Challenging revenge porn at its roots

by Jenni Gunn There have been many high-profile victims in recent years of a dangerous online phenomenon—revenge porn. Whilst celebrity victims have garnered the lion’s share of media coverage, the vast majority of victims of non-consensual pornography are ordinary people. Correction: ordinary women.

Non-consensual pornography, or revenge porn, is defined as the sharing of sexually explicit images of an individual without their consent.

Women are subjected to humiliation, invasion of privacy and danger to their person as sexually explicit images are shared with voyeuristic strangers, often accompanied by the victim’s name, address, workplace and contact information.

This causes significant damage to an individual’s emotional, mental and physical health; countless women have received death threats, threats of rape and sexual violence from anonymous internet trolls accessing porn sites filled with non-consensual material.

The existence of revenge porn is adding to the increasingly dangerous world that women inhabit in modern day society—where women are treated as passive, sexualised objects to be used as entertainment and sexual gratification of men, regardless of consent.

It is within this context that we should be dealing with the phenomenon of non-consensual pornography, which is not merely a betrayal of trust or an invasion of privacy, but something much more inherently destructive.

The definition of sexual assault under UK law is described as an act which violates a person’s sexual autonomy. By this definition, revenge porn is tantamount to sexual assault.

The victim is robbed of her own agency and autonomy when images that we shared with a partner in trust are then shared and distributed for the sexual entertainment of complete strangers.

Victims are left not only humiliated, but disempowered. For many victims, the fact that these abuses occur in the online world makes them no less damaging than an assault that takes place in the workplace or on the street: and the law should reflect this reality.

But the question remains—why are women continuing to become victims of online sexual abuse at the hands of disgruntled ex-partners or vicious internet hackers?

As recent high profile cases have demonstrated, many commentators have blamed victims for sharing explicit content with trusted partners in the first place.

In fact, the UK government has introduced new guidelines in an attempt to tackle the rise of revenge porn, with the slogan ‘Be Aware B4 You Share’.

This demonstrates a blatant example of victim blaming. It has been a time honoured tradition within our patriarchal society to scrutinise a victims dress, alcohol consumption, past sex life when she has been raped or sexually assaulted—seeking to blame everyone and everything but the perpetrator.

The tendency in our society to blame victims of rape and abuse causes victims themselves to take on a sense of guilt, shame and self-loathing, leading to a culture where crimes against women who are raped or abused are vastly under reported.

We have to ensure that we stamp out victim blaming in all cases of sexual abuse and assault—whether on or offline, and legislation protecting the rights of victims goes some way in ensuring that we take victims seriously.

However, the way women are portrayed and used as sexual objects speaks to a much deeper issue about our entire society and how women are viewed as participants in that society.

Although legislation is indeed crucial in tackling instances of revenge porn, it is the perception and status of women as largely defined by the media which is creating the conditions in which abuse of women can flourish.

In order to really make any substantial change in terms of equality, we must challenge the pervasive misogyny within our culture which teaches both men and women that females are to be used as sexual objects.

We see highly sexualised images of women and girls across our media landscape: in advertising, in the film and music industries and beyond. The internet age has made the access and distribution of porn easier than ever. These images send a clear message—females exist for the gratification of men.

Legislation is not only important, but necessary. However, if we are ever to strive towards a culture where men and women are given equal opportunity to progress, we cannot rely on the law alone. Laws may give greater rights to victims, but laws do not challenge the underlying problems which cause these issues in the first instance.

We need to challenge prevailing attitudes and media stereotypes, providing an alternative narrative and portraying women in all their diversity. We need to be brave, and challenge casual sexism in our everyday lives, no matter how uncomfortable.

Finally—we need to teach our young women that they should accept no boundaries and be put in no boxes. And they should never be afraid to speak out against abuse, no matter where it happens.

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