“Prosecuting Image Exploitation”

Posted on November 9, 2016, in Child Pornography, Pornography Laws, Psychological

Publication Information

Title: "Prosecuting Image Exploitation"
Publication: Strategies: The Prosecuter's Letter on Violence Against Women
Author: Anderson, Jane, et al.
Date: 03/16/2015


Image exploitation is a distinct form of sexual abuse, involving the nonconsensual creation, possession, or distribution of an image or images depicting the victim as nude, semi-nude, engaged in consensual sexual activity, or being sexually assaulted. The image in question may be a photograph, screenshot, or video recording. By using cell phones, email, social media, and the Internet, an offender can distribute photographs and video to the victim’s circle of friends, family, and colleagues, as well as the countless denizens of cyberspace.

Image exploitation of this kind takes various forms. In some circumstances, images are consensually created or shared, but become exploitive and harmful when they are distributed to others without the victim’s consent. In other cases, offenders record sexual assaults, thereby creating lasting images of the victim’s rape, exponentially extending the harm caused by the original assault. Negative impacts on the victim may include emotional, physical, and financial damage, as well as damage to a victim’s reputation, family life, and intimate relationships. All forms of image exploitation expose the victim to immeasurable trauma of essentially infinite duration, permanently invading the victim’s autonomy and security.

The comparison of image exploitation to sexual assault is not novel. While it’s impossible to rank trauma, the United States Supreme Court noted that “[child] pornography poses an even greater threat to the child victim than does sexual abuse or prostitution.” The Court recognized that pornography perpetuates the child’s victimization: “[b]ecause the child’s actions are reduced to a recording, the pornography may haunt him in future years, long after the original misdeed took place.” Clinical research and anecdotal evidence support this finding. For example, one victim wrote the following impact statement:

image-exploitation-strategies15Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again. It hurts me to know someone is looking at them—at me—when I was just a little girl being abused for the camera. I did not choose to be there, but now I am there forever in pictures that people are using to do sick things. I want it all erased. I want it all stopped. But I am powerless to stop it just like I was powerless to stop my uncle…. My life and my feelings are worse now because the crime has never really stopped and will never really stop…. It’s like I am being abused over and over and over again.”

This perpetuity of harm exists with all forms of image exploitation, including adult victims who have been sexually assaulted and filmed, or where private images of the victim have been obtained through surreptitious, coercive, or abusive means and then shared with any number of individuals or the Internet. Even where images are consensually created and shared, victims can suffer perpetual embarrassment and invasion of privacy when those images are distributed without their knowledge or consent.

Despite the trauma suffered by victims of image exploitation, no jurisdiction currently has a comprehensive statute aimed at this type of crime; instead, certain types of image exploitation are addressed by a patchwork of criminal laws, many of which are aimed at the misuse of technology to victimize. When technology evolves faster than the law, prosecutors are challenged to hold offenders accountable under imperfect or untested laws, while continuing to combat the routine victim-blaming attitudes confronted in other crimes of violence against women. This STRATEGIES will identify relevant statutes applicable to the various forms of image exploitation and suggest strategies for prosecuting perpetrators under the available laws.

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