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Revenge porn has become too profitable to go away

The recent calls for legislation to prohibit revenge pornography – sexually explicit media of unwitting people shared online without their consent, often as punishment for a break up – are not surprising…

Revenge porn victim Tulisa Contostavlos took legal action against an ex-boyfriend. Sean Dempsey/PA

The recent calls for legislation to prohibit revenge pornography – sexually explicit media of unwitting people shared online without their consent, often as punishment for a break up – are not surprising. Neither are the claims that this form of pornography is on the rise. In the US, states are already moving to ban it.

These public statements reinforce the fact that a new commercial category has been created which makes revenge porn a legitimate and real “thing”. This new attention promotes revenge porn from the realms of the Rule 34 meme (if it exists there is pornography of it) to a business reality that falls far outside any ethical or corporate social responsibility agenda.

With a definable economic value being placed on these images they now have wider meaning and currency with the real prospect of increasing the harm they cause. In the commercialised air of internet matchmaking and dating, building a business model that offers financial reward at the terminal point of a relationship may cynically appear to be the logical conclusion to the extraction of profit from all aspects of human relations.

Although some of the businesses engaging with revenge porn websites appear to employ business practices that strongly echo those of blackmail.

The adult entertainment industry has been a driver for many of the most popular online inventions that we all use, and this constant innovation in technology is mirrored by the development of new business opportunities. The continuous invention of new categories of pornography is a key process for the adult industry to commercialise its content and take it mainstream.

The definition of a new category – even if the actual text, images or videos existed before – is a classic marketing trick. Such differentiation is found wherever businesses deal directly with consumers. Research shows we are enthusiastic consumers of apparently new products even if the experience is largely determined by new labelling. For solely digital products the “new packaging” is largely reduced to a new search engine keyword combination.

For commercial pornography websites there is no “off” switch: the process of creating new categories will continue as long as there are still advertisers and subscribers willing to support their latest creations.

It is this inevitable commercial process, coupled with the obvious personal distress that revenge porn causes, that helps to explain calls for specific legislation and the existing revenge porn laws found in a number of US states – despite the claims that they are unconstitutional – as well as Australia and Israel.

However, the proposed UK law and those already in force all focus primarily on the distributors of the imagery. This is a potentially difficult burden of proof in a culture seemingly obsessed with “selfies” of all descriptions (which themselves are not included in the Californian version of the revenge porn law) and with the collective ability to rapidly capture and disseminate digital imagery. None of the laws contemplates the prospect of also banning advertisers or subscribers from websites that include the revenge porn category.

What is easily lost in these calls for legislation is how technology has placed the tools and means to produce pornography in anyone’s hands. Coupled with the constant invitation to “participate” there is a subtle but constant pressure to produce content of regardless of its merits.

The rise of revenge porn as the action of disgruntled ex-partners and as a commercial category raises much wider questions about our collective willingness to participate in – for want of a better word – risqué activities in front of a recording device. This raises the question, to what extent can limited consent continue to have meaning in the presence of a camera? And in what way should dubious “private” images of ourselves be held against us in ten years time?

Revenge porn has brought into the mainstream a specific form of pornography that did not even recognisably exist ten years ago. The constant presence of digital technology in our lives is commercially profitable but potentially at the cost of what we understand to be “private”.