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We need to criminalise image based sexual abuse now

Words: Katie Gartland

Thousands of intimate photos of Irish women and girls, shared without their consent, were discovered on social media platforms on Tuesday evening. At District, we want to highlight the atrocities of image based sexual abuse. We’ve spoken to the people involved about what happened this week and how this abuse can be stopped. 

The images were collated on multiple social media platforms by over five hundred male users in what was the largest sharing of private images without consent in Ireland. An underbelly of misogyny and objectification has once more been uncovered. Gardaí have said they’re making enquiries into the incident.

Dr Caroline West, a sexuality studies lecturer, writer and host of Glow West Podcast defined image-based sexual abuse as “the use of intimate images to cause deliberate harm to a person against their will”. She explained that it can come in many forms; photos could be shared from former relationships or taken without the person’s knowledge.

Editor’s Note: Please be advised that what follows is an account of image-based sexual abuse. If you have been affected by these issues a list of relevant support services can be found below:

Rape Crisis Helpline – 1800 778888
Women’s Aid/Safe Ireland – 1800 341 900
Childline (for under 18s) – 1800 666 666

In 2017, 36 year old Dara Quigley took her own life. She had been arrested under The Mental Health Act for public nudity. Later, CCTV footage of her was shared by a Garda online. Thousands of people viewed the footage and Dara, who was already vulnerable, took her own life. The Garda who shared the footage has not been prosecuted. Image based sexual abuse has incredibly serious consequences for victims. 

Katie Kilgannon, whose friends were affected by this week’s leak, told District how the situation unfolded. She explained that a man who used Mega, a cloud and file backup website, attempted to blackmail one of Katie’s friends with a folder of her nudes he had in his possession. Her friend searched on the website and found another file containing the 6,600 images. Some were taken from Only Fans, some were from other messaging apps and some had been created without the subjects’ knowledge. Some of the images were of children.

Running a search for the username of the blackmailer led them to his Discord account. Discord is an online messaging platform predominately used for gaming. Most of its users are young men and the group-chats that users communicate within are called servers. Crucial to this story is that Discord prioritises user privacy, it doesn’t monitor servers unless they are flagged. 

Katie explained that she and her friends found many servers containing nudes of Irish women and girls with names such as ‘Irish Sluts’, ‘Irish Whores’. “We found hundreds and hundreds of Discord servers… after a couple of hours of searching we found a particularly bad group called ’32 counties’.” In order to join the server, users were expected to share a nude with the woman or girls named attached.

Exchanging files is not about sexual gratification, it’s about having power over women and girls. Files included girls’ names and social media handles. Katie expressed that this information made it easy for her and her friends to contact victims but it also meant potential blackmailers could easily threaten the victims. Katie and the other women involved have been working tirelessly to access pages and contact victims of the abuse. 

She went on to describe how her friends had created burner accounts to access servers and create false male identities. “Some of the girls were very brave and shared their own nudes to earn respect and stay,” she sighed. 

She explained that the women are working on about 30 different image platforms, “all these Dropboxes, Google Drives and these Mega files… We’ve kind of stopped counting but there’s over 100,000 files, videos and images”.

Exchanging files is not about sexual gratification, it’s about having power over women and girls.

Some of the servers were dedicated to photos of children, they have found images of girls as young as fourteen. Other servers were filled with images and videos of non-consensual sexual acts, including rape and assault. 

“The scary thing is the average age of girls we’re contacting is between fifteen and twenty two,” Katie said. She praised the management behind Discord, saying they were a big help in taking down servers. 

“It’s important for people to realise that it’s not just Only Fans, it’s not just girls whose images had previously been leaked.That’s why I’m so angry and so vocal about it. Your consent has been taken away and there’s no way to tell.” 

According to Dr West, many women who have experienced image-based sexual abuse face mental health difficulties and victim-blaming. Some victims suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, others became suicidal. 

Misogyny and the objectification of women in Ireland is “ingrained in our culture”, expressed Dr West. “We need to have an absolute key change in Ireland about what we’re doing to women in this country and why men think it’s acceptable to engage in so many different forms of violence against women – whether that’s sexual violence, domestic violence, or whatever it happens to be,” she said.

We need to have an absolute key change in Ireland about what we’re doing to women in this country and why men think it’s acceptable to engage in so many different forms of violence against women.

Dr. Caroline West, Sexuality Studies Lecturer, DCU

After a mass leak of images, thousands of women and girls across the country have been sexually abused this week. Women have had their content hacked, they’ve been stolen from, blackmailed and coerced. The victims are not at fault for taking nudes. In order to change the systemic misogyny and objectification of women in Ireland, our society and legal system needs to shift. Coherent sex education in schools teaching about pornography and consent is necessary, Dr West stated. She went on to explain that young people need to learn about image based sexual abuse. They have to learn that “sharing these images is a form of sexual violence and you are a sexual perpetrator”.

We also need to enact legislation to criminalise image-based sexual abuse. A Bill is before the Oireachtas, but has been delayed since January of this year. There is currently a petition being circulated to enact the Bill immediately. Katie, along with The Victims Alliance and other activists have requested amendments to the Bill in light of what happened this week. These amendments would make it a criminal offence for someone to pass on a nude knowing that the owner did not give consent.

Thousands of Irish women and girls were dehumanised and objectified during this horrific incident. The perpetrators systematically and dispassionately violated the privacy of their victims. These women were dehumanised; reduced to social currency. They became evidence of status. And that was the point.  Furthermore, these men may never face any consequences due to Ireland’s lack of laws surrounding image-based sexual abuse. This has to change.

If you have been affected by these issues a list of relevant support services can be found below:

Rape Crisis Helpline – 1800 778888
Women’s Aid/Safe Ireland – 1800 341 900
Childline (for under 18s) – 1800 666 666