home Bystander, Features A Bystander Intervention Perspective on Image-Based Sexual Abuse 

A Bystander Intervention Perspective on Image-Based Sexual Abuse 

By Maeve O’Keeffe

This article contains mentions of Image-Based Sexual Abuse. If you feel that at any point you may be triggered please refrain from reading this article. We have also listed supports at the end of this article. 

Image based sexual abuse (IBSA) is defined as the non-consensual creation and/or distribution  of private sexual images. This can include images taken without consent, such as photos or  videos taken through up skirting, voyeurism, recording, or sextortion (when webcam footage of  sexual acts is recorded without the individual’s consent). As well as this, however, IBSA  includes the distribution of images that were initially shared voluntarily. Formerly referred to  as “revenge porn” this can mean consensually sharing nudes with a partner, only for them to  abuse that consent by sharing the photos or screenshots with others. According to recent  statistics, one in eight social media users are victims of IBSA. 90% of these victims are women.  

Last year, the discovery of a Discord server being used to share thousands of intimate images,  led to vocal activism campaigns to see IBSA recognised as a crime. Thankfully, February saw  the commencement of Coco’s Law, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related  Offences Act. This act criminalises the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, with  penalties extending to a potential of seven years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.  Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee described the legislation as “ an effective tool to bring to  justice those who use technology to harm others, but it will also send a clear message that as a  society the sharing, or threat to share, an intimate image of another person without their consent  is not acceptable in any circumstance.” 

Though Coco’s Law is vital in holding perpetrators of IBSA and online harassment accountable  for their actions, its backstory is tragic. In 2018, 21-year-old Nicole “Coco” Fox committed  suicide after years of harassment and bullying, both in person and online. Her mother  campaigned to see an update in legislation around online harms, which finally came about in  February.  

Coco’s Law marks significant progress in the way in which IBSA is viewed in our society.

Even the name change, from “revenge porn” to IBSA is important. The notion of revenge 

implies some level of wrongdoing from the victim, for which the perpetrator must retaliate, or  seek revenge, and the idea of these images being understood as porn is equally inaccurate and  misguided. IBSA has nothing to do with revenge or porn. It is a violation of trust and consent,  and can result in humiliation, shaming, and immense personal suffering for the victim.  

While taking images of another person and sharing them without their consent is hugely  problematic, the disgustingly unjust nature of upskirting, voyeurism, and hidden recording is  largely acknowledged as such. However, when an individual voluntarily shares intimate  images, which are later leaked or distributed to others, there can be an element of victim  blaming. People ask, “Why did they send the picture in the first place?” This type of question,  while not always necessarily intended to shame or blame the victim, detracts blame from the  perpetrator of IBSA. When it comes to intimate images, consent and context are everything. If  someone consents to sharing an intimate image with their partner, for instance, then they are  sharing that image in a trusting context, with the expectation that the only person who will view  the image is their partner. If the receiver of the image decides to send it on into a group-chat  without the permission of the sender, then they are violating consent by changing the image’s  intended context. 

To explain how important the context of consent is, just imagine consenting to sex with a  person. That doesn’t mean you are consenting to sex with all of their friends, or Snapchat  contacts, right? We need to view IBSA the same way. Consenting to sharing an image with  one person never implies consent for that image to be shared with anyone else, unless explicitly  said so. It’s not harmless fun to pass around nudes in the pub, locker room, or group-chat. It is  deceitful and exploitative, and it is important that blame resides with the perpetrators. IBSA can ruin lives, and therefore, Coco’s Law is so important in holding perpetrators accountable for  abusing consent and infringing on the victim’s sexual autonomy. 

Coco’s Law not only seeks to punish the individual who takes or first shares intimate images  without consent, it also reprimands the individuals who receive these images and choose to  distribute them further. The issue is not the receipt of the images, but everyone who  subsequently shares intimate images without consent is also guilty of a criminal offense. Even  if you didn’t take the image, or screenshot the original photograph, if you distribute the image  further, then you share responsibility for the hurt inflicted on the victim.  

Being an active bystander is vital if we are to combat IBSA. A recent study of Australian youth  indicated that 50% of participants had been a bystander to IBSA. Though its difficult to find  figures in an Irish context, this number is staggering, if not unsurprising. If you don’t take  images or record people without their consent, then you may not think you are part of the  problem. But as always with bystander intervention, we can all be part of the solution. If a  leaked nude is shared with you, then it is crucial that you do not distribute the image further.  More than this though, turning a blind eye to instances of IBSA does nothing to truly tackle the  perpetrators of this particularly hurtful crime. We need to speak out against it, and make it clear  to the perpetrator that their actions are unacceptable.  

If you encounter an intimate image that is shared without the individual’s knowledge or  consent, then you have the ability to stop it from spreading further. Though it may be  intimidating, if more of us step up and express that IBSA is wrong, and criminal, then the  perpetrators will be forced to re-evaluate their behaviours, or risk being ostracised. You could  simply say that you’re not interested, or that you think it’s weird and wrong to share images  without the individual’s consent. Even asking the question, “Why are you showing me this?”  can help prompt the perpetrator to realise that you do not agree with this kind of content being  shared, and make them reconsider sharing images in future. 


If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact: 

Sexual Violence Centre Cork – the freephone number is 1800 496 496 for those calling from  the Cork area, but the centre can also be contacted by texting 087 1533 393 or emailing  info@sexualviolence.ie 

Visit your local Sexual Assault Treatment Unit, with details available on the HSE website. UCC Student Counselling – counselling@ucc.ie