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Dr Charlotte Bishop

University of Exeter expert advising on legal reforms to better protect people from abuse using intimate images

A University of Exeter expert is advising on legal reforms designed to better protect people from abuse using intimate images. 

The Law Commission is currently conducting a review of the existing criminal law on so called “revenge porn”. This often includes sharing, or threatening to share, intimate images or videos of someone, either on or offline, without their consent.

Before a consultation began last month the Law Commission consulted experts, including Dr Charlotte Bishop, from the University of Exeter Law School, other academics and the Revenge Porn Helpline. Dr Bishop will also be taking part in stakeholder events throughout the consultation period including an academic roundtable to discuss the provisional proposals for reform.

Currently, there is no single criminal offence in England and Wales that governs the taking, making and sharing of intimate images without consent. There is a patchwork of offences that have developed over time, most of which existed before the rise of the internet and use of smartphones. This means there are inconsistencies, for example upskirting is currently a criminal offence but downblousing is not. Sharing an altered image – usually involving adding someone’s head to a pornographic image - is also not covered.

Existing laws make it an offence to take pictures without consent for the purposes of sexual gratification and to cause distress, but other motivations such as sharing the images as a joke or to coerce an individual are not. Current laws also do not adequately cover threats to share intimate images, especially when the threat is made to humiliate, coerce, control or cause distress.

The Law Commission believes a new framework of offences is needed to create more unification and structure. The commission is now keen to take evidence from police forces, lawyers, human rights and civil liberties groups, and people who have been victims of intimate image abuse and the service providers who support them.

The review will consider the potential impact of emerging technology online and on smartphones which allows realistic intimate or sexual images to be created or combined with existing images, and how the creation and dissemination of such images is dealt with under existing criminal law.

The Law Commission plans four new offences: a ban on taking or sharing an intimate image without consent; a ban on taking or sharing an intimate image without consent with the intention to humiliate, alarm or cause distress; a ban on taking or sharing an intimate image without consent and for the purpose of sexual gratification and a new offence of threatening to share an intimate image with the intention of making the person depicted fear it will be shared.

Dr Bishop said: “I welcome this thorough review of the law being conducted by the Law Commission and the reform proposals, which cover a wide range of harmful behaviours including threats to distribute intimate images without consent, the recording of rapes and sexual assaults, sexualised photoshopping and deepfake pornography, upskirting and voyeurism.

“The harm of intimate image abuse can be severe and far-reaching, causing distress, humiliation, psychological trauma, loss of employment, and, in extreme cases, suicide. Threats to distribute are often part of coercive and controlling relationships and can leave victims unable to leave an abusive partner due to fear that intimate images and videos will be shared online if they do.

“It is therefore vitally important that there is a legal framework that consistently criminalises all forms of intimate image abuse so that victims can be effectively protected by the criminal law and perpetrators can be brought to justice.”

People can respond to the consultation until May 27.

Date: 9 March 2021

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