What can be done to prevent and resist image-based abuse?

Image-based abuse—commonly known as “revenge porn”—is a pressing issue that has affected celebrities, athletes, politicians, and private citizens alike, and it has only become more pervasive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadly defined as the distribution of intimate images and videos of a person without their consent, this form of abuse has often been framed in popular media as the behavior of scorned ex-partners or individuals seeking revenge.

Person looking at laptop computer, visibly concerned.

However, the problem is more nuanced and prevalent than public opinion may indicate: A 2020 study found that about one in 12 U.S. adults have experienced sexual image-based abuse.

Image-Based Abuse: Prevalence, Resistance, Prevention, a virtual symposium held by the Annenberg School for Communication’s’ Center for Media at Risk earlier this month, assembled an international group of researchers, policymakers, and activists to not only continue defining image-based abuse and raising awareness, but to share findings and resources, and strategize research agendas and policy recommendations. The symposium also featured a digital self-care workshop, where image-based abuse activist Katelyn Bowden and Annenberg doctoral student and Center for Media at Risk Research Fellow Sophie Maddocks shared advice on safely researching digital abuse. 

As activists and scholars argue, “revenge porn” is reductive, as offenders are motivated by a range of factors. It also implies a deserved retaliation rather than centering the abusive act itself, taking the focus away from victims and the harm they experience.

Image-based sexual abuse is part of a constellation of behaviors that include not just nonconsensual pornography, but also sexual extortion and digital forgeries. Anyone can be a target, regardless of whether they’ve ever taken intimate photos or videos, as these can now be artificially created. As the technology to create deepfakes and synthetic media have become more accessible worldwide, there has been a shift from targeting well-known public figures to targeting private individuals, who often don’t have the means or resources to combat such abuse. 

This story is by Alina Ladyzhensky. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.