Section: 5.1 Online abuse and harassment of women and girls

Image-based sexual abuse and Sextortion

Image-based sexual abuse and Sextortion

Image or video-based sexual abuse, often referred to as revenge porn, sextortion, or image-based abuse, involves the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

In 2014, The Economist1 reported that at least 3,000 porn websites had categories dedicated to this type of content. A 2020 survey2 by Refuge of 2,060 adults in England and Wales found that one in seven young women experienced threats to share their intimate images or videos, with one in four having experienced sexual abuse alongside threats to share. Seventy-two percent of these women were threatened by their current or ex-partner.

In New Zealand, image-based sexual abuse affects nearly 5% of adults annually, according to a 2019 report3 by Netsafe. The Harmful Digital Communications Act (2015) criminalises the sharing of intimate visual recordings without consent. Under this legislation, police need only prove that the content was shared without consent, without the requirement to demonstrate harm. If found guilty, offenders can face fines of up to $50,000 or up to two years in prison. This legal recognition underscores that non-consensual sharing of intimate images is a serious form of online sexual harassment and is punishable under the Harmful Digital Communications Act.

Netsafe's 2019 study3 into image-based sexual abuse surveyed 1,001 New Zealanders. The findings revealed that 5% of New Zealand adults had experienced image-based sexual abuse online and about 4% had received threats to share their intimate images and videos online. According to the study, both men and women were equally as likely to experience image-based sexual abuse online, but the nature of the experience was different.

The Netsafe study3 revealed that image-based sexual abuse was more common among young adults under 30, who were more likely to be females aged 18 to 29, individuals who identified as gender diverse or those identifying as Asian.

A 2020 summary report,4 based on a comprehensive cross-national survey conducted in 2019, analysed the experiences of image-based sexual abuse across the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. The survey involved 6,109 participants aged 16 to 64, with a nearly balanced gender distribution, including 2,027 New Zealanders.

(See AI-powered tools and the creation of deepfakes)

Here are the key insights from the study:

1. Prevalence of IBSA: Overall, 37.7% of respondents experienced at least one form of IBSA, with similar figures across the three countries. Specific experiences included unauthorised taking of nude or sexual images (33.2%), non-consensual sharing of such images (20.9%), and threats to share (18.7%).

In New Zealand, 39% of respondents reported experiencing some form of IBSA, aligning closely with figures from the United Kingdom but slightly higher than in Australia.

2. Differences by demographics: IBSA victimisation patterns varied significantly based on age, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Young adults aged 20 to 29 were the most frequently victimised, with half of the respondents aged 16 to 39 years reporting some form of IBSA compared to a quarter of those aged 40 to 64 years. LGBTQI+ respondents and indigenous Australians reported significantly higher rates of abuse compared to their heterosexual and non-indigenous counterparts, respectively.

Among those affected by IBSA, Māori respondents were particularly affected, with 28.4% having experienced all three surveyed forms of IBSA (taking, sharing, and threatening to share intimate images), compared to 13.9% of non-Māori respondents.

3. Impact and fear: Women were more likely than men to report feeling unsafe due to IBSA perpetrated by the same individual who had previously abused them. Women also more frequently reported multiple forms of abuse from the same perpetrator.

In New Zealand, the emotional impact of IBSA was higher among Māori and younger individuals.

4. Perpetrators’ behaviours: Respondents who admitted to perpetrating IBSA often shared images on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as through email and mobile messaging. Younger respondents (16–39 years) were more likely to engage in such behaviours compared to older adults (40–64 years). The majority of image-based sexual abuse victims identified the perpetrator as either a current or former partner (60.9%) or another known person (28.5%). Victimisation by strangers or unknown individuals was relatively less common, accounting for only 10.6% of cases.

5. Gender disparities in perpetration: The data also revealed a distinct gender disparity in perpetration: approximately one in five men (22.3%) admitted to engaging in at least one form of image-based sexual abuse, compared to one in eight women (13.1%).

A significant portion of IBSA is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, often a current or former partner, highlighting the use of IBSA as a form of control or revenge in personal relationships.

A qualitative study5 in 2021 examined this issue using friendship group interviews involving 106 young people, aged 12 to 16, from three schools in New Zealand. The participants were from different ethnic groups, including Māori, Pākehā, Pacific, Indian and Asian. The study found that young men were more likely to request or pressure young women into creating and sending their images and were more likely to share these images without consent. Social media platforms and groups such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger were commonly used to distribute these images. The findings highlighted that the non-consensual sharing of these images caused disproportionate harm to the girls involved. Moreover, the victims were blamed for creating and sharing these images consensually, adding to their trauma. Their experiences were often dismissed as dramatic, overly sensitive, or hysterical. The shift of blame from the perpetrator to the victim, along with the trivialisation of women’s and girls’ experiences of image-based sexual abuse, contributes to normalising misogyny as a response to sexual violence.

