In addition to the definitions written below, a similar overview is offered in CCRI’s Coffee Chat on Terminology.
Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA): This umbrella term was coined by Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law at Durham University, and Erika Rackley and includes the “non-consensual creation and/ or distribution of private, sexual images,” including forms of voyeurism and sextortion, or recordings of sexual assaults and sextortion.
Other frequently used terms include cyber sexual abuse or cyber sexual violence.
Nonconsensual Distribution of Intimate Images (NDII) refers to the distribution of private, sexually explicit images of individuals without their consent. This includes both images originally obtained without consent (e.g. by hacking phones, using hidden cameras, or recording sexual assaults) as well as images that were originally consensually obtained (e.g., within the context of an intimate relationship) and later distributed without consent.
NDII is frequently referred to by the misleading term “revenge porn,” and CCRI discourages the use of this label. This is because the word “revenge” suggests that the victim-survivor did something to cause the violation of their intimate privacy. This inappropriately places blame on the victim, instead of the offender. Further, the phrase “revenge porn” erases situations where the offender is motivated not by personal grievance, but instead seeks financial gain, social status, gratification of voyeuristic impulses, entertainment, or simply fails to consider the victim-survivor’s humanity at all. Many perpetrators are not motivated by revenge or by any personal feelings toward the victim.
NDII is also sometimes referred to as Nonconsensual Intimate Imagery (NCII) or as Nonconsensual Pornography (NCP).
Synthetic NDII refers to visual material that is digitally manipulated using machine learning algorithms to make it appear that a person is nude, partially nude, or engaged in sexual conduct. The image, however, is not “real.
Synthetic NDII is often referred to as “deepfakes” imagery and sometimes as “digital forgeries.”
Sextortion or sexual extortion is the threat to distribute an individual’s real or synthetic intimate material without that person’s consent if the person does not comply with certain demands. The offender typically attempts to coerce someone to pay money, send more nude or sexually explicit images, perform sex acts, stay in an abusive relationship, relinquish custody of children, or some other act that is against that person’s wishes.
For further details, see our CCRI Bulletin on Sextortion Scams here.
Child sexual exploitation/abuse material (CSEM or CSAM) is a visual depiction of an individual 18 years or younger who is nude, partially nude, or engaged in sexual conduct, even if that individual is now an adult.
*Please note that the information provided on CCRI’s website is primarily intended for adult victims and survivors of image-based sexual abuse. In the United States, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is the best source of assistance for minors.
Image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) can inflict serious, immediate, and often irreparable harm on victims and survivors, including mental, physical, financial, academic, social, and reputational harm.
IBSA can greatly endanger the physical and mental safety, health, and wellness of victims and survivors. Those targeted by IBSA may be threatened with physical and sexual assault; stalked online and at their homes and workplaces; and harassed both online and offline. They also report a range of health burdens, from headaches and sleeplessness to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation. Tragically, some victims of IBSA have died by suicide.
Victims and survivors of IBSA may also face extreme financial risks. Their career opportunities may diminish if they miss school days, transfer institutions, or discontinue their education. They might receive reduced income due to missed workdays, job termination, or lost opportunities for new employment or promotions.
Other extreme financial costs include housing relocation; fees for lawyers, therapists, security services, or reputation management services that monitor and remove images; and costs for new technology, including new digital devices or home security systems. Victims of sextortion may also be coerced by the perpetrator into making significant financial payments.
Additionally, some victims and survivors experience reduced moral support from family, friends, significant others, and their community. They may also encounter stigma or blame for the abuse, both by wider society and their personal support networks.
A perpetrator can upload an explicit image of a victim-survivor to a website where countless strangers can view it and countless other websites can share it. In a matter of days, that image can dominate the first several pages of search engine results for the victim’s name. Intimate material can be emailed, texted, or otherwise exhibited to the victim’s family, employers, co-workers, and peers.
While takedown request forms, copyright protections, and resources like the CCRI Safety Center and StopNCII.org exist, completely removing NDII from the internet is challenging, and sometimes not possible. This is particularly difficult when imagery is disseminated on platforms with end-to-end encryption or when the content is cropped, filtered, or otherwise modified during the redistribution.
CCRI’s landmark 2017 nationwide study revealed that 1 in 20 adult social media users in the U.S. either committed or attempted to commit NDII and that men perpetrated IBSA (7.26%) at significantly higher rates than women (3.29%).
Perpetrators may range from hackers to coworkers, university peers, online acquaintances, or complete strangers. IBSA is also a common form of domestic abuse, as abusers threaten to expose intimate images to prevent a partner from exiting a relationship, reporting abuse, or obtaining custody of children. IBSA is also a tool of sex traffickers, who use compromising images to trap unwilling individuals in the sex trade. Perpetrators might also misrepresent the material as consensual and upload it onto adult content websites to earn revenue. In some instances, rapists, or bystanders of rape, record images of sexual assaults.
Financial sextortion scams are frequently perpetrated by domestic and international criminals who target unsuspecting users, typically on social media, live-streaming services, chatting apps, and email. For further details, see our CCRI Bulletin on Sextortion Scams here.
