Revenge porn: A modern, legal form of abuse

Instagram and other Social Media AppsImagine you’re in a loving relationship with someone. In the context of that relationship, you allowed some personal, intimate photographs to be taken that were only for your private enjoyment. Then you split up and, to your horror, find that those private photographs have been put up on the internet for all to see as an act of revenge by your former lover.

That’s got to be illegal, right? Effectively, it’s a form of abuse perpetrated mainly but not exclusively) by men against women, after all. Actually, it isn’t, as one friend of mine found out to her cost.

I’m not going to tell you her name, but I’ll share a little of her story with her permission. Still a teenager, she was in a relationship with a man which lasted, give or take a month or two, for two years.  He persuaded her, against her better judgment, to let her take some nude photos of her.

After the relationship ended, she discovered that he had uploaded these photos to the internet. It took some doing to get the hosting site to remove them. She’s had to go through this process a further 7 times on various websites, posted alongside photos of other women which were labelled things like “fat whore” or “British slut.” She is not alone. This practice is so common it even has a name. Revenge porn and a plethora of websites dedicated to it.

And what can the Police do? Not a lot. It’s only now that she’s shown them her extensive records of messages to and from this man in which she pleads with him to remove these images that they may, note may, be able to charge him with harassment. Breaching someone’s trust in a way that could ruin their lives and career prospects is not, on its own, an offence. And even if he were found guilty of that harassment charge, he still would not be obliged to remove the photos from the internet.

It gets even worse when you realise that any Tom, Dick or Sleazeball who sees the photos is quite capable of sharing or downloading them. One picture of my friend attracted 1600 shares on one social network. If each of them even had 10 followers each, you can see how many people could, at the click of a mouse, see a photograph that they never should have had access to. Now, your average social network is likely, after a fair bit of time-consuming to-ing and fro-ing, to take them down. Your average revenge porn, for whom this indiscriminate abuse of women is their raison d’etre, is unlikely to be so accommodating.

In a world where prospective employers routinely research job applicants on the internet, these photos do not create a good impression. Our society will blame the woman for posing for the photo and not the man who breaches his word and puts it out there for all to see. There’s a name for that too. Slut-shaming. Not sleazy trust-breaker shaming, you’ll note. There is no penalty or even societal disapproval for the abuser.

I touched on something similar last year when I wrote about sexting. This is when (almost always) a girl takes a photograph of herself and sends it to (almost always) a boy who then breaches her trust by forwarding it to all his mates or posting it online. The Police would have had to prosecute the girl for taking the image if they prosecuted the boy for distributing it – and this would only be possible if the girl was underage.

Some US states have made revenge porn illegal and there is now a campaign to press for such a change in the law in this country.  A petition on the subject has attracted over 4000 signatures and my friend has urged everyone she knows to write to their MPs to ask them to support a change in the law.

How would you feel if it happened to you? I suspect you would very quickly learn the meaning of the phrase “spine-chilling” as you saw your personal details shared online, if your mutual friends were tagged in intimate images which they were never meant to see. You know that anyone searching on your name could stumble across them. And imagine the anxiety of not knowing exactly where on that massive expanse of cyberspace they are going to appear next. You just know that they will.

My friend said:

It  should be illegal. I shouldn’t have to wait for such a violation of trust to happen multiple times before I can take action. I’ve had enough of him shaming and manipulating me in to keeping quiet. Thinking that he can get away with it because I’ll be too embarrassed to tell anyone. It’s humiliating but I’m not letting him do this to me any more. It’s making me paranoid and I feel like I have to constantly check the internet to make sure more images of me haven’t been uploaded and it’s wearing me down.

Why should she have to go through this? It’s time for the law to catch up with this most modern form of abuse.  It takes seconds for a controlling man to inflict a lifetime of hell on a woman. That can’t be right.

It is important that the comments thread which follows is a safe space for those who have experienced such abuse. Even if they do not wish to share their stories, it’s important that the comments that they see are extra polite and sensitive. For that reason, all comments will be pre-moderated.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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17 Comments

  • Fiona White 14th May '14 - 3:56pm

    You are absolutely right and this should be a campaign which everyone can sign up to.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th May '14 - 5:39pm

    I agree, there needs to be a clampdown on not only revenge porn, but all violent and abusive content.

  • Stephen Donnelly 14th May '14 - 11:06pm

    The case you describe sounds awful, and freedom of speech should be limited at the point where is causes actual harm, as it clearly does in this case. My note of caution is that any measures must be carefully drafted and proportionate. I despair at recent news stories where individuals, some famous, some not, stand to have their lives ruined by the use of one word, or one stupid email, or a drunken tweet. We would all like to think we have never said or done anything grossly offensive, but who can honestly say, many years ago, whilst in the wrong company, or after a party, they have never said something that they would now regret. Of course if it was many years ago, it could easily have been contained, and an apology would probably have been sufficient. The social media explosion has made that impossible. Gossip spreads at the speed of light, and it is very difficult for an individual to retract or quietly admit a mistake. The damage that is done is out of proportion to the mistake that was made. Rather than criminalise individuals we must find some way to make social media sites take responsability and make retraction and correction easy. Introducing a new law is not always (indeed not usually) the best way of dealing with a problem.

  • Is it the case in the UK that any images that are subject to a civil case end up publicised by the court during the trial?

    The american DMCA makes it extremely easy to remove any image due to copyright infringement. If copyright were extended to cover images of a person made in private, just an assumed right to the image would be enough. Fair use exceptions for copyright exist, and I’m sure I recall a (bad imho) law passed recently criminalising copyright violation in some circumstances.

    This gives people control over their image without being any more of a problem for news or the public good than currently. And it allows a way to criminalise it which is clearly needed, especially with the legal aid currently available to civil cases.

  • This, important subject, really needs some expert input as UK law does have something to say, although redress is probably only available via a civil rather than criminal action…

    [Aside: Unfortunately much that has been written about photography and “model releases” have been based on US law rather than UK and EU law, so whilst relevant to those who wish to pursue a photography career and sell their work, it isn’t of much help here where both parties are UK citizens and the events occurred in the UK.]

  • Richard Dean 15th May '14 - 2:15am

    I think it’s silly to link a law about privacy to a motive of revenge. To prove breach of privacy is one thing, to prove that it was motivated by revenge would be a lot more difficult. There’d be knock-on effects too. Should Vicky Pryce be prosecuted, not only for swapping points, but also for taking subsequent revenge on Chris Huhne?

    I also think that great care is needed in using written law to intervene in disputes arising from or in personal relationships. Such things can be a bit too complex for the blunt instrument of written law to deal with. Caron’s presentation of her friend’s story actually looks rather unbalanced. “After the relationship ended” and “Then you split up and, to ..” seems like something innocuous. But it’s not. What it conceals is that the subsequent “revenge” can mean that there’s an injured party who “you” just split up from. Take this to its logical conclusion and we’ll have a law that would prevent Caron’s friend from causing that injury in the first place! Sooner or later we’ll end up with no relationships at all, for fear of breaking a law!

    Much better would be a general approach to privacy and consent that considered all relevant issues, and did not use this kind of story as its primary motivation.

  • Dave Page

    The protection, which youdescribe as “for journalism” should be fairly easy to achieve. If photoes are in a public place the presumption should be copy right does not apply if in private locations it does.

    Currently papers can’t publish photoes taken of people through their windows. This could be logically extended to keep the test simple in most cases.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 15th May '14 - 10:01am

    Surely it should be easy to draft a law that prohibits the publication of sexually explicit images of someone without their consent. Richard, you are going off on a great tangent about laws against revenge which, to be honest, is completely irrelevant.

    Stephen, the incidents you are describing are completely different and I do actually agree that none of us are perfect and we are going to have to be more tolerant about that or nobody is ever going to be allowed to take any position of responsibility. However, revenge porn is not the same thing. It’s an abuse of trust, somebody publishing photos online that were only ever meant to be private within the context of a relationship. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having that sort of photo taken. There is a problem with someone else distributing it without permission.

  • @Caron – “Surely it should be easy to draft a law that prohibits the publication of sexually explicit images of someone without their consent”

    There are laws about defamation of character and the publication of images without consent; only UK law , in it’s typical way, obfuscates matters and so largely puts the opportunity for redress outside the reach of the majority. As I indicated previously US law and the recommended use of model releases in the US does clarify matters – by clearly laying out a transfer of rights (concerning the use of their image) from the model to the photographer and so enable the photographer to fully exercise their IP rights over their creative work. A problem is that whilst model releases can be used in the UK, general advice is to avoid them as they can cause problems for the photographer and hence they are generally better off not using them – such is the delight of UK law!.

    I suggest that any changes to the law needs to cater for the general case, namely clarify the whole area around the trade in photographic images, otherwise it will probably get abused and used for frivolous purposes – most likely by politicians who object to compromising photo’s being published. Fortunately, much can be gained from a study of the US practises and the terms and conditions for images being submitted to the various photo libraries.

  • The difficulty I can see with the law is potentially the wording of it. It would need to prohibit publishing from within the UK – pretty straightforward. But it would also need to ensure that it prohibited publishing from outwith the UK – or, more probably, allowing or facilitating the publication outside the UK – and that’s the tricky part. It would also need a change in copyright law – at present, copyright of a photo I think lies with the person who takes it, while this would need a change to permit publication.

    Not that I’m against the idea – it just needs to be thoroughly thought through and tested before it goes on to the statute book.

  • Alex Macfie 15th May '14 - 3:44pm

    Changing copyright law to cover this sort of abuse is a bad idea, simply because this is not what copyright law is intended for. Copyright covers creative expression, and so is assigned to whoever created the image — in this case whoever took the photograph. Giving the subjects of a photograph or film copyright ownership of it would be absolutely unworkable: how would you get the required permission to show a photograph of a busy urban street from all the people who are in it?
    By all means tighten privacy law to ensure that revenge porn is outlawed, but stretching copyright law (which is nothing to do with privacy) to try to cover it would have numerous unintended consequences.

  • But Alex, if you tighten privacy law without changing copyright law, how do you deal with it? Take the famous photo of the couple kissing in Times Square as part of the end of WW2 celebrations. The photographer famously never knew who the couple were, yet went on to make a fortune from the picture. Under a tightened privacy law, either one of them could claim that the photo was a breach of their privacy under UK law and therefore prevent its distribution in the UK; however, the photographer would still have copyright and could publish the photo in another jurisdiction (much easier now with the internet). That’s why any response has to be thought through properly and not rushed – and may prove much harder to implement than many think.

  • Alex Macfie 16th May '14 - 1:27pm

    Do people have a reasonable expectation of privacy when kissing in Times Square? I find this idea laughable, and I would certainly NOT support a privacy law that allowed a privacy claims over being photographed in a public place.
    And copyright law is territorial in scope in the same way as privacy law is. If the UK unilaterally changed its copyright law to give subjects of a photograph a copyright claim over it, this would still only apply in the UK, and not anywhere else in the world where such a claim was not allowed. Regardless of the law being used, preventing international publication is something that has to be done by international agreement.

  • Chris Nelson 18th May '14 - 12:45pm

    Caron states in one of her comments: “Surely it should be easy to draft a law that prohibits the publication of sexually explicit images of someone without their consent.” Let’s put aside everything else and agree on this simple, single point – sexually explicit images taken in private, for the private enjoyment of the people involved, should never be published in public without the consent of the person pictured in the photograph.

    A 1-page bill would be able to do this. Or even a one-paragraph amendment to the upcoming EU Privacy Directive (the one that’s going to kick off this awful parliamentary battle about the “right to forgotten”).

    I’m amazed that proposing a ban on this is even slightly controversial.

  • Melanie Harvey 18th May '14 - 5:05pm

    If the images were known to be for private use only and taken on that understanding. breach of contract laws (even if only verbal as then the person publishing has to prove they had consent to do so) could or possibly could be adjusted if they dont in their wording presently. I would hope certain privacy laws would cover it too. Further if such can be shown to have been done out of revenge/abuse etc. or even just the threat of publishing being present, it could well be seen as blackmail. As I understand thats a criminal offence.

  • Only just seen this. Good article and potential for an important and winnable campaign. Hopefully lib dems can lead on this?!

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