Want to stop revenge pornography? Then we need to overhaul mainstream porn

Recording more allegations than ever before. Joe Giddens/PA Archive

The Press Association recently obtained new figures under Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, which show that police are dealing with their largest ever volume of revenge pornography cases. In the six months from October 2014 to April 2015, a total of 139 revenge porn allegations were made, on behalf of victims ranging from 11 years old, to over 60.

It is debatable whether the statistics represent a real increase in the number of offences, or whether a tightening of the laws on revenge pornography has resulted in more allegations being made. Details of the cases were provided by 14 of the 43 police forces across England and Wales. The remaining forces either had no record of any complaints, or refused to provide data due to FoI time limits.

Revenge pornography has continued to gain attention internationally after a series of high-profile cases. In the UK, the issue came to the fore when evidence emerged that police were failing to deal with it appropriately: the Press Association revealed that only six of the 149 allegations made to eight police forces from 2012 to 2014 resulted in police action.

This prompted the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to publish new guidelines, in an effort to inform police and prosecutors that existing harassment and indecency legislation could be used to prosecute cases of revenge pornography. The term “revenge pornography” was used in the guidelines to refer to the sharing of sexually explicit material, without the consent of the person featured.

The reported rise in allegations since October 2014 has been attributed to these new guidelines. The statistics have also revealed an increase in police action: 13 people have been charged during the six month period – more than double the rate from 2012 to 2014 – although many of these cases are yet to reach a conclusion. And in April 2015, new legislation was introduced to tackle revenge pornography specifically: posting revenge pornography is now deemed a criminal offence, which carries a maximum sentence of two years.

Experts vary in their approaches to combating revenge pornography – some are convinced that legislation holds the key, while others argue that education will prove most useful. I applaud their efforts, but am of the view that it’s going to take much more than that.

One small step

Sarah Green, acting director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, argues that the recent progress in addressing revenge pornography has clearly encouraged victims to come forward. Green holds that these statistics don’t reveal an increase in the crime, but rather growing awareness. She says that victims now feel “more confident that this crime will be taken seriously if reported”.

Green advocates for a two-pronged attack to tackle the crime. First, the police and courts should continue their pursuit of those who commit this offence. Second, the government should “step up efforts to prevent this kind of abuse in the first place, by ensuring all young people get good quality sex and relationships education in school where they talk about respect and equality and the law on consent and abuse.”

I thoroughly agree that sex and relationship education in schools must involve discussion about pornography, equality, consent and abuse. Education is a necessary tool when tackling the issue of revenge pornography. But helping young people reflect upon moral, philosophical and practical issues around sexuality can only be one part of the solution, which needs take a much broader approach.

It’s not just kids who need to learn about revenge porn. from www.shutterstock.com

For one thing, it is not just young people who share sexually explicit images online without the subject’s consent. The perpetrators include older people who are aware of the moral issues involved with regard to gender equality and consent. And attempting to teach children to responsibly negotiate a world of pornographic sexuality, which is not of their own making, to me smacks of that old, hypocritical maxim of child rearing: “do as I say, not as I do”.

While the pornography industry flourishes, and the adult appetite for what would once have been classified as “hardcore” pornography proliferates, addressing the problem of revenge porn solely through the education of young people can only be one small remedial step.

The law is not enough

Lawyers themselves are concerned that criminalising revenge pornography will not prove sufficient to address the offence and its impact on victims. Jef McAllister, managing partner at the London-based law firm McAllister Olivarius, which represents revenge pornography victims, has said:

The new law and guidelines are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eliminating the problem. Websites that encourage and profit from revenge pornography are not covered by the law, victims usually can’t get the material taken down unless they own the copyright and less than 10% of allegations result in a caution or a charge. Criminal prosecutors are already stretched.

McAllister would like to see a civil law introduced, which would allow victims to sue perpetrators for damages, and to take out injunctions against them. He also pointed out that introducing a civil remedy would give victims more options as, in many cases, women do not want to criminalise the men they once loved.

Sharing images online is all too easy. from www.shutterstock.com

Legally, revenge pornography is regarded as a specific crime, for which perpetrators must bear equal punishment, regardless of their gender. But we can also see that McAllister Olivarious seek to address the offence in the broader social context of the victim’s personal experience, the gendered nature of the crime, and the internet itself as a platform where images can be reproduced and shared without redress. The firm acknowledges that although the new law is a good start, it doesn’t provide a way to get the material down quickly, targets only those who “intend to cause distress” (a difficult allegation to prove) and means that people who spread the images afterwards are exempt from punishment.

The politics of sex

There’s no doubt that legal and educational remedies will serve an important role in putting a stop to revenge pornography, and mitigating its harmful effects. But it seems to me quite clear that the crime of revenge pornography on its own. Revenge pornography could not exist without mainstream pornography. Mainstream porn is a pervasive genre, wherein certain acts and people are vilified or humiliated, and others are lauded. It categorises sexual women as sluts or whores, but defines sexual men as heroes.

The language and behaviour in pornography blurs lines between violence towards women, consent and the erotic, in a way that is most often degrading and abusive to women. At the same time, pornography presents these dynamics as “real” and “natural”. The outcome is that pornography shames women who have sex, but not men. This gendered shame becomes normalised and infiltrates our perceptions of, and attitudes toward, sexual women in mainstream society: men are not shamed by the circulation of explicit images of themselves in the way that women are.

It is unsurprising, then, that revenge pornography is a gendered crime: the overwhelming majority of victims are women, and the perpetrators are largely male. According to the recent Press Association statistics, there were eight female complainants for every one male, and an overwhelming number of cases involved former partners. Of course, men and boys – like women and girls – have bodily integrity and dignity that need to be upheld and protected by the law. But until we address the spread of misogynistic, mainstream pornography – and the social norms which make its content permissible in adult life – our solutions to the problem of revenge pornography will have little effect.