Not to be taken lightly: Image-based sexual violence


25 November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung has interviewed Jacey Kan, advocacy officer from Hong Kong’s Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women (ACSVAW), to introduce its work in fighting against image-based sexual violence. In this interview, Jacey explains why digital images can cause severe harm to a person, the roles of netizens and technology platforms, and the ACSVAW’s campaign for legal reforms and raising public awareness. 

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ACSVAW IBSV Advert campaign
Teaser Image Caption
ACSVAW's image-based sexual violence advertisement

Women's rights activists have observed 25 November as a day against gender-based violence since 1981. This date was selected to honour the Mirabal sisters, three political activists from the Dominican Republic who were brutally murdered in 1960 by order of the country’s ruler, Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). On 7 February 2000, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, inviting governments, international organisations and NGOs to join together and organise activities designed to raise public awareness of the issue every year on that date.

Not to be Taken Lightly: Image-based Sexual Violence 不可視作等閒:影像性暴力 - Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Asia Global Dialogue

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Can you explain briefly what image-based sexual violence is?

The term “image-based sexual abuse” comes from an academic article, “Beyond ‘Revenge Porn’: The Continuum of Image-based Sexual Abuse”, by British scholars Clare McGlynn, Erika Rackley and Ruth Houghton, published in Feminist Legal Studies in 2017. We adopted this term in Hong Kong because it captures the idea of using intimate images as a way to harass, threaten, intimidate or humiliate women.

Examples of such abusive behaviour include taking intimate photos without a person’s consent, and distributing, sharing, circulating or selling such photos without consent, or threatening to do so. There is also a trend called a “deepfake”, where people use software and/or artificial intelligence to splice an image of an individual with a nude or sexual image obtained elsewhere, generating fake images digitally.

You have encountered many cases involving victims seeking help. Where and how does image-based sexual violence usually happen? What are typical social contexts?

At our Association we conducted a Survey on Image-Based Sexual Violence in 2020. We found that victims of this type of abuse were mostly between 20 and 24 years old. The incidents they reported most commonly took place on public transport, at 45%, followed by 25% on the street and 25% through instant messaging applications. Regarding the abusers’ identities, 56% indicated that perpetrators were strangers, while 23% were their intimate partners.

Survey Report on Image-Based Sexual Violence -ACSVAW

Through interviews we conducted with survey respondents, we found that partners tended to weaponise intimate images by threatening to distribute them, as a means of manipulating their victims. Since they usually knew their partners’ social circle, they would threaten to distribute the intimate images to their friends, colleagues and family members. This is a typical embodiment of intimate partner violence.  

Can you tell us about your latest campaign against image-based sexual violence? Why this campaign?

We have advocated for specific laws targeting this behaviour since 2018.  In 2019 and 2020 we conducted the survey just mentioned, in order to depict the severity of this problem in Hong Kong.

We also interviewed victims about their experiences in seeking assistance through the judicial system. Among those who reported the abuses, nearly 70% were told the police would not investigate. A common reason for the police refusal was the fact that there is no specific law against image-based sexual abuse. This suggests that specific legislation is necessary to tackle and prevent this type of violence in our society. Based on these findings, we have been advocating and lobbying the government to introduce such laws. At the same time, we mobilized the public and other civil groups to submit their views to the government.

By submitting legal proposals and research reports to the Government, lobbying the Legislative Council members with other civil groups throughout the past 3 years, our efforts have been effective in that the government has introduced four new criminal offences to Hong Kong. The law against image-based sexual violence came into effect on 8 Oct 2021. These four new offences are voyeurism, unlawful recording or observation of intimate parts, publication of images originating from these two offences, and publication or threatened publication of intimate images without consent. The maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment. At the same time, there is a ‘disposal order’ by which a magistrate can order a person, such as a defendant or an online content host, to remove such images.    

Legislation is only a painkiller; educating the public not to perpetrate such acts, or to stand by when they are committed, is the panacea. Along with the enactment of new laws, the members of our association believe it is urgent to educate the public about this issue. Therefore, we are conducting a campaign to raise awareness that non-consensual taking, sharing and viewing of intimate images are image-based sexual violence.

What further expectations do you have for this campaign?

In particular, we wish to stress the detrimental impacts of sharing and viewing intimate images without consent. Many netizens love forwarding and circulating intimate images in chat groups, discussion forums and social media. They perceive this as a kind of joke or pastime, while overlooking the harm it may cause. Through public education, we aim to raise people’s awareness that sharing intimate images without consent is perpetration of sexual violence; by circulating such images online, they are inflicting the injury on victims. To draw attention to the impact and role of bystanders in the cyber world, we launched a series of outdoor advertisements on public transport.

