Abuse from Afar

Cyber intimate partner violence during COVID-19.

Posted Aug 02, 2020

According to the American Psychological Association, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased domestic violence in the U.S. and globally. Stay-at-home orders, closed organizations, and economic, social, and health hardships have increased people’s vulnerability to partner violence while decreasing prevention and intervention opportunities. News outlets and human rights organizations have recently brought sorely needed attention to the issue of victims “trapped” with their abusive partners. However, the risk of intimate partner violence during this crisis goes beyond in-person abuse.

Due to COVID-19, people of all backgrounds are rapidly adopting information and communication technologies. This surge in the use of online communications has also heightened the risk for cyber intimate partner violence. Cyber intimate partner violence is abuse or threats inflicted on a romantic partner through technology such as texts or social media (Watkins et al., 2018). This can include image-based sexual abuse, cyberstalking, cyberharassment, and more.

For example, calls to “revenge porn” hotlines have increased globally during COVID-19. A gendered form of image-based sexual abuse (Eaton et al., 2020), nonconsensual pornography (aka “revenge porn”) refers to when sexually explicit images are disclosed without consent and for no legitimate reason (Franks, 2018).

Anh Nguyen/Unsplash
Source: Anh Nguyen/Unsplash

Cyber intimate partner violence is associated with a variety of negative impacts to well-being, including psychological, social, health, and economic impacts (Lindsay et al., 2016; Ruvalcaba & Eaton, 2019). It also disproportionately affects women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable groups (Backe et al., 2018), further exacerbating inequalities during this crisis. To address the increase in cyber intimate partner violence at this time, both individual and structural solutions are necessary.

Individual supports for survivors

  • Responding to abusive and harassing messages is tempting, but it is unlikely to change the abuser’s behavior and may exacerbate the abuse.
  • Record and preserve all instances of abuse using screenshots, photos, etc. As abusers frequently deny their actions, having as much evidence of the abuse as possible is important for legal and other recourse. 
  • Report inappropriate behavior to relevant organizations, such as social media administrators.
  • Utilize online resources, such as HeartMob, an online support site for survivors of online harassment, and CCRI’s Crisis Helpline, 844-878-CCRI (2274), and website, which provide support to victims of image-based sexual abuse.

Structural change

  • Psychologists and other service providers interacting with victims of cyber intimate partner violence should take it as seriously as other forms of partner violence. It has many of the same devastating consequences, and the enduring and pervasive nature of cyber abuse can make it especially traumatic.
  • Psychologists are already advocating for emergency funding to address the needs of survivors of intimate partner violence in forthcoming COVID-19 relief legislation. These relief efforts should also include funding for cyber violence survivors and organizations tackling cyber violence.
  • Basic and applied research on cyber intimate partner violence during COVID-19 should be funded.
  • In a recently accepted paper in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, law professor Clare McGlynn and I argue that immediate action at the federal level is required to address cyber sexual violence. In particular, a law criminalizing all forms of nonconsensual distribution of intimate images is needed. Thanks to the tireless efforts of  CCRI and other victim advocates, a policy solution is already on the table: the SHIELD Act of 2019, based on the model statute developed by CCRI President Mary Anne Franks. Second, a broader legislative approach covering all breaches of sexual privacy should be developed and implemented.

Other resources


Backe, E. L., Lilleston, P., & McCleary-Sills, J. (2018). Networked individuals, gendered violence: A literature review of cyber violence. Violence and Gender, 5(3), 135–145. https://doi.org/10.1089/vio.2017.0056

Eaton, A. A., & McGlynn, C. (accepted for publication). The psychology of nonconsensual porn: Understanding and addressing a growing form of sexual violence. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Eaton, A. A., Noori, S., Bonomi, A., Stephens, D., & Gillum, T. (2020). Nonconsensual porn as a form of intimate partner violence: Using the Power and Control Wheel to understand nonconsensual porn perpetration in intimate relationships. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838020906533

Franks, M. A. (2018). Revenge Porn Reform: A View from the Front Lines, Florida Law Review, 69, 1251-1337.

Lindsay, M., Booth, J. M., & Messing, J. T. (2016). Experiences of online harassment among emerging adults: Emotional reactions and the mediating role of fear. Journal Interpersonal Violence, 31(3), 3174–3195. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515584344

Ruvalcaba, Y., & Eaton, A. A. (2019). Nonconsensual pornography among U.S. adults: A sexual scripts framework on victimization, perpetration, and health correlates for women and men. Psychology of Violence. https://doi.org/10.1037/vio0000233

Watkins, L. E., Maldonado, R. C., & DiLillo, D. (2018). The cyber aggression in relationships scale: A new multidimensional measure of technology-based intimate partner aggression. Assessment, 25(5), 608-626. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191116665696