Similarity between Non-Consensual Sharing of Images and Sexual Assault: Questions about the Construct Validity of PTSD

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Michael J. Perrotti, PhD.

Klein and Zaleski (2018) conducted research on classifying the non-consensual sharing of images as sexual assault. The authors conducted a qualitative analysis on issues focused on the intersection of sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence, including revenge porn. They note that victims do feel trauma secondary to revenge porn, viz, shame, post-traumatic stress. They further note that post-assault symptoms associated with a sexual assault such as shame, self-blame, psychophysiological symptom, and hypervigilance also pertain to an individual who has had sexual images shared in a non-consensual way. Researchers at USC School of Social Work note similar symptomatology produced by both revenge porn and sexual assault survivors, viz, loss of trust, self-blame, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideas, and PTSD.

This author has conducted forensic and clinical assessments on patients who are victims of non-consensual sharing of sexual images. In the cases of these patients, although the target events for PTSD, viz, a victim of a violent event or witnessing a violent event are not met, these patients display many of the symptoms of PTSD, viz, hypervigilance, intrusive, repetitive thoughts, triggering of events in the environment by a discriminative stimuli. Moreover, this author posits that non-consensual sharing of intimate images is a violent act, viz, an individual’s privacy and boundaries are taken from them and distributed to others.

The author posits that this lack of fit between the DSM-V criteria for PTSD and symptomatology of victims of non-consensual image sharing and cyberbullying is due to problems with the construct validity of PTSD. (Hermosilla, 2018) relates that reliability and accurate conceptualization of the structure of PTSD is essential to the development of effective assessment and treatment. Her study on the 2010 Haiti earthquake survivors noted a lack of congruence of the DSM-V construct to a culturally diverse sample. Her study also found that the DSM-V model had the poorest relative fit for her sample compared to the anhedonia model. Similarly, there are problems with the DSM-V model of PTSD lack of capturing of the population of victims of cyberbullying and non-consensual image sharing.

(Klein, 2018) at USC posits that victims of non-consensual image sharing and cyberbullying display symptomology similar to victims of sexual assault. This author has found this to be true in clinical practice. Victims of non-consensual image sharing and cyberbullying, display symptoms of PTSD, viz, intrusive repetitive thoughts of the trauma, hypervigilance to the environment, psychophysiological symptoms, triggering of distress by discriminative stimuli in the environment, triggers of the traumatic event, shame, survivor guilt and distortion of body image. Assessment of these patients reveals similarities to sexual assault victims, viz, loss of control over the privacy of body boundaries, victimization, and exploitation. This is yet another example of a group of individuals who do not present an exact fit to the DSM-V consistent with PTSD. As with samples of refugees, and other diverse populations, the DSM-V construct of PTSD does not capture these important populations who are beset by trauma and victimization.

Practitioners are urged to consider the similarities of symptomatology and the trauma matrix between both groups of sexual assault victims and victims of cyberbullying and nonconsensual image sharing in their assessments and treatment plan. These individuals undergo significant suffering and emotional distress. First and foremost, treatment should provide support and address issues with self-esteem.


Hermosilla, S. (2015). Measuring psychopathology: Exploring construct validity evidence for PTSD: A 2010 Haitian earthquake example (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University Libraries).

Klein, J., & Zaleski, K. (2018). Non-consensual image sharing: Revenge pornography and acts of sexual assault. In Women’s journey to empowerment in the 21st century: A transnational feminist analysis of women’s lives in modern times. Oxford University Press.

The MSW@USC, the Online master of social work program at the University of Southern California (January 30, 2018).

Michael J. Perrotti, PhD is a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist with a multispecialty practice in clinical, forensic, and neuropsychology in Brea, CA. He conducts the assessment and treatment of diverse trauma events and is also an expert witness. He was Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine from 2005-06. His practice is approved by UCLA as an internship site for psychology students. As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Perrotti assesses neurobiological factors in trauma with civilian and military populations. He is a researcher and lecturer. He was the Vice-President of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of a chapter in the Handbook of Child Custody on methodology and neuroscience in bonding studies.