‘Devastating, like it broke me’: Responding to image-based sexual abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand

Published date01 November 2023
AuthorNicola Henry,Nicola Gavey,Clare McGlynn,Erika Rackley
Date01 November 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 23(5) 861 –879
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221097276
‘Devastating, like it broke me’:
Responding to image-based
sexual abuse in Aotearoa New
Nicola Henry
RMIT University, Australia
Nicola Gavey
University of Auckland, New Zealand
Clare McGlynn
Durham University, UK
Erika Rackley
University of Kent, UK
The non-consensual taking or sharing of intimate images, also known as ‘image-based sexual abuse’,
has become a widespread problem. While there has been growing attention to this phenomenon,
little empirical research has investigated victim-survivor experiences. Drawing on interviews
with 25 victim-survivors, this article focusses on the different responses to image-based sexual
abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand. We found that victim-survivors had diverse and often multiple
experiences of image-based sexual abuse, perpetrated for a variety of reasons, which extended
beyond the paradigm of malicious ex-partners seeking revenge. Some participants described the
harms experienced as ‘devastating’: a form of ‘social rupture’. Few had formally reported to
police or pursued other justice options. While participants held different justice ideals, all sought
recognition of the harms perpetrated against them. Yet they faced multiple obstacles when
navigating justice, redress and support options. The authors conclude that far-reaching change
is needed to improve legislative, policy and prevention responses to image-based sexual abuse.
Corresponding author:
Clare McGlynn, Durham Law School, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, UK.
Email: Clare.McGlynn@durham.ac.uk
1097276CRJ0010.1177/17488958221097276Criminology & Criminal JusticeHenry et al.
862 Criminology & Criminal Justice 23(5)
Image-based sexual abuse, intimate images, justice, non-consensual pornography, revenge
pornography, social rupture
The visual image has, in many ways, become the quintessential feature of the digital era.
The sharing of photographs or videos is practised far and wide by billions of Internet
users and helps to connect people to their friends, family, whānau and community. Yet
intimate images are also used as a weapon or tool of abuse when taken, created or shared
(or threatened to be shared) without consent. In this article, we refer to these practices as
‘image-based sexual abuse’ (Henry et al., 2021; McGlynn and Rackley, 2017; Powell
and Henry, 2017)1 and conceptualise these behaviours as part of a continuum of sexual
violence, whereby the image-based sexual abuse exists on a spectrum alongside other
unwanted sexual violations that occur across a woman’s lifetime (Henry et al., 2021;
Kelly, 1988; McGlynn et al., 2017).
In 2015, the New Zealand Parliament introduced the Harmful Digital Communications
Act 2015 (HDCA) to tackle different forms of online abuse under one consolidated law.
The legislation makes it a criminal offence to post a harmful digital communication, with
a maximum sentence of 2 years’ imprisonment. There are, however, significant limita-
tions, including its failure to criminalise digitally altered images or threats to distribute
images, as well as untenable harm thresholds which allow many acts of image-based
sexual abuse to fall through the legislative cracks. In response to widespread calls for law
reform, in mid-2020 the Harmful Digital Communications (Unauthorised Posting of
Intimate Visual Recording) Amendment Bill was proposed, which, if adopted, would
bring some welcome changes. At the time of writing, the Bill is yet to come before the
Committee of Whole House although it had undergone a Justice Committee review,
which recommended a series of amendments (which we briefly discuss in the final sec-
tion of the article).
In this article, we focus on justice, redress and support in the New Zealand context.
Drawing on data from a larger Australian-New Zealand-UK project that examined the
pervasiveness, nature and impacts of image-based sexual abuse (see Henry et al., 2021),
the article outlines the key findings from qualitative interviews conducted with 25 New
Zealand adults who had experienced image-based sexual abuse. We first review the
research literature on image-based sexual abuse in New Zealand and describe the meth-
odology for the study. In the second section, we provide an overview of the range of
experiences of image-based sexual abuse that victim-survivors reported. Third, we out-
line the reported impacts of image-based sexual abuse, examining participants’ experi-
ences navigating various avenues for justice, redress and support that are available in
New Zealand. In the final section of the article, we discuss participants’ reflections on
their justice interests. We conclude by arguing for comprehensive civil and criminal legal
responses, wider community education and prevention initiatives, as well as sustained
resourcing for support organisations.

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