Ideasroom

Revenge porn is sexual abuse

Revenge porn: It is prevalent, acutely gendered and in danger of becoming normalised and accepted, writes University of Auckland's Dr Claire Meehan. 

This assertion follows findings in the Nudie Project (a University of Auckland study of views on consensual and non-consensual 'sexting', dick pics and 'revenge porn') which indicated a huge disconnect between an image being seen as “hot” and its sharing being seen as a crime.  

Our findings, alongside recent media reports highlights an urgent need to redefine this practice as sexual abuse and look at it within the context of consent.

A recent study from Australia into imaged-based sexual abuse found nearly one in 10 adults have taken nude photos or recorded footage of others without consent. More than 4,000 people aged 16 to 49, and more than six percent of respondents, reported sharing the images or footage and close to five percent had made threats to do so.

These images routinely go viral, distributed widely across social media, often arriving at “ex-girlfriend” ‘revenge porn’ websites, or even mainstream pornography sites.

The act or threat of ‘revenge porn’ is a mechanism used to control women, often when they are leaving a relationship or attempting to pursue legal actions against an abusive partner.

To date, there are more than 3,000 known websites dedicated to ‘revenge porn’ and victims are overwhelmingly gendered as 95 percent of uploads are of women. Many of these victims have had their working and professional lives threatened, others have feared for their personal safety, especially where their address or other forms of identification are included (known as doxxing).

Further harms include adverse impacts on their health, life, sexual expression and relationships, as well as a breach of their rights to privacy and dignity and wider cultural harm. These harms are compounded when members of society reiterate victim-blaming rhetoric, by viewing the images or making statements such as, ‘she deserved it’ or ‘what did she expect would happen’.

The first problem is of course the term ‘revenge porn’.

Broadly defined, ‘revenge porn’ is the act of sending explicit sexual images of someone (who may or may not be a former or current partner) without their consent.

These images may have been taken by the person themselves, the sender (with permission to take but not distribute) or without the knowledge of the victim. In working through the terminology, we need to address the sending of intimate images and the role of consent. Often, we refer to consensual sharing of these images as sexting.

Again, sexting is an umbrella term which encompasses consensual, coercive and non-consensual sharing. Sexting garners a lot of media attention, from news media to women’s magazines. Messages are often mixed from don’t sext, to sext to spice up your sex life.

In giving consent, we also have the right to withdraw it, yet this is often easier said than done.

When these private images are then distributed widely, usually through messages or onto websites, the act is termed ‘revenge porn’. Consent here is crucial, as is the context in which it was given. Let’s be clear, consent in one context does not mean consent in another. Consenting to send an image to one person, does not entitle that person to distribute it further. They do not ‘own’ the image.

For example, if a friend gave their credit card to a colleague to buy a specific thing, that does not then give that colleague the right to use their friend’s card to buy whatever they want. Consent was only given for one purpose, for limited time in this specific context. Same issue applies. The difference between the two is the role of ‘ownership’ of the image and (most often male) entitlement of the usually-female victim which is intimately tied with the act of ‘revenge porn’.

There can be no question that ‘revenge porn’ is a consequence of gender inequality and should be framed within the context of domestic violence, rather than merely an online transgression. To date, traditional responses, behaviours and attitudes to ‘revenge porn’ have effectively legitimised and perpetuated patriarchy through re-victimisation.

The term ‘revenge porn’ does not encapsulate these harms. Rather, ‘revenge porn’ suggests non-consensual distribution is about revenge, which is not always the case. It may be due to hacking, financial gain or “for a laugh”. By covering just one type of abuse, others such as up-skirting and voyeurism, are omitted.

The term excludes images that aren’t obscenely sexual and ostensibly implies consent of the victim. Further, labelling the act ‘revenge porn’ gives a certain salacious tone, designed to titillate, implying that the offender must be motivated by sexual gratification which is not always the case. Terminology is important as it influences policy, practice, education and discourse.

A much more accurate description, as coined by UK Law School academics Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley, is image based sexual abuse. Their rationale in using this term is clear: the images are sexual; the abuse and harassment are sexualised and ultimately cause harm to women’s sexual freedom and autonomy.

Victims, including celebrity victims, identify the harm as one of sexual assault. For example, see Jennifer Lawrence’s comments in hacking nude photos is a sex crime and YouTuber Chrissy Chambers discusses “what happened to me is a sex crime and the law should really treat it that way”.

Given the influence of terminology in framing public discourse and debate, establishing legal responses and influencing policy, practice and education generally, clear and useful terminology is crucial.

Rather than focusing solely on the victim’s responsibility in staying safe online, we, as a community, need to focus on a few issues. Changing our terminology to reflect what is happening is the first. Following that, we need to be having conversations around consent, privacy and respect.

What does consent mean? In the context of intimate images, how long does it last/ should the receiver have the image? What are the implications? What is and isn’t okay? We need to be clear on the differences between consent, coercion and non-consent.

People often have a view of consent as an abstract thing, rather it happens in a vacuum. In giving consent, we also have the right to withdraw it, yet this is often easier said than done.

Education needs to address these issues and also scenarios such as, if a friend shows you an intimate image of their partner, how would you react? If they are considering sharing an image, what advice might you give them. Again, what is and isn’t acceptable.

Finally, our response to image based sexual abuse must change. In international research, “the tendency to tolerate, trivialise, or dismiss these harms” (US academics Danielle Keats Citron and Mary Anne Frank) has been well documented. It is essential that police responses are efficient, not sexist, the crime is taken seriously and victims are not re-victimised.

Given the prevalence of image based sexual abuse, the harms caused as well as the courage it takes victims to come forward; enactment of these changes is urgent.

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