DPhil in Criminal Law Theory: Q and A with Dr Marthe Goudsmit Samaritter
Why did you choose Oxford?
I came to Oxford to write a DPhil thesis on image-based sexual abuse. I chose Oxford for my DPhil primarily because of the option to work with Jonathan Herring, who had previously supervised me on a Master’s thesis, and I wanted to continue on from that project. But it also did not hurt that Oxford is a wonderful city where many inspired and inspiring people build a brilliant academic community. I wanted to be part of that.
What was the title of your DPhil research and what was your research about?
My DPhil thesis is entitled ‘The Wrongness of Image-Based Sexual Abuse’. In it, I considered the question what is the nature of the wrongfulness of image-based sexual abuse. Image-based sexual abuse used to be known as 'revenge porn' and is sometimes referred to as 'non-consensual intimate images'. It involves the non-consensual taking, making, and/or sharing (or threat thereof) of intimate images, whether they are genuine or fake. It includes everything from secretly recording videos, to publishing images that were made with consent, to non-consensual sharing of images that were published with consent elsewhere (such as unauthorised spreading of OnlyFans images), to sexual deepfakes and deepfake pornography.
What did you find during your research?
Generally, I hold that the wrongfulness of image-based sexual abuse is that it is an infringement of autonomy, sexual integrity, privacy, free speech, breaches trust, and reinforces inequality. In severe cases, image-based sexual abuse can amount to a failure to minimally respect personhood (such as an infringement of article 3 ECHR). My thesis can be found on ORA.
The question I answered in my thesis is relevant for justifying the criminalisation of image-based sexual abuse, as well as towards informing the label attached to any offences criminalising that conduct. I found that the wrongness of image-based sexual abuse depends on your understanding of personhood, because that affects what is understood as an infringement of that person. And so, I considered criminalisation theory and personhood theory, and found that when using an individualistic understanding of persons the wrongness of image-based sexual abuse is less prominently recognisable than when using a relational understanding of persons.
What is the importance of this project?
Image-based sexual abuse is a huge problem: it is really harmful, it happens on a large and ever increasing scale, and it is very seriously wrongful. The existing academic work on image-based sexual abuse has largely focused on drawing out the harmfulness and scale of image-based sexual abuse. That is a vital part of justifying criminalisation, but so is the question of wrongfulness. In order to justify criminalisation, you need to be able to show that it is wrongful. My thesis offers an analysis of that third aspect for justifying and informing criminalisation.
Who was your supervisor?
How did you think of your DPhil research topic?
In 2014/15, over a hundred celebrities were hacked and their intimate images disclosed and shared without their consent. I discussed with friends that I considered it wrong to look at these images, but I struggled to articulate exactly why that was. At the time, I was just about to write a master’s thesis for my LL.M, and I opted to write a thesis on the criminalisation of image-based sexual abuse (then mostly known as ‘revenge porn’) in The Netherlands. This thesis led me to find that there was major conceptual confusion about the issue of image-based sexual abuse, and when I came to write my thesis for a Philosophy MA a year later, I decided to do a conceptual analysis of image-based sexual abuse. I found myself engaging with work in other areas of law because the subject of image-based sexual abuse was still very new. That is how I ended up writing that thesis under supervision of Jonathan Herring, as a visiting student to the law faculty. My DPhil thesis finally answers my initial question of ‘what is wrong with image-based sexual abuse?’
When was your research submitted?
My thesis was submitted in Michaelmas Term 2022.
Where can we keep up with you?
Did teaching and lecturing help your DPhil research?
I taught law for three years at Leiden University before my DPhil, and I was happy to be able to continue teaching at Oxford. Teaching was a great addition to my research, because it added a social aspect to academic work that is sometimes lacking in research only. It was such a pleasure to meet many wonderful students, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that establish in tutorials. I definitively recommend taking on teaching work during your DPhil. If you are new to teaching or to teaching law in Oxford specifically, you can always ask other tutors for advice. I have found the Oxford academic community really willing to help and a great source for guidance.
Is there anything other advice you would like share?
If you are embarking on a DPhil, remember to take a break every now and again. It is a multi-year project, you are not going to finish it in one sitting. Use the resources that are being offered, both research-wise and socially! And if you have an idea, initiative, etc., talk to people and make it happen. Academic communities are built from within, participate and contribute to them — it will be really rewarding.
- marthe goudsmit samaritter