Revenge Porn: The shameful reason why legislation is not enough

Comment International Issues

Image description: A phone camera, cast in a red light.

Cw: Sexual abuse

Let’s begin with a story. Not from the last decade, but from last week. A woman in Italy was fired from her job as a school teacher when her ex-partner circulated her private sexual photos which eventually reached students’ parents, despite the country passing legislation banning the act of “revenge porn” last year.

The Red Code Bill, which was initially created to protect women against stalking and violence, extended its powers in 2019 to include a €15,000 or six-year imprisonment for sharing sexual images or videos without consent. Thanks to this legislation, the victim later gained her job back and her ex-partner was sentenced to one year of social services.

However, progress in legislation does not equal societal progression.

This is not, however, a happy ending for two