In 2022, Florida International University and CCRI conducted research that indicated that perpetrators of sextortion were most often reported as “a stranger” or “someone I met online” (38%) and “current or former romantic partner” (38%).
CCRI’s 2017 nationwide study found that 1 in 12 American adult social media users were victims of NDII and 1 in 8 were threatened with NDII.
The same study revealed that those who self-identified as women were significantly more likely (about 1.7 times as likely) to have been targets of NDII compared to those who self-identified as men. While IBSA affects both women and men, evidence to date indicates that the majority of victims are women, and that women victims often face more serious consequences as a result of victimization. IBSA – like domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment – thus disproportionately harms women and undermines gender equality.
Notably, however, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of male victims, specifically in financial sextortion scams. For further details, see our CCRI Bulletin on Sextortion Scams here.
Following our 2017 study, CCRI and Florida International University collaborated on what may be the nation’s first large-scale, peer-reviewed research on sextortion during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research was funded by the National Science Foundation, and the first article was published in Victims & Offenders journal in January 2022. These findings revealed that those who experienced sexual intimate partner violence (IPV) prior to the pandemic were more at risk for sextortion during the pandemic. Of those who previously experienced sexual IPV:
- Native Alaskan and Indigenous North American women were 6.77 times more likely than white women to experience sextortion during the pandemic.
- African American women were 7.33 times more likely than white women to experience sextortion during the pandemic.
The same research revealed that those who faced sexual intimate partner violence (IPV) before the pandemic and identified as bisexual (8.9%) or lesbian (7.1%) reported highest rates of sextortion. This observation aligned with CCRI’s earlier 2017 study, which showed that 17.9% of bisexual women reported having been targets of NDII, a higher rate than any other group surveyed. Preliminary analysis from the 2017 study also revealed that respondents who identified as gay men and bisexual men appeared to be at great risk, though additional research is needed.
Last, findings also showed that participants aged 18–29 were most likely to report sextortion victimization during the pandemic, at 5.4%.
In 2013, when CCRI began its work, only three U.S. states had criminal laws directly applicable to NDII. As of August 2023, that number is 48 states, plus Washington, D.C., and the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico.
But there are extreme variations across jurisdictions in the definition, classification, and remedies for this crime, which leaves victims and survivors at the mercy of a confusing patchwork of laws. Because NDII often involves online distribution or other activity that crosses state lines, it can be difficult to prosecute as a state matter.
Additionally, many state laws wrongly treat NDII as a form of harassment rather than as a privacy violation, prohibiting the abuse only when the perpetrator has a personal desire to hurt the victim. That means that perpetrators who are motivated by profit, voyeurism, a desire for social status, or any other reason are able to commit this abuse with impunity.
Some states include sextortion in their NDII laws, while others have distinct statutes for sextortion. For a comprehensive list of state laws, please see here.
Yes. State criminal laws are necessary to address conduct that does not cross state lines or implicate interstate commerce. Federal law is necessary because state laws are limited both by jurisdiction and by the Communications Decency Act §230, which creates high hurdles for both civil and criminal charges against website operators who host NDII. The Internet has greatly facilitated the production and distribution of NDII, and federal criminal law is the most effective and appropriate means of addressing interstate crimes. The special immunity that §230 currently provides against state criminal laws and tort claims does not apply to violations of federal criminal law.
No. Courts have overwhelmingly concluded that state NDII laws are constitutional. In every single case involving a First Amendment challenge to an NDII law, the law has been found constitutional. This includes the state law that most closely resembles the SHIELD Act, the Illinois “Non-consensual dissemination of private sexual images” statute (720 ILCS 5/11-23.5). In October 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Austin v. Illinois, letting stand the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that the Illinois law is a constitutionally permissible protection of the right to intimate privacy and providing the strongest possible indication that NDII laws raise no significant constitutional issues.
It is also important to underscore that criminal laws are commonly used to protect privacy, including criminal laws against unauthorized disclosures of private financial or medical information as well as laws against trespass and voyeurism. Just as criminal laws protecting financial, medical, and other forms of privacy are compatible with the First Amendment, so are laws protecting intimate privacy.
No. As mentioned above, every state law that has been challenged on First Amendment grounds to date has been found constitutional, including laws that do not require an intent to harass or cause distress provision.
Criminal laws generally require intent in order to be constitutional: a person must intend, on some level, to commit a bad act. In the case of NDII, as with other privacy violations, the prohibited act is the intentional disclosure of private material without consent.
While “intent to harass,” “intent to cause distress,” and “intent to harm” clauses sound like intent requirements, they are in fact motive requirements. Motive requirements are not required for a criminal law to be constitutional; in fact, singling out particular motives can actually create constitutional vulnerabilities. In the case of privacy violations, the motive for disclosure is generally irrelevant – it is consent, not intent, that matters. A person who engages in NDII to make money or to provide “entertainment” has caused no less harm than a person who does so out of vindictiveness.Another issue that causes confusion is that the term “revenge porn,” as discussed above, is often used to describe NDII. Revenge porn, however, is not a legal or technical term, and it creates the false impression that all or even most cases involve personal vengeance. While some cases do involve domestic abusers attempting to control or punish their current or former intimate partners, in many cases the perpetrator does not know the victim at all. In 2017, CCRI conducted a nationwide study of adult social media users, and found that nearly 80% of perpetrators did not act with the intent to harm. Similar to other privacy violations, whether the perpetrator intends to harm the victim-survivor or not is irrelevant to the harm caused.