IBSA has profound effects on victims' mental health and wellbeing, with many reporting increased levels of stress, anxiety, and in some cases, physical safety concerns. The abuse leads to significant emotional distress, often causing victims to change their behaviour online and offline.

Research shows that image-based sexual abuse has severe consequences for victims. Another qualitative study published in 2022,6 which involved semi-structured interviews with 25 victim-survivors of IBSA, mostly young women, showed that participants who experienced IBSA faced emotional trauma, mental health issues, constant fear and lack of trust towards others. They also feared that others would not believe them when they shared their experiences. Moreover, they faced blame for the abuse and received negative reactions, which led to feelings of shame and isolation. Some participants emphasised the need for a wider recognition of image-based sexual abuse as a form of gender-based violence.

Many survivors fear that their experiences will not be taken seriously or believed by others, which can deter them from seeking help or speaking out.

Under the spotlight: Sextortion

The severity of sextortion impacts is highlighted by reports of suicides linked to these crimes, particularly among young males, illustrating the devastating emotional and mental health consequences.

Sextortion is a form of organised blackmail where perpetrators threaten to release explicit images or information unless a victim pays a ransom. This can lead to significant financial loss and severe emotional trauma for the victims.

A 2020 study7 conducted by Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja surveyed 5,569 middle and high school students aged 12-17 across the US. The study found that 5% of these students reported being victims of sextortion, while 3% confessed to threatening someone with the exposure of intimate images. The data indicated that males and non-heterosexual youth were more frequently both victims and perpetrators of sextortion. Additionally, the study highlighted a general reluctance among youth to seek help from adults, with females slightly more likely than males to reach out for assistance, though overall confidence in adults' ability to effectively intervene was notably low.

Research shows that scammers typically initiate contact on mainstream social media platforms before moving conversations to more secure messaging services to evade detection. This method helps them maintain anonymity while continuing their fraudulent activities.

A 2023 study8 by Matthew Edwards and Nick Hollely on online sextortion, based on over 23,000 victim reports collected by Scam Survivors, revealed consistent patterns in online perpetrator tactics despite evolving communication platforms. While the platforms for initial contact with victims have diversified from social media to dating apps, the methods of extortion remain standardised. Payment demands, once centralised to specific services, are now spreading across various platforms, suggesting a growing challenge for enforcement efforts.

In New Zealand, sextortion cases have increased in the last few years, with Netsafe9 reporting a 237% increase in 2023 compared to the previous year, totalling 1,707 incidents. Typically, scammers initiate contact through popular platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, or Tinder, and quickly move the conversation to secure messaging apps like WhatsApp. This tactic allows them to keep their main accounts active for targeting new victims. The scam involves the exchange of intimate images, which the scammer then uses to threaten the victim with exposure unless a payment is made.

Victims of sextortion10 reported to Netsafe range from ages 10 to over 65. From 2022 to 2023, there was a 44% increase in reports from individuals aged 21 and under, and since 2019, there has been an 88% overall increase in sextortion reports. Males predominantly report these incidents, though females are also significantly affected. In a 2023 Stuff article,11 the Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand team (OCEANZ), noted that police first began to see reports of sextortion in New Zealand in late 2021. On average 53 reports a month have been made to police between December 2022 and June.

Experts told the New Zealand Herald that sextortion in New Zealand is reaching epidemic levels, with young males most at risk, often blackmailed for money over content they believed was shared with young women who later revealed themselves as scammers.

According to the New Zealand Police,12 between 2022 and 2023 New Zealand authorities have received nearly 5000 additional referrals from the Cyber Tipline. These include instances of sextortion, and child sexual abuse being posted online and sent via private messages.

Further highlighting the severity of the issue, a 2024 New Zealand Herald article13 referenced a Bloomberg investigation that linked several suicides in the U.S. to sextortion, prompting social media giant Meta to trial new AI technology to blur intimate images to combat this abuse.

Further reading

Studies and reports: Image-based sexual abuse and Sextortion


We understand that this research could be confronting or upsetting for some readers. If you or someone you know needs to talk:

  • Free call Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843 for support for women and children experiencing family violence.
  • Visit Netsafe to complete an online form to report any online safety issues or free call 0508 638 723 for support.
  • Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
  • Free call Youthline 0800 376 633 or text 234 to talk with someone from a safe and youth-centred organisation.
  • Free call Safe to Talk 0800 044 334 or text 4334 anytime for support about sexual harm.
  • Free call OutLine Aotearoa 0800 688 5463 any evening to talk to trained volunteers from Aotearoa's rainbow communities.