There's nothing harmless about image-based abuse

As a Richmond fan, I rode the wave of jubilation as the Tigers broke their 37 year premiership drought to win the AFL grand final two weeks ago. I’ve even sung the Richmond team song to my daughter as a lullaby.

Millions of Australians joined in the spirit of celebrating this incredible underdog victory, and we all witnessed scenes of revelry as the players and supporters celebrated their hard fought achievement.

Today, those feelings are tinged with disappointment for many fans, including myself. According to reports, an intimate image of a young woman wearing a Richmond player’s premiership medal was shared without her consent. In fact, the woman asked that the image be deleted. She was told it had been, however, the image was instead shared broadly with others online.

We call this image-based abuse. At the eSafety Office, we’ve made it a top priority to tackle this insidious online practice. This month we’ll be launching a national online portal and reporting tool to help Australians access tangible support when this online abuse occurs.

Sadly, the fact we’re seeing more high profile cases of image-based abuse in the media is consistent with recent research which reveals that 1 in 5 Australians have experienced image-based abuse.

As shocking as these statistics are, it’s worse for Indigenous Australians and Australians with a disability, 50% of whom experience image-based abuse.

For the victim, however, this is not a passing indiscretion that will blow over tomorrow.  This will become a lasting part of her digital footprint. 

It’s important to remember behind each of these images is a person, feeling violated and powerless. They will likely feel intense angst as people try and discover their identity and publicly name and shame them. Many victims who have been exposed in this way experience long-term anxiety, fear and depression. This is a fear that never really dissipates—not knowing where or when their compromising photos will pop up and be shown to friends, family, work colleagues or current partner.

While this may be a cautionary tale of a victory march gone wrong, the simple fact of the matter is that the sharing of intimate images is becoming a normal courtship ritual amongst young people. It also represents a new form of peer pressure they are not equipped to resist. But the fact of the matter is that while many people may anecdotally understand the risks, few people are prepared for the fallout that ensues once an intimate image is shared online.

At the eSafety Office, we’ve received some 400 complaints about image-based abuse and we’ve had success in helping victims get their images removed online. Our ability to help victims in this way will soon be enhanced through the release of the portal. However, we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that there are many more Australians we can help. 

Serious cultural change needs to happen to stop this practice in its tracks. There are far too many passive players in image-based abuse - what we call “bystanders”. They see the images. They know it’s wrong, yet they still do nothing. 

We all have a role to play in creating a culture of respect, where the "upstanders" outnumber the bystanders and where we no longer tolerate or trivialise image-based abuse.  

As a society, we need to do more. It’s not acceptable to blame the victim for taking the image in the first place. We need to focus on educating people about the importance of consent, respect, and empathy—it’s never ok to share someone’s intimate image without their consent.

There are many reasons someone might decide to share an image without consent. It could be seen as a harmless bit of fun or ‘entertainment’ without a true appreciation of the potential devastation caused.

We need to lead the way for our youth, and teach them that respect must be universal and that online abuse is never acceptable. 

As role models, the Richmond Football Club, and the AFL, have a unique opportunity to model good online behavior and raise awareness about this issue.  We’ve offered to support the AFL in developing their response and in training their players, coaches and staff.

In fact, whether you realise it or not, every day we set an example for young people, our friends and family. That’s an incredible amount of power we possess, and we have a responsibility to do the right thing whether it be on the field, off the field, online or offline.

A version of this op-ed was originally published in The Herald Sun.