- Individuals distributing private, intimate photos stolen from celebrities’ hacked accounts in the hopes of obtaining Bitcoin or elevating their social status;
- A California Highway Patrol officer passing around intimate pictures obtained from a female arrestee’s cellphone as part of a “game” among officers;
- Fraternity brothers uploading photos of unconscious, naked women to a members-only Facebook page for entertainment purposes;
- Male Marines sharing nude photos of their female colleagues without consent in secret Facebook groups;
- Revenge-porn site owners like Hunter Moore and Craig Brittain publishing thousands of private, sexually explicit private images for profit and entertainment.
Yes. Image-based sexual abuse is a particularly destructive and serious invasion of privacy. Compared to many other types of conduct traditionally punished by criminal law – e.g. theft, drug possession, destruction of property – the harm IBSA causes is often far more severe, lasting, and irremediable. Given this impact, every reasonable effort must be made to prevent IBSA from occurring in the first place, and CCRI’s 2017 nationwide study revealed that criminal penalties offer the most potential for deterrence.
In addition to criminal penalties, deterrence measures should also include proactive and prosocial awareness-raising efforts. To that end, CCRI offers trainings and presentations for universities, direct service organizations, state health coalitions, and many other community groups. We hope that public safety and public health institutions will similarly pursue every effort to disseminate public service announcements and other awareness-raising campaigns in order to educate community members about consent and deter perpetration.
While civil remedies for NDII (such as copyright actions or remedies under the federal civil provision addressing NDII passed in 2022) are extremely important, they are often costly, time-consuming, and draw further attention to the exposed material. Most suits stand little chance of success because so many defendants are judgment-proof – that is, they don’t have the financial resources to satisfy a judgment. Victim-survivors can only bring copyright claims if they are the person who took the picture or video in question, which is often not the case. Additionally, copyright claims primarily address financial losses stemming from intellectual property, and do not address the emotional harm to victim-survivors.
Most laws prohibiting stalking and harassment often only apply if the victim can meet the heavy burden of showing that NDII was part of a pattern of conduct directed at the victim with intent to cause distress or harm. Such laws will not reach perpetrators careful enough to only disclose intimate material once or those motivated by a desire for money or notoriety rather than revenge.
First, it is important to note that explicit images are often created or obtained without the knowledge or consent of the victims: through theft, hacking, hidden cameras, or recorded sexual abuse. Moreover, synthetic (“deepfake”) NDII makes it possible to create sexually explicit material of people who have never actually created or shared depictions of themselves nude or engaged in sexual conduct.
Second, sharing sensitive information with other people is a very common practice. Restaurant customers give their credit cards to wait staff; patients give their sensitive health information to doctors. People who abuse the entrustment of private information often face criminal penalties. Private sexual information deserves no less protection than private financial or health information.
NDII is not an inevitable outcome of consensual, adult sexual activity. The person who trusts another individual with sensitive information is not to blame for the exploitation of that trust. “Don’t take naked pictures” is no more a solution to NDII than “don’t get in a car” is a solution to hit and runs.
No, for the same reason that rape laws do not promote the idea that sex is shameful. Rather, such laws promote the idea that women’s – and men’s – bodies are their own, and cannot be used sexually without their consent.
Please share the CCRI Safety Center with your friends, family, workplace, university, community group, or any setting where our step-by-step guide could benefit potential IBSA targets.
If you see NDII online and feel uncertain about what to do, know that you have the potential to drive positive culture change and promote a safer internet. See our guide, Empowering The Bystander, here.
If you would like to help us raise awareness about IBSA, you can request a speaker for your company or community group. Kindly note that due to high demand, we are unable to fulfill each request.
Businesses can offer in-kind contributions to CCRI, and licensed professionals are eligible to be listed in CCRI’s rosters for legal and mental health services to victims ad survivors. Should you or your company wish to explore these opportunities, kindly visit our page here.
You can also help CCRI combat IBSA and continue our important programs and operations by making a financial gift here.
CCRI is a very small organization with limited volunteer and career opportunities. When available, they can be found here.
Please visit the CCRI Safety Center, which includes information and resources, as well as a step-by-step guide for victims and survivors of NDII, synthetic NDII, and sextortion. Additionally, this CCRI Bulletin offers information for targets of financial sextortion scams.
If you are outside of the United States, this roster of organizations may be most helpful for you.
Remember, the information provided on CCRI’s website is primarily intended for adult victims and survivors of IBSA. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is the best source of assistance for minors who were under 18 in the image or video, even if they are over 18 today.
If you would like to share any part of these FAQs, we ask that you please provide proper attribution. Our recommended citation is Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, Frequently Asked Questions, 2023.