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Online Sexual Violence, Child Pornography or Something Else Entirely? Police Responses to Non-Consensual Intimate Image Sharing among Youth

The rise of social media and an ever-connected lifestyle offers new opportunities for socialization and intimacy. Unfortunately, these opportunities also present new ways for youth to engage in online sexual violence. One form of online sexual violence that has been getting a lot of attention is non-consensual intimate image sharing. In Canada, the distribution of an intimate image of a person without consent is a criminal offence. The distribution of intimate images of a person under the age of 18 is also an offense, as it constitutes child pornography. This can create delicate situations for police officers responding to complaints of non-consensual distribution where the persons involved are minors. There are multiple cases of Canadian courts charging underage non-consensual distributors of intimate images of other minors with child pornography offenses. However, little is known of the experiences of police officers who must respond to such issues.

Dodge and Spencer were interested in police interpretations and responses to non-consensual intimate image sharing among Canadian youth. They conducted 70 individual interviews and two focus groups with members of sex-crime-related units in police organizations from 2014 to 2016. The researchers selected participants from police organizations in a way that reflected the varied urban landscapes of Canada. The interview questions covered various open-ended topics, such as: their experiences with investigating sex crimes, the use of technology, and their perceptions of the criminal justice system in response to sex crimes.

Police officers appear to find child pornography charges inappropriately harsh for cases of underage nonconsensual intimate image sharing. According to many participants, child pornography charges were not designed for offenses occurring between minors. Some officers also mentioned that intimate image sharing, whether consensual or non-consensual, is commonplace and normalised among youth. Therefore, child pornography charges would overly criminalise far too many youths.

The majority of officers interviewed did not mention the non-consensual intimate image sharing law as an alternative to a child pornography charge. According to some participants, a victim’s parents or school personnel may push for the use of criminal charges. In contrast, some officers describe the reaction of the victims themselves as not wanting to criminalize their peers.

Most officers seemed to prefer using their discretion to determine what they consider to be the best possible alternative response. Forms of police officer discretion varied from using scare-tactics to instill fear in youth, to educating youth about the law or providing school officials with educational material and information. While education may be a positive alternative response, certain officers voiced ideas surrounding online sexual violence that were problematic. Some participants expressed views that effectively placed blame on the victims of non-consensual intimate image sharing. These officers seemed more focused on changing the behavior of victims who consensually created these intimate images instead of the behavior of the perpetrators who non-consensually shared the images. These responses may shame youth for creating intimate content and discourage victims from seeking support.

There is a need to better define the difference between consensual and non-consensual intimate image sharing among youth. Proactive educational approaches that recognize the importance of privacy and sexual consent and refrain from blaming victims of non-consensual intimate image sharing should be privileged. These types of alternative, non-criminal responses may also help officers with the additional legal burden posed by an increase in online sexual violence among youth.

There seems to be a space where laws for non-consensual intimate image sharing and child pornography overlap leaving police officers exercising discretion without clear guidance.