Thousands of women and young girls in Ireland have this week been subjected to a profound violation of their dignity and private life following the leak of explicit sexual images – including both adults and children – onto the internet. This is just the latest example of the rise of image-based sexual abuse, sometimes referred to as “revenge porn”.

As there are no laws in Ireland that deal specifically with this type of exploitative activity, victims have been left without recourse or support, which sadly, is a common occurrence across the world. Even in England and Wales where we have specific laws that punish what is now considered criminal activity, victims have reported being left feeling helpless, uncared for, and dismissed.

Although legislative change is currently being debated in Ireland, as Professor Clare McGlynn, expert on sexual violence and pornography states regarding the new legislative protections being proposed:

“The offences require proof that the acts of non-consensual taking/sharing ‘seriously interfere with the peace and privacy of the other person’, or proof of actual alarm, distress or harm. How is ‘serious interference with peace and privacy’ to be proven? If [they are] shared with [a] small number of people it’s not serious? As this abuse is often minimised and trivialised, is there a risk it won’t be seen as a ‘serious interference’?”

Indeed, this is also the issue in England and Wales where any non-consensual sharing of images falls within the law only if it is based upon “the intention of causing that individual distress”. Proving intent to cause distress can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, which is reflected in the meagre prosecution levels for such crimes, despite the prevalence of them being on the rise.

CEASE UK urge any Government intending to get to grips with image-based sexual abuse, a rapidly out-of-control issue, to look beyond criminalising people who share the images to one of its fundamental drivers: the unchecked growth of the exploitative and abusive porn industry.

Research demonstrates that porn use instils feelings of sexual entitlement in users, and this evidently extends to the assumed right of unfettered access to private – and often illegal – images. In no time at all following last week’s leak, the images became top searches on Pornhub. Doesn’t this provide an insight into the minds of Pornhub users, who seemingly have little regard for the privacy, welfare, and dignity of those who have been exploited.

This is not a unique example; Pornhub has built its brand and market status on videos of exploitative, illegal, and sexually violent content. All of which is available at the click of a button, for free. This has created a vicious cycle where any sexually explicit content – whether it is illegally obtained or not – becomes “fair game” for those who have had feelings of sexual entitlement normalised through previous porn consumption.

Then, due to the escalating nature of porn use, once this content has served its purpose, users move on to often more extreme “genre” that will provide ever-increasing levels of stimulation they need to maintain arousal. But these are not genres: these are peoples’ lives. Just as other “categories” such as “Ebony Babes” or “Japanese” are nothing more than abhorrent racist stereotypes that play on and encourage pre-existing prejudices, normalising extremely violating, invasive, and abusive activities such as sharing images and videos of individuals without their consent has a real world impact.

In tackling the explosion of this material, the Irish Government (and our own) need to consider exactly why this type of thing happens in the first place. Simply put, many individuals do not perceive the harm involved in sharing and viewing non-consensually obtained pornography.

CEASE UK urges these governments to grasp the nettle, and to listen to organisations and activists who demonstrate that pornography is a facilitator and normaliser of violence against women and girls – which indeed the non-consensual sharing of their images is.  The porn industry has shown it is not interested in regulating itself in any meaningful way.So it must fall to Governments to implement educational and legal frameworks that prevent non-consensual images from being shared, while of course offering recourse for victims who are subjected to this.

Image-based sexual abuse hasn’t sprung up from nothing, and it will only get worse unless it is tackled appropriately. Let the time to do that be now.