Opinion: Help stop lives being ruined by abusive practice of revenge pornography

UW-Madison Teaching Learning SymposiumNext Monday, two amendments to criminalise revenge porn will go to the committee stage in the House of Lords.

For those who don’t know, revenge porn is non-consensual pornography. It’s where a person uploads an explicit image of somebody without their permission. Often the victim’s name and contact details are attached. Not only is it humiliating but it has the potential to reach out of the screen and destroy people’s lives.

The first amendment was submitted by a group of Liberal Democrats in the Lords. It states that ‘a person commits an offence if they publish a sexually explicit or pornographic image of another identifiable person unless the identifiable person consented to publication’. This amendment would mean that the offender could be imprisoned for up to a year, as well as being subject to a fine.

The second amendment seeks to amend the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 to make revenge porn a sexual offence of a similar ilk to voyeurism. Perpetrators wouldn’t be placed on the Sex Offenders Register but it would mean that the offence would be treated far more seriously.

Both of these amendments have their flaws, the term ‘identifiable’ worries me in the first one – when an ex uploaded images of me, they didn’t necessarily include my face. I’d have concerns as to how identifiable the images would need to be before an offence could be proved.

The second amendment relies on the person having shared the image for sexual gratification (either their own, or that of a third person) – which would be near impossible to prove, as these images are often uploaded to harass and humiliate – rather than for direct sexual gain.

Despite the minor flaws, both of these amendments would empower the victims of revenge porn. It would force perpetrators to take responsibility for the damage and stress they’ve caused to the lives of others.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with sharing private images of yourself but you do so with a reasonable expectation of privacy. There is, however, something intrinsically wrong with using explicit images as a tool to harass and humiliate someone.

As a victim of revenge porn, I can’t even begin to explain how relieved it makes me to think that Parliament is seriously considering these proposals. Most victims of revenge porn are shamed and forced in to silence for fear that more people will find their images. They’re made to tolerate the abuse and forced to suffer through tedious copyright claims because it’s the closest they can get to having something done.

I’ve spoken to victims who were suicidal, whose images were taken on a Polaroid camera before they had any concept of the Internet, who have lost their careers and whose relationships have been ruined. All the while, those who have published the images are free to sit back and revel in the pain they’ve caused to someone whose only crime was to trust them.

It’s time that something was done, so I’ll be eagerly following the progress of the amendments through the Lords, and I hope you’ll join me in the calls to finally criminalise revenge porn.

Photo by Alan Wolf

* Hannah Thompson is a Liberal Democrat activist from Guildford

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12 Comments

  • It’s great that it finally looks like something will be done about this and it ‘s ridiculous that it’s taken this long.

    It also shows that one person who is passionate and driven really can make a difference!

  • A superb campaign.

  • Agree that it’s right that this behaviour is criminalised.

    However, I disagree with the author’s criticism of having ‘identifiable’ in the text of the law. If the images aren’t identifiable then how will the plaintiff be determined in cases? If the victim isn’t identifiable, then literally anyone could claim to be the victim in order to launch a criminal case against the person who put the image up – even if the actual person in the image did and does consent to its publication; there would be no way to know who the real victim was…but it wouldn’t matter under the law for the prosecution. This would have the effect of making “unidentifiable” sexual images a legal liability, which would have a huge impact on the amateur pornography realm (i.e. that bit of the pornography industry that actually treats women well) since much of it uses identity masking to deliberately hide identities before uploading.

  • Unintended consequences you say?

    Why, who could have seen that coming!

  • Yes I think that would be a good idea, then subjects would have to sign agreements with the photographer if the photographer wanted ownership rights, which would put subjects in a much stronger position.

  • Stephen Hesketh 17th Jul '14 - 4:57pm

    @Hannah Thompson – great campaign and a must – particularly in the internet age.

    Perhaps gratuitous intent might also be considered.

    @Thomas Long17th Jul ’14 – 10:29am.
    “It’s great that it finally looks like something will be done about this and it ‘s ridiculous that it’s taken this long.
    It also shows that one person who is passionate and driven really can make a difference!”

    Yes on all three points.

    @Joe Otten17th Jul ’14 – 1:32pm
    “Photographs taken in and of public places probably had ought to remain with the photographer, or there would be freedom of speech issues, but perhaps photographs of people in private places should belong by default to the subjects.”

    Good clear libertarian points.

  • Stephen Hesketh 17th Jul '14 - 5:33pm

    I would like to add that my comment re gratuitous intent should not be considered to imply this sort of thing can ever be innocent or acceptible. On reflection, it should just be an offence plain and simple!

  • Joe – speaking as an amateur photographer and so somewhat versed in the issues of image publication, the core issue comes down to a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. If you do something in Trafalgar Square at noon, you clearly have about none. If you do something behind closed doors and not immediately in font of a large window, your reasonable expectation of privacy is strong and you have a right not to have material published without consent – hence the practice of photographers getting “model release forms” signed by the subject as while they own the copyright on the image, they don’t otherwise have automatic rights to publish depictions of the subject.

    Back to the subject though – great work on this issue Hannah, well done 🙂

  • I hope finally criminalising revenge porn is the outcome and to that end I welcome constructive amendments at every stage provided they prove workable and add value to the proposed legislation in the real world.

  • This is fantastic stuff and I congratulate you and all those involved for getting this far. It’s essential that this despicable practise is criminalised.

    Once the law (hopefully) is passed, however, I think it needs to be recognised that it’s only a partial and limited solution. The internet being how it is, I suspect lots of cases will be nigh on impossible to prosecute successfully. It’s not difficult to think of ways in which a determined offender could cover his digital tracks (I won’t elucidate them here).

    Prevention through education is just as important as criminalisation. I would hope this kind of thing is already being covered in schools, but if not it should be. We need to educate boys that this practise is totally unacceptable and (in the near-future) criminal with very serious consequences. We also need to educate girls to take extreme care about what images they allow to be taken of them and how they are stored. A lot of boys, sadly, cannot be trusted, however decent they may seem. And even if a boy is trustworthy, given the number of phones lost and stolen each year (a staggering 7.3 million in 2010 according to the first article I just Googled) people need to recognise that the keeping of any kind of compromising digital image is an inherently risky thing to do. Even where revenge is not a factor, images can end up in circulation due to pure carelessness. A relative of mine was once fixing his neighbour’s computer and ended up seeing far more than he wanted to see of the man’s wife. Many years ago – when the Web didn’t even exist – I went with a friend to pick up a second hand car he had bought, and when we drove off and he pulled the sun visor down he was startled to find a photo of the previous owner’s naked girlfriend land on his lap.

    So I think girls need to be taught that allowing any compromising images to be taken of themselves will inevitably carry some risk, and not just from malicious distribution, but also to be taught how to minimise the risks if they really want to do it.

    I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying the focus should be put on girls to stop this happening. Absolutely not – they are victims and the real onus should be on boys not to behave so appallingly. But as a parent of a pre-teen girl myself, I would certainly want to teach her the best ways of protecting herself, because once the genie is out of the bottle, a criminal record for the perpetrator might not be all that much consolation.

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