Tweet Imagine that you start dating someone, and you and your partner consensually decide to have sex… something that is pretty standard in a relationship. Now, imagine that your partner interprets your consent to have sex with them, as consent for also having sex with all of their friends. While most people would be shocked and appalled by this suggestion, this is exactly the logic of revenge porn advocates, a sickening phenomenon that is taking the internet by storm.
Revenge porn is pornography where sexually graphic images of individuals are distributed without their consent (Citron & Franks, 2014). It includes images obtained without consent or images obtained with consent, but within the context of a private relationship. However, the most common form of revenge porn is when an individual submits an intimate (typically naked) photo of their ex-partner to exact revenge.
The fact that revenge porn exists may come as a shock to most people, but there is an alarming amount of victims sharing their stories. In 2007, a man distributed DVDs showing his ex-girlfriend performing sexual acts, putting them on random car windshields, along with her name and phone number (Citron & Franks, 2014). Holly Jacobs, another victim, had an ex hack her Facebook to post explicit images of her, as well as sent them to various revenge porn websites and her employers (Salter, Crofts, & Lee, 2013).
At this point you may be wondering what kind of person would start such a dehumanizing version of revenge. We can give credit to Hunter Moore, founder of the website “IsAnyoneUp,” where he encouraged people to submit sexually explicit images of themselves or others (Levendowski, 2014). IsAnyoneUp featured more than just nude images, and usually included the victim’s name, social media accounts, and contact information. Soon after its launch it was receiving 35,000 submissions a week, and making more than $13,000 a month in advertising revenue, setting the stage for many other websites similar to it (Stroud, 2014). These websites allow visitors to leave comments, which tend to be sexual, crude and insulting, and to make matters worse, a few of the sites ask victims for money to remove the photos.
As one can probably guess, victims are typically traumatized after finding their intimate photos and personal information on these websites. Victims of revenge porn have lost educational and career opportunities, have had to change their names, and have experienced real life stalking and harassment (Franklin, 2014). A victim describes the impact as follows, “Due to this act, I have had to legally change my name, stop publishing in my field (I am a PhD Student), change my e-mail address 4 times and my phone number 3 times, change jobs, and explain to human resources at my school that I am not a sexual predator” (Salter et al., 2013). To make matters worse, victims are met with little sympathy as they seek help. The police are often unable to charge the distributor as the images were not stolen but shared, and the FBI claims these cases should be handled solely by lawyers as they don’t threaten national security (Franklin, 2014). To top it all off, outsiders argue victims created their own situation by taking and sharing these photos, labelling these victims as stupid and slutty (Laird & Toups, 2013).
There are currently only two cases where a person has been jailed for posting revenge porn online (Salter et al., 2013). Yes, you heard that right, only two! In 2010, a man was convicted in New Zealand for hacking his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook to post a nude photo of her, after changing her privacy settings and password (Salter et al., 2013). The following year, a 20-year-old Australian man was sent to jail for 6 months after uploading naked photos of his ex onto Facebook. At this point, you may be wondering why there hasn’t been harsher consequences for not only those who produce these sites, but for the bitter ex partners who submit these photos.
One of the biggest problems with revenge porn is the limited punishment options. Unfortunately, these websites are legally protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States, which protects freedom of expression and innovation on the internet (Stroud, 2014). This section says that no provider or user of an interactive computer service will be treated as the publisher of any information provided by another person (Stroud, 2014). Since revenge porn websites are publishing material that was given to them by others, Section 230 protection applies and will render nearly any lawsuit for stalking, harassment, defamation or invasion of privacy dead on arrival (Levendowski, 2014). Although revenge porn seems like a straightforward issue that should easily be penalized, the complex mix of privacy interests, online anonymity, free expression and policies concerning internet regulation calls make it a more complicated issue (Levendowski, 2014).
A few solutions have been put forward to help victims of this act get some justice, including amending Section 230, or pass new laws with hefty penalties for revenge porn uploaders and traffickers (Citron & Franks, 2014). However, as some of you may be aware, changing the law is not an easy process. Because of this challenge, another suggestion has been put forward: using copyright law as protection. Since the majority of revenge porn images are selfies, and copyright laws protect original work, reproducing revenge porn victim’s copyrighted images is illegal (Levendowski, 2014). Revenge porn victims do not need to register their copyrights or hire a lawyer. Victims only need to submit their name and signature, identify the image, provide links to the material, and a written verification that the use is unauthorized (Levendowski, 2014). It is unfortunate that using copyright is the only solution thus far, but it is a step towards justice.
Revenge porn accomplishes nothing. It is quite pitiful, and if people consider it their right to post an image of an ex that broke their heart, then something is wrong with society. With that being said, there are a number issues that revenge porn highlights. First off, it ties into the issue of consent, as many individuals argue that these women should not be sending provocative images if they do not want people to see them. However, this completely conflicts with the parameters of consent, because when we consent to do something in one situation, it is not generalizable to other situations.
Another question is: who is responsible in these situations? While many people argue that it is the ex-lover who is sending in these pictures, the blame has also been extended to include the creators of revenge porn sites and the victims themselves. So who is to blame? Is it the person who sent these intimate photos of themselves in the first place? Is it the bitter ex-lover who needed a way to get back at their ex-partner? Or is it the creators of these sites that use “revenge” as a way to make money? Many argue that the fact the image was initially consensual robs the victim of their innocence—in other words, they brought this on themselves by participating in sexual expression (Slane, 2013). This line of reasoning also calls into question everything we understand about trust and respect in an intimate relationship. It makes perfect sense to trust your partner enough to send “sexy” images. However, if we blame the victims who “should have known better,” then what does this say about trust? Should we always be skeptical of our partners? Revenge porn also reifies the issue of a “double standard”, whereby society has different reactions to a situation depending if the person is male or female. Revenge porn punishes women for engaging in activities that men undertake with minimal negative (and often positive) consequences (Franklin, 2014); women are told they are stupid or slutty for taking these pictures, whereas men are met with praise.
Hailey Ward, BAH Psychology, Queen’s University
Citron, K. D., & Franks, A. M. (2014). Criminalizing Revenge Porn. Wake Forest Law Review, 49(345). Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2368946
Franklin, Z. (2014). Justice for revenge porn victims: Legal theories to overcome claims of civil immunity by operators of revenge porn websites. Cal. L. Rev., 102. Received from http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/calr102&div=41&g_sent=1&collection=journals
Laird, L., & Toups, H. (2013). Victims are taking on 'revenge porn' websites for posting photos they didn’t consent to. Aba Journal, 99(11), 1-10.
Levendowski, M. A. (2014). Using Copyright to Combat Revenge Porn. NYU Journal of Intellectual property & Entertainment Law, 3. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2374119
Salter M., Crofts, T. & Lee M. (2013). Beyond Criminalization and responsibilisation: Sexting, gender and young people. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 24. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/4585975/Responding_to_revenge_porn_Gender_justice_and_online_legal_impunity
Slane, Andrea. (2013). Sexting and the law in Canada. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 22(3). http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/full/10.3138/cjhs.22.3.C01
Stroud, S. R. (2014). The dark side of the online self: A pragmatist critique of the growing plague of revenge porn. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 29(3). Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08900523.2014.917976