Blog post

Revenge pornography: Can the offence be tackled?

Following the government’s decision to make revenge pornography a criminal offence, Dr Matthew Hall, Associate Academic at University of Derby Online Learning, discusses whether the offence can ever be tackled.

By Dr Matthew Hall - 10 November 2017

What is revenge pornography?

Revenge pornography is the online, at times offline, non-consensual distribution, or sharing, of explicit images of someone else. This can be by ex-partners, partners, or others. It can also be hackers seeking revenge or entertainment – also known as non-consensual pornography or, more colloquially, revenge porn. Although male ex-partners are reported as the main perpetrators, current partners, (ex-) friends of both victims and perpetrators, people known to the victim, people seeking revenge for friends, people seeking to deter others sexually interested in their current partner, among others, can find explicit images and share them, for purposes of revenge.

Sexually suggestive or explicit images and videos do not, however, need to be of someone known to the poster. Indeed, in 2014, a woman in the USA began a lawsuit against her ex-partner for superimposing images of her head onto naked body shots of someone else and posting them on Facebook as if they were ‘really’ her. Complete strangers and internet hackers may also be involved, sometimes of high profile victims. Revenge pornography appears in a variety of online and offline locations and formats, including specific revenge porn sites, pornographic websites that allow the uploading of amateur images and videos, as well as on mainstream platforms, such as Facebook and Tumblr.

Who posts revenge porn?

Although male ex-partners are reported to be the main perpetrators, an examination of electronic text on currently the largest revenge porn site shows current partners, (ex) friends of both victims and perpetrators, people known to the victim, complete strangers and internet hackers are also involved.

Who are the victims?

The online survey, ‘Effects of Revenge Porn’, conducted in 2013 by Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and found that 90% of victims are women. As one might expect, given the increase in ‘sexting’ – sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone – the typical age group is teens to thirties. However, there are reports of victims as young as 11, although a scan of the 30 or so UK websites hosting revenge porn also show people who appear to be, or are reported to be, older – that is, older than middle-aged.

The impact of revenge pornography

The negative impact revenge porn has on its victims is significant and profound in terms of physical and psychological health and well-being, as is the case with many other forms of violence and abuse. Victims report experiencing various problems including humiliation, shame and embarrassment with intimate partners, family, friends, work colleagues and in public as well as sexual shame and sexual problems, body image issues, education and employment disruptions, concerns for personal safety, becoming paranoid and hyper-vigilant and having trust issues.

Legal associate Susanna Lichter’s study of the revenge porn legislation found that victims had experienced embarrassment, reputation ruination and some had also faced stalking, harassment and threats of being gang raped because their personal information was also out in the public domain. Indeed, some victims had taken their own life. As a consequence, some victims had resorted to changing their names and phone numbers.

What is the law around revenge pornography?

Universal laws for convicting revenge porn perpetrators do not exist. In 2009, the Philippines became the first country to criminalise non-consensual pornography, with a penalty of up to seven years’ imprisonment. In 2014, Israel became the first country to classify non-consensual pornography as sexual assault, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Germany and Japan have now made revenge porn a criminal offence. England and Wales joined these countries in February 2015, with Northern Ireland and Scotland following suit in February and March 2016 respectively. In Australia, Sweden and the USA, the picture is more mixed. There are no specific revenge porn laws in Australia, although there are broad criminal laws that can be used to prosecute online abuse. However, in many countries the legal frameworks for prosecuting revenge porn perpetrators are either non-existent or securing convictions is very difficult.

Can it be tackled?

Appropriate responses include matters of politics, policy, law, education, intervention, and support. At the forefront, there are many active feminist-led campaigns on cultural political change online, and associated websites designed to oppose revenge porn and support those who suffer. While current legal and governmental measures such as, in the UK, HM Government’s Violence against Women and Girls Strategy 2016 – 2020 go some way in tackling revenge porn, there should be a more specific focus on online gender and sexuality offences, especially given these are reported as on the rise in some parts of the world.

Despite the Revenge Porn Helpline, which was launched in 2015, successfully removing more than 1000 explicit images, much more should be done to stop organisations which host revenge porn images and search engines linking to revenge porn. Google has announced it will stop searches linking to revenge porn images if requested by a person whose image has been posted without consent. Microsoft has said they will remove links from search results when reported by victims, and Twitter, Facebook and Reddit have banned revenge porn posts.

There is ongoing legal disputation on whether Facebook, and similar operators, are liable for civil claims. Those internet organisations providing platforms for posting revenge porn might face future civil actions. Arguably, stronger civil laws should be in place so that victims can sue perpetrators for damages. The absence of overarching international revenge porn laws impedes prosecutions for crimes committed in another country. Without international and cross-border laws on revenge porn, pursuing perpetrators and those who facilitate these crimes is likely to be very difficult.

Thus in short, in order to tackle revenge porn a multi-faceted, multi-agency and multi-actor approach is required, locally and transnationally, online and offline.

This would include: addressing weaknesses in legislation; additional action and interaction between governmental, not-for-profit, legislative, and commercial actors; promoting support programmes for victims; the punishment of crimes and re-education programmes for perpetrators; and gender and sexualities educational programmes, in schools, colleges and universities, workplaces and elsewhere.

Dr Matthew Hall, alongside Professor Jeff Hearn, Professor of Sociology at the University of Huddersfield, have published a book on revenge pornography, Revenge Pornography: Gender, Sexualities and Motivations.

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About the author

Dr Matthew Hall
Associate Academic in Psychology

Dr Matthew Hall is in the Department of Psychology, Ulster University; Associate Academic, University of Derby; Editor for the Journal of Gender Studies; Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and; Alumni Fellow, Nottingham Trent University.