I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for bringing this much-needed amendment to the House and recognising that the changes that have occurred in the past few decades, since the widespread introduction of mobile phone technologies and social media coverage, have irreversibly changed the way in which we communicate. The inherent dangers of the misuse of that communication have become increasingly prevalent. As the noble Baroness said, we are living our lives online, and today’s debate is into its ninth hour.
As a former teacher of media studies, I taught my students that the medium is the message—but, like many of my colleagues, I had no idea at that time how exploitative the medium would become. The key element to this amendment is that the Bill as it stands does not do enough to ensure that survivors of technology-facilitated abuse have sufficient protection in the criminal law. Threats to share intimate or sexual images and films are an increasingly common tool of coercive control that can have enormous negative impacts on survivors of abuse. While the sharing of intimate and sexual images without consent is a crime, threatening to share is not, leaving survivors of this form of abuse without the protection of the criminal law.
During my reading for this topic, I was powerfully moved by a key report, Shattering Lives and Myths, by Professor Clare McGlynn and others at Durham Law School. This was launched at the Supreme Court last year, and it sets out the appalling consequences to victims of intimate images being posted without consent on the internet. Nearly half of the victim-survivors the researchers spoke to had experienced threats to share nude or sexual images and videos without consent. While many of these threats were followed by non-consensual sharing, there must be a recognition that threats to share such images can in and of themselves have significant life-threatening impacts.
The domestic abuse commissioner designate has also supported this addition to the law, saying:
“The threat to share an intimate image … is an insidious and powerful way that perpetrators of domestic abuse seek to control their victims, and yet the law does not provide the protection that is needed. Threats to share these images play on fear and shame, and can be particularly dangerous where there might be multiple perpetrators or so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse is a factor. What’s more, the advent of new technologies enables perpetrators to make these threats even where such images do not exist, but there is no clear criminal sanction for this behaviour.”
Lack of support leaves victim-survivors isolated, often attempting to navigate alone an unfamiliar, complex and shifting terrain of legal provisions and online regulation. There needs to be a recognition in the Bill that image-based sexual abuse is a sexual offence, and an adoption of a comprehensive criminal law to cover all forms of image-based sexual abuse, including threats.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is the most appropriate vehicle to make this change: victims and survivors would benefit almost immediately, and it would help them in preventing further abuse and getting away from their perpetrator. This amendment can close that gap in the law, and I urge its support in this Committee.