Consent, awareness and harm – analysing sexual images

The lifespan and reach of an image online today is vast, and once distributed can be difficult to ever track or remove. This means that losing control of sensitive photos, even self-produced ones, can hold serious consequences, especially because seemingly innocent images may be used for anything from cyberbullying to child sexual exploitation or sextortion.

2017-03-30 INHOPE, with input from Dr Eva Lievens, Ghent University awareness, hotlines

There has been an increase in education and awareness-raising initiatives that work directly with youth, including projects carried out by members of the INHOPE network who provide guidance and/or reporting mechanisms for cyberbullying as it pertains to sexting or revenge porn.

INHOPE interviewed Professor Dr Eva Lievens, Faculty of Law at Ghent University and co-author of A legal perspective on the non-consensual dissemination of sexual images: Identifying strengths and weaknesses of legislation in the US, UK and Belgium (International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 2016). This paper was published in response to questions raised across jurisdictions regarding the applicability of existing criminal law provisions or the need for legislative initiatives. In this short interview, she addresses the need for raising awareness around consent, and advice for hotlines.

What is your perspective on the phenomenon of self-produced images and how it has contributed to an increase in the amount of child sexual abuse material (CSAM)?

In today's society, smart phones, social media and photo or video apps are an inherent and important part of many people's lives. Self-produced images or "selfies" are an expression of one's identity, often in normal or even banal situations, sometimes in more daring, intimate circumstances. It should not be surprising that such images play a role in the exploration of sexual identity or in the context of relationships between young people.

However, significant misunderstandings still exist regarding key concepts related to sexual acts and images, most importantly "consent". Even when intimate pictures are made public which, at the time of their "production" were taken with the explicit consent of the person pictured (person A) and were transferred by A to person B or taken by person B, the initial consent given by A does not automatically cover the further dissemination of those images by B to C and others.

Though this might seem self-evident, it is remarkable how often it is questioned whether the traditional limits of consent also apply in relation to the dissemination of sexual images, and sexual selfies in particular. All too often, photos are forwarded or posted on platforms without that consent, spreading quickly and causing harm both in the private and public (such as school setting) spheres of victims.

What do you think about the debate of when sexting between young people can turn potentially criminal (i.e. revenge porn, sextortion, distribution of underage images)?

In situations where children inflict harm on other children, authorities should - as far as possible - pursue restorative approaches that repair the harm done instead of criminalising children or treating them as perpetrators. Criminalisation and prosecution should always remain the last resort.

Do you have advice for hotlines dealing with reports of this this type, especially in terms of raising awareness among minors?

Minors should be made aware that without consent, no one should disseminate intimate images of another individual. Awareness campaigns, media literacy education, and clear and age-appropriate information about the use of services and applications on the one hand and the importance of consent with regard to sexuality (e.g. in general sexual education) on the other hand could play a major role in preventing harm in the first place.

What would be your top recommendations for: a) policymakers/legislators, b) youth and c) educators?

a) Policymakers and legislators that think about adopting criminal provisions with regard to the non-consensual dissemination of sexual images, should consider such provisions carefully. They should 1) include clearly delineated definitions of the notions that are used, and a careful consideration of the scope (e.g. so as not to exclude selfies, or interpret the "sexual nature" of an image in a way that nudity is not explicitly required); 2) acknowledge that the lack of consent of the pictured person is the trigger for criminalisation; 3) provide for relevant and necessary defence; and 4) integrate sufficiently deterrent sanctions. However, as mentioned before, applying criminal provisions to children or teenagers should be a very last resort. Instead, investing in media and sexual education that takes into account young people's daily lives and the role technology plays in their lives should be a priority.

b) Youth have the right to explore their identity, and to express their sexuality. At the same time, they should be aware that respecting the intention of the person who is pictured on selfies or video clips is key. Building resilience and not being afraid to refuse to send someone an intimate image if this does not feel right is also very important.

c) When talking to young people about the use of photo apps, sharing and posting of images, educators should emphasise the importance of obtaining consent from the person that is pictured. Victim blaming or shaming should be avoided at all costs.

INHOPE supports the idea that everyone contributes to a safer internet by remaining vigilant about harmful content. People of any age should always report content that is damaging or illegal. By educating our youngest digital citizens in these areas, it is our hope that we can end exploitation and victimisation online.

Find out more about the work of INHOPE within the European network of Safer Internet Centres or visit


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