Ending Image-Based Abuse: An interview with MQ Graduate Noelle Martin

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Words || Mariah Hanna

Everyone who has access to the internet has Googled themselves at some point, whether you’ll admit to it or not. You probably don’t have any reason to appear in the top searches, and it’s mostly out of this strange thrill that you would get if you did find something on yourself. Now imagine going one step further. It’s not just your name you’re searching, it’s your image. You upload a photo of yourself onto Google reverse to see where else your image is on the internet. Much like the name search, you’re not expecting to see anything come up, because why would there be anything – but what if there was? What if you uploaded an image of yourself, and what was fed back to you was dozens of pornographic sites with your face on the bodies of other women or men?

When Noelle Martin was in her first year of university at Macquarie, this is exactly what happened to her. All of a sudden images taken from Noelle’s social media accounts started cropping up on pornographic sites, with her face doctored onto the bodies of adult actresses. It was something that Noelle tried to secretly deal with herself for years, plagued with shame and fear that the images would be seen by people she knew.

Around 2012 ‘revenge porn’ hadn’t made it into the news headlines, and it was something that wasn’t really discussed or understood at that point in time, but the concept of having your face doctored onto other peoples’ bodies was even more elusive.

“This phenomenon was a completely novel case, and I’d try to search to see if there were any other victims that had spoken out and there were none. The trend that was going on and that was happening to me wasn’t coined, there was no research or anything,” Noelle tells Grapeshot. Now an advocate for law reform, Noelle has shared her story to raise awareness of the complexities that victims and law-makers face when tackling this issue.

‘Revenge porn’ is a term that has now been appearing in the media for the past few years, and the phrase refers to the non-consensual distribution of sexual images of a person by an ex-partner, with the intention of getting ‘revenge’ following the breakdown of a relationship.

The issue with this term, however, is that it offers a very narrow definition of what is actually an extremely complex and broad form of abuse. RMIT University has conducted a study on what they call image-based abuse, which they define as sexual images non-consensually distributed by people known to the victim or strangers. The motivation for image-based abuse range from revenge to coercion, control, sexual gratification, or monetary gain.

According to RMIT, 1 in 5 Australians report facing image-based abuse at some time in their lives. Both men and women are equally likely to being victims, however RMIT’s study found that the perpetrators of abuse were more likely to be men who were known to the victim.

Image-based abuse can also include photographs or recordings taken without a person’s consent, such as upskirting, downblousing, or a secret recording or photograph taken of a person who may be nude or engaging in some kind of sexual act. Image-based abuse can take place in many different forms, but until recently the law and the media alike have treated it somewhat one-dimensionally, and have been slow to catch up.

It took until last year for revenge porn to become illegal in NSW, when the Crimes Amendment (Intimate Images) Act was passed through the Senate, which means perpetrators can now be charged with a prison sentence of up to three years if found guilty of image-based abuse. Up until this point, victims were forced to face image-based abuse alone and without legal support.

“I went to the police and tried contacting government agencies, and I even tried hiring a private investigator. But because a lot of these sites were overseas and there wasn’t really a law here, there wasn’t much the police could do so I was told to contact the sites myself to try to get the images taken down,” Noelle recalls.

The Turnbull government are currently introducing civil penalties that hold social media companies, websites, and even individuals accountable for publishing or failing to remove images being shared without consent. The e-Safety commission have also made huge leaps in tackling image-based abuse, with the introduction of a world first online image portal that allows victims to make reports about images that have been shared without consent. It’s something that Noelle says is crucial not only from a legal standpoint, but from a regulatory side, too.

Despite some positive measures being carried out in law reform, the severity of issues concerning image-based abuse are yet to be properly recognised, says Noelle. “There have been over 20 charges [since the Crimes Amendment (Intimate Images) Act], the problem is in the small cases of those that have actually been convicted, the sentences that have been handed down are not good enough in my opinion. They are not sentencing to the highest penalty.

“You can have criminal laws but whether people are being penalised enough is another issue.”

Of course, with anything sexual there is a stigma that follows the issue, which is why it is so difficult for people to come forward as victims. Society has a bad habit of shaming victims, particularly if the victim has taken or shared the image themselves, only to have it distributed non-consensually to others.

“There is a stigma and victim-blaming culture that is entrenched in a very gendered way. If you have the culture telling you that you’re to blame and that you should feel ashamed of your actions, you’re less likely to seek help, and if victims do seek help then they’re not being taken seriously,” Noelle says. “I know firsthand the brunt of victim blaming and slut shaming attitudes. When I spoke out the public response was, ‘she’s a slut, she’s a whore, why would this happen to her? She’s ugly, or she should feel flattered.’ That’s the tip of the iceberg of the rhetoric I had to cop. Dealing with cultural change as well as legal change is just as important.”

Although the law is slowly catching up with technology that facilitates image-based abuse, society still has a long way to go before victims of this are seen as that: victims whose privacy has been invaded, not stupid or naive people who deserve to be shamed for decisions they’ve made in their private lives.

by Mariah Hanna