ACSVAW IBSV Advert Campaign Long Ping station
ACSVAW's IBSV advertisement spotted at Hong Kong's Long Ping MTR station

ACSVAW IBSV Advert Campaign Light Rail
ACSVAW's IBSV advertisement spotted at a Light Rail station in Hong Kong

Our association invited the French illustrator, Louis Grosperrin, to design cartoons depicting the impacts of non-consensual sharing and viewing of intimate images on victims.

It has been suggested that in modern societies, damage from image-based sexual violence can sometimes exceed physical violence. Why is this so?  

We cannot compare the degree of harm caused by different forms of sexual violence. But based on our observations, people tend to overlook, or to take lightly, the harm done by non-physical violence. There are deep-rooted attitudes that downplay the trauma suffered by victims of image-based sexual violence. For example, ‘I didn’t touch her body, what’s the harm?’ or ‘It’s just a picture, don’t make a fuss over it!’  People should recognise the harm caused by posting or sharing sexual material online. What’s more, the harm is continuous and irreversible.    

Can you share any anonymous cases, or statistics, to help us understand the scope and scale of the problem?

Men could be victims of image-based sexual violence too. For example, one man, let’s call him Benjamin, had been threatened by his ex-partner; he knew that she possessed secretly filmed intimate videos of him. Although her threats had ceased, Benjamin told us it was hard for him to predict whether she would suddenly bring up the videos and threaten him again, or if she would send the videos to his friends without notice. Even after five years, his anxiety and fear had not disappeared. The intimate videos were like ticking time bombs. He was under constant stress over the fact that they might be distributed at any time. Benjamin’s case is representative of many victims who have experienced gaslighting, which means emotional manipulation from their partners.

Once images have been distributed through the internet, it is extremely hard to remove them completely.  Apart from anxiety, victims of non-consensual dissemination tend to feel pessimistic and powerless. One young woman, let’s call her Rain, had had intimate videos posted on porn sites. She said in an interview that it made no difference to her whether more or less people had watched the videos. She believed it was impossible to permanently remove something from the internet, and she didn’t think the problem could be fixed. A sense of desperation is not uncommon among victims of non-consensual distribution.

Are IT-savvy social groups more protected or more vulnerable to the misuse of images?

So far, we do not see a correlation between the possession of IT skills and a tendency to perpetrate image-based sexual violence. Taking, uploading and sharing images online does not require high-end IT skills. As long as people know how to use social media and instant messaging apps, they can easily post, transmit and share content with others. As for online content hosts who create websites for disseminating and selling intimate images, these perpetrators might possess more IT skills.

In your opinion, what are common misunderstandings about the posting and circulation of sexual images?

We hear things like: ‘I can't say no to the distribution of intimate images if I consented to the taking of such pictures in the first place’; and ‘As long as we don't wear skirts, there won't be any “upskirting”’. Also, ‘It's just a picture, no big deal’; and ‘As a bystander, I can't really do anything’.

Apart from direct perpetrators and victims, what are the roles of bystanders and netizens and forwarders?

A netizen who witnesses the sharing of intimate images on the internet is able to, and should, stand up against it, instead of being indifferent. If anyone comes across non-consensual intimate images being circulated online, we encourage them not to view, 'like' or share such images; not to blame the victim, since the fault lies with the perpetrator; not to ‘like’ comments that blame the victim; to report the relevant content; and to remind their friends not to view, ‘like’ or share the intimate images.

Don’t underestimate the role and actions of bystanders. We found that every single act by a bystander highly influences a victim’s decision whether or not to talk to others or seek help. When bystanders refrain from viewing non-consensual intimate images and refute the victim-blaming comments, victims feel encouraged and are more willing to speak out.

What are the possible roles of professionals and technology platforms related to this problem? Please share a few good practices in terms of technology governance.

Image-based sexual violence exists on all types of online platforms and sites, including discussion forums, dating apps and social media sites. We propose that internet service providers and content hosts should establish user guides and reporting mechanisms to discourage the non-consensual posting of sexual images. They should explicitly state in their user guides or policies that it is a violation to distribute intimate images without the individual’s consent. Whenever a post or image violates the rules, the content hosts should take the initiative to remove the content and issue a warning to the original distributor. Internet and social media providers and platforms should specify reporting channels in their guidelines, and make forms available so that netizens can report posts that violate the rules.

Pornhub has demonstrated a good practice by launching a ‘Trusted Flagger Program’. This program provides a robust and efficient way for non-governmental organizations like us to alert them of content that potentially violates their terms of use.  As an NGO member of the Pornhub Trusted Flagger Program, we can effect the immediate disabling of all URLs that are reported, have visibility into decisions on reported content, and get access to a dedicated support team. It is a good practice that other online platforms could follow.


To find out more about Jacey and her organisation's work, click here.

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Image-based Sexual Violence project: