How do revenge porn laws work in England & Wales?

This is an overview of the major laws in England and Wales related to non-consensual pornography (revenge porn) and online harassment. Other laws may apply. 

This is not legal advice. If you want to consult us about your situation, please be in touch. We’ll be happy to advise you about your own case in detail. 

REVENGE PORNOGRAPHY

Revenge pornography, also called non-consensual pornography or image-based sexual abuse, is basically the distribution of intimate images without the consent of the person depicted.  

Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015

This law makes distributing intimate images without consent a crime in England and Wales. It prohibits sharing, or threatening to share, private sexual images of someone else without their consent and with the intent to cause distress or embarrassment to that person. The person whose images were shared must show that he or she did not agree to this, and that the sender intended to cause those feelings of distress or embarrassment. If the case is successful, the perpetrator may go to jail for up to two years and be fined. 

CHILD PORNOGRAPHY

It is illegal to take or make any “indecent” images of a child (someone under 18), to distribute these images, or to have them in your possession.

Protection of Children Act 1978 and Criminal Justice Act 1988

The Protection of Children Act 1978 prohibits taking, distributing, possessing or publishing indecent photographs of someone under 18.  

Even if the images were taken with your consent when you were under 18, they are child pornography, and remain so forever. In addition to criminal prosecution, you may be able to sue the person responsible for taking them for monetary damages. 
 
Possessing an indecent photograph of a child is also prohibited under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. 

The Crown Prosecution Service advises prosecutors to exercise caution when considering cases of “sexting” that involve images of children under 18. When a child under 18 takes an explicit image of themself and sends it to someone, they are taking and distributing child pornography and the recipient then possesses child pornography, even when the recipient is also under 18. Though making, sending, receiving and possessing the underage image each violates the Protection of Children Act 1978, prosecution is not considered appropriate in all cases. While exploitation, bullying, and grooming will generally warrant prosecution, prosecutors do not normally find it to be in the public interest to go after a consensual sharing between two children of a similar age who are in a relationship. 

UPSKIRTING

Upskirting is when someone photographs or records images of underneath someone else’s clothing, without permission, to view genitals or buttocks. 

Voyeurism Act 2019 

The Voyeurism Act, which became law in April 2019, prohibits someone from operating equipment beneath the clothing of someone else to see or record genitals, buttocks, or underwear covering those areas. The areas must otherwise not be visible, the images must be taken without consent, and the intent of the person taking the images must be to obtain sexual gratification or to cause humiliation, alarm or distress.

HARASSMENT AND STALKING

Below is a summary of the laws in England and Wales commonly applicable when someone is being harassed or stalked.  

Protection from Harassment Act 1997 

This law prohibits conduct that causes someone to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them. It also prohibits stalking, which includes monitoring the use of someone’s internet, email, or any other electronic communication, and watching or spying on someone. 
 
This law both makes this conduct a crime and gives victims the chance to sue perpetrators in civil court. This may be possible if the conduct is repeated (on two or more occasions) and causes the victim to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed. Victims can seek an injunction to stop the unwanted conduct immediately, including the non-consensual pornography, and later sue the perpetrator for money. 

Malicious Communications Act 1988 

This law prohibits the sending of a communication, for example a letter or electronic communication, that conveys a highly offensive message, a threat, or information which is believed to be false by the sender, with the intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient. It is generally used for cases involving private emails, rather than public sharing sites like social media.

Communications Act 2003 

This law prohibits sending information through a “public electronic communications network” that is highly offensive, or indecent or obscene in character, or a false message, in order to cause annoyance, inconvenience, or anxiety. It is generally used for public sharing sites, like social media, instead of private emails.

Serious Crime Act 2015

When there is an intimate or family relationship, this law prohibits controlling or coercive conduct that has a ‘serious effect’ on the person being controlled. The perpetrator’s conduct has a serious effect when it causes fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used, or when it causes serious alarm and distress that has a significant negative effect on the victim’s usual activities.

BLACKMAIL AND EXTORTION – ‘SEXTORTION’

In non-consensual pornography cases, perpetrators often threaten to reveal an intimate image unless you send them more images or money. This is blackmail. ‘Sextortion’ is the phrase commonly used for this form of blackmail relating to sexual images/videos.   

Theft Act 1968

The Theft Act 1968 prohibits perpetrators from making a threatening and unwarranted demand to get something from their target. An example of this is demanding money or additional intimate images in return for not distributing an intimate image. 

PRIVACY VIOLATIONS

Disclosing embarrassing private information, or using someone’s name or picture for private advantage, can be illegal.  

Data Protection Act 2018

This law defines images of people related to their sexual life as “sensitive personal data” and entitles the person in the images to stop anyone from processing this data if it is causing or likely will cause substantial damage or distress. If this law has been violated, the victim can request an injunction to prevent further viewing of the image and sue for money. This only applies to business defendants, not individuals. 

European Convention on Human Rights

Privacy rights are protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Under this Convention, when a person receives any personal information from someone else in confidence or in a confidential context (for example, sending an intimate image to your partner), there is a duty to not disclose this information to a third party without the person’s consent. 
 
The misuse of private information occurs when there is no confidential relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, but the victim’s private information is spread by the perpetrator. An example of this is when a celebrity’s intimate images are obtained by hacking and then distributed. 
 
Courts are required to balance privacy rights against other rights, such as freedom of expression. 

DEFAMATION

Defamation is a false statement that hurts your reputation made to a third party.  

Defamation Act 2013

This law prohibits the publication of false information that causes serious harm to the victim’s reputation. In the non-consensual pornography context, defamation is often not applicable because the images are real. However, “doxxing,” making false claims about the victim, or deepfakes may constitute defamation. 

You automatically get copyright protection when you create an original work; this includes artwork, images and writings, video, and photography – including a naked selfie.  
Copyright protection prevents people from copying and reproducing others work without their permission.  

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

In the non-consensual pornography context, you will generally be protected by copyright if you took the intimate image yourself. Because that makes you the author of the photograph, it is automatically copyrighted. This means that you can send a “takedown notice” to a website that is hosting it, informing them that a particular image is copyrighted. 

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