Revenge Porn – What it is, the Issue and the Law




What is revenge porn?


Today, it feels rare that a day goes by without any reports of revenge porn - whether it be large-scale offences like the recent news that thousands of explicit photos and videos of Irish women have been shared on public forums without their consent, or a young teen realising that the nude image she sent to her boyfriend has made its way around her school. It is a heart-breaking and potentially shame and stigma inducing situation at best; a life altering (or even ending) situation at worst.


Revenge porn is, unfortunately, a lot more common today than many would think. The UK’s revenge porn hotline says 2020 has been its busiest year on record, receiving 2,050 reports by September 2020, which is equivalent to nine reports every day. It is important to note that this number only reflects the cases that have been reported to the helpline, and that the helpline is a service supporting victims who are 18 years old or over, so it is not unreasonable to assume that the actual number of incidents – including those that go unreported and those against minors - is much higher.

Revenge porn has been a criminal offence in England and Wales since 2015 (with similar laws being introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland later), and carries a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. The legally accepted definition of revenge porn is as follows: “Revenge Porn is the sharing of private, sexual materials, either photos or videos, of another person, without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress”. The sharing of images or videos refers to any form of distribution of content online via social media or uploading images and/or videos to porn websites, or offline such as sharing physical copies of images, or simply showing someone an image on a device.

The scope of what is considered revenge porn is, to an extent, well explained, yet there are still grey areas in the law. The law requires proof of “direct intention to cause distress”, and “fake Photoshopped porn isn’t covered at all – no matter how convincing”. Furthermore, the crime is considered a “communication crime” rather than a sexual offence, meaning that victims are not granted anonymity when pursuing justice. This denies victims the safety and security that they deserve, and often leads to cases going unreported due to fears that bringing the case to the public’s attention will ruin the reputation of the victim more than it will the reputation of the perpetrator.


Rape culture, victim blaming, and what’s in a name.

Rape culture is, broadly speaking, a sociological concept that shows that the normalisation of rape, sexual violence and misogyny are the result of societal views of gender and sexuality. It is a broad term that refers to multiple aspects of sexual violence and misogynistic behaviour including, but not limited to: slut shaming (stigmatising a woman for engaging in behaviour judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative), sexual objectification, the desensitisation to rape and sexual assault, and victim blaming. Victim blaming assumes that the victim is at fault for the transgression that has been made against them. An example of victim blaming is when someone says “well why did she send a nude in the first place?” (I’m using “she” here as it is reported that as many as 3 out of 4 victims of revenge porn are female). Consensually sending a picture of yourself to someone is not a crime, yet non-consensual sharing of that photo with others is. The law seems clear, so why is victim blaming so common in revenge porn cases?

Aside from the horrific normalisation of rape culture within our society, the name given to revenge porn is, in itself, problematic, and a linguistic analysis of these words shows that the name unintentionally suggests that the victim is at fault. First, the use of “revenge” suggests that the victim did something wrong that warrants a vengeful act in return. This is rarely the case and, even if someone were to cheat on you (a common catalyst in the cases of revenge porn), it is barbaric to believe that they deserve to have their reputation - and life - ruined by the non-consensual sharing of their sexual imagery. In painting the victim as a bad person who has done something unsavoury, the blame is placed on them, and not on the offender. We already know that in cases of sexual assault the victim is often rigorously interviewed and questioned as if they are on trial, and the use of the word “revenge” in this instance does not help the matter.

The use of the word “porn” is problematic, too. Yes, porn describes any image or video content that is sexual in nature, but most porn is created by actors meaning that they have consented to both the creation and the sharing of the content that is produced. Whilst this is not always the case (that’s a topic for another time), the fact that non-consensually shared explicit content has been given the same name as consensually shared content lessens the extremity of the abuse and trivialises the crime.

In a jointly penned research paper written in 2017, Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley (Durham University law professor, and Birmingham Law School Professor, respectively) argue that the correct term we should be using to refer to this crime is “image-based sexual abuse”. By changing the name of the crime, McGlynn and Rackley argue that the offences are likely to be taken more seriously and will prevent the investigators of the crimes from looking for specific things such as malicious intent or obviously sexualised photographs. What the revenge porn law doesn’t currently include – but McGlynn and Rackley’s definition of image-based sexual abuse does – is the understanding that revenge porn isn’t just one, easily definable thing, but rather a broad array of offences.

For example, non-consensual image creation (such as recordings of rape or images procured from ‘upskirting’), pornographic photoshopping and ‘sextortion’ (where victims are coerced and threatened into creating and sending sexual content), as well as the sharing of sexual imagery with no malicious intent (remember when boys at school would share images because they thought it was funny?) are all appalling crimes focused on the sharing of sexual image-based content, yet they are not included in the limited legal definition of revenge porn. In ignoring these offences, the law normalises this behaviour and contributes to a culture which repeatedly ignores and denies the seriousness of sexual abuse and violence.

What can be done?

It is clear that the laws regarding revenge porn need reforming in order to understand the variety of acts that can, and should, be considered revenge porn. In 2019, Gina Martin succeeded in making ‘upskirting' a criminal offence in England and Wales (it was already a specified crime in Scotland), after publicly discussing her own experience of being ‘upskirted’ and learning that, at the time, that kind of voyeuristic behaviour was not a criminal offence. Whilst getting this law passed is testament to Gina’s incredible hard work, the onus of law reform should not fall on the victim’s shoulders. Technology is ever changing and, with that, comes more opportunities for abusers to commit image-based sexual abuse. Porn websites, too, need to be more vigilant in monitoring the content that is being uploaded to their sites – sites like Pornhub, that allow users to upload videos, are often unknowingly allowing abusers to upload videos of their victims without consent.

There are so many obstacles and changes left to make to ensure that victims get the treatment and help they deserve. Below are a handful of important petitions that are dedicated to evolving the laws that are currently not broad enough to protect victims, as well as links to revenge porn helplines. In raising our voices and using language that adequately explains the issue at hand, we spread awareness, understanding, and create safe spaces for all victims.


Revenge porn helpline: https://revengepornhelpline.org.uk/


Blog for victim support: https://voic.org.uk/about-voic/


Petitions:

https://www.change.org/p/shut-down-pornhub-and-hold-its-executives-accountable-for-aiding-trafficking


https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/331358


https://www.change.org/p/irish-justice-department-make-revenge-porn-a-criminal-offence-in-ireland


https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/change-the-law-no-more-naming-of-revenge-porn-victims