circulation of their abuse online. 

The PROTECT Act fills a gaping hole in national legislation which allows IBSA to run rampant, with little to no accountability for the platforms that host it, and therefore little to no incentive for the platforms to address the problem. The PROTECT Act must be passed, and you can help pass it! 

You Can Help Pass the PROTECT Act!

Take one or two minutes to complete these easy actions, which will help millions of survivors of IBSA:  

1. Sign this petition to Members of the US Congress urging their support and passage of the PROTECT Act:

2. Share this powerful video from survivors on social media!  

3. Survivors of IBSA are invited to sign this joint letter of support for the PROTECT Act.

There is still a long way to go to create strong public policy, reform internet platform practices, and increase public awareness around the issue of IBSA. But the good news is that the rising generation is breaking down the stigma around these issues and is increasingly speaking out. Laws are changing, awareness is rising, and victims of this abuse need no longer feel alone. 

Learn More About IBSA

You can further educate yourself on the issue of IBSA and what solutions are needed by watching the following videos:

The Numbers

300+

NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.

100+

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.

93

NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.

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