How Refuge campaign’s ‘surprise’ success changed a law tackling domestic abuse

Refuge successfully campaigned to make the threat of sharing intimate images a crime. As domestic abuse comes into the spotlight, could the charity's efforts hold lessons for other campaigners?

'The naked threat': took style of ransom note to raise awareness of intimate image abuse
'The naked threat': took style of ransom note to raise awareness of intimate image abuse

“It was like having a bucket of ice-cold water thrown over me. I felt so exposed and ashamed.”

Those are the chilling words of domestic-abuse survivor Natasha Saunders, who provided the voiceover for Refuge’s "The naked threat" campaign in 2020. Created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the ad shone a light on intimate image abuse – the act of sharing intimate images or videos of someone without their consent.

Saunders was blackmailed over intimate images, but when she went to the police they told her it was “only a crime if he actually shares them”. Yet the fear of those images being seen was enough to keep her tied even longer to her abuser.

Refuge’s campaign sought to help others like Saunders who faced a form of abuse often shrouded in silence. And the charity’s efforts paid off. In March, the government committed to amending the Domestic Abuse Bill to make threats to share intimate images a criminal offence – a change in the law that will protect millions of women from threats to share explicit imagery.

But the result of the campaign came as a surprise to Refuge’s team. “We went for it, but we didn’t think we’d get it,” Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at Refuge, says.

The campaign’s surprise success reflects how the conversation about domestic abuse is shifting during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also holds lessons for other social-issue campaigners.

Intimate image abuse is a relatively recent form of abuse that has come about with the rise of new social media and tech platforms. After launching a tech team several years ago, Refuge’s staff observed that those they were supporting “increasingly said they stayed with their partners longer than they wanted to because the partner told them they’d share intimate images or videos of them”, King explains: “The threat of those images and videos often keeps so many women trapped in their relationships, because they’re frightened of it being sent to their colleagues, family or friends.”

Not a crime

Research from Refuge found that 83% of women who have experienced threats to share sexually explicit photos said their mental health and wellbeing suffered as a result. But, according to the law, threatening to share such images was not a crime.

Refuge wanted to change that, so it enlisted the help of AMV to launch “an integrated campaign that achieved political awareness but also social awareness”, King says.

The first ad in "The naked threat" campaign took the style of a traditional ransom note, using a range of fonts to create menacing messages such as: “If you leave me I’ll send the kids a photo of mummy they’ll never forget.” The approach was meant to drive home “just how frightening having that threat held over you could be”, King points out.

The spot was created by Jack Smedley and George Hackforth-Jones. Refuge also partnered Cosmopolitan, which shared the campaign’s messages on its digital channels.

Alongside testimony from Saunders – whose abuser is now serving a 12-year jail sentence – the campaign featured former Love Island contestant Zara McDermott, who had intimate images shared without her consent on multiple occasions. McDermott spoke openly about her experiences and took a mobile billboard to the Houses of Parliament.

Second wave of campaigning

Refuge’s campaigning continued into 2021. The second wave of activity included a tactical social film, also made by AMV and starring Saunders, McDermott, actress Olivia Colman and former Conservative MP Baroness Nicky Morgan.

The film directly addressed UK home secretary Priti Patel, asking her to act now and change the law. It was widely shared on social media and Refuge asked its followers to tag Patel in their posts.

“An advisor told us that [Patel] really couldn’t ignore it because it had flooded her feeds,” King recalls. “That was a win.”

At the same time, Refuge targeted national press outlets, particularly Conservative-leaning publications such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, with tactical ads sharing its message. It also created a letter with which supporters could “flood the inboxes” of their MPs. More than 42,000 people wrote to MPs demanding a law change.

“We caused positive disruption,” King notes.

Following this campaigning, the government switched tack and confirmed this month that the law targeting intimate image abuse would be expanded to include threats to disclose intimate images. Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, chair of Refuge, said the move would “transform this country’s response to women and children who experience domestic abuse”.

“I’ve worked a long time at Refuge and I've never undertaken a campaign that’s been so effective,” King says. She credits the positive result to the team’s close collaboration, integrated approach and “clear goal and purpose”.

The shadow pandemic

But the campaign’s success may also be partly down to the timing, King suggests. The pandemic “has shone such a light on domestic abuse and people’s awareness of the subject matter is so much better than before”, she says.

Domestic abuse has skyrocketed globally during the coronavirus outbreak, with the United Nations describing it as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19. In the UK, for example, charities including Refuge have seen increased demand for their services and the police have reported a rise in incidents.

With the onset of the first lockdown, “we anticipated the rise of domestic-abuse cases and also an increase in the severity of domestic abuse given the bubbling hot pot of home life they would have had to live in,” King explains. “I worked night and day talking about domestic abuse and our services.”

King observed an increase in media coverage on domestic abuse during this period as the wider impacts of Covid-19 became clearer. And with people stuck at home and consuming more news, there was also a growing public awareness of the problem. “It’s been this kind of perfect storm that’s occurred,” she says. “People for the first time could sympathise with women about what it might be like to be a victim of domestic abuse. Women who are abused live a lifetime of lockdown.”

Increased awareness

If there is any positive to come out of the pandemic, King says it is the “utterly overwhelming” outpouring of support that Refuge has received from people who better understand the frightening reality of domestic abuse. “Domestic abuse, which has been something very taboo and uncomfortable for many people, has come out into the open,” she states.

King predicts that this increased awareness and understanding of domestic abuse will endure beyond lockdowns. However, even with the recent law change, Refuge’s work is far from over.

Calls to its helpline are still “significantly up” from the start of the pandemic, she says. Refuge has more campaigns in the works to educate people about other forms of domestic abuse, such as financial coercion.

More recently, the work of organisations such as Refuge has come under the spotlight again with the killing of Sarah Everard in south London earlier this month. Everard’s death has ignited a nationwide debate about women’s safety and galvanised campaigners demanding tougher action on violence against women.

One action that some campaigners have called for is further changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill. This week, the House of Lords voted for an amendment to the bill that would create a statutory duty to force serial stalkers and domestic-violence perpetrators to be put on a national register and closely monitored like sex criminals. On Wednesday (17 March) the government also said that police forces in England and Wales would be required to record misogyny as a hate crime.

“We can only hope that the loss of Sarah and the subsequent outcry from vast numbers of women in this country provides a watershed moment for policymakers and state agencies in this country,” King says. “We hope last week’s turn of horrific events will bring this huge issue into the spotlight and drive urgent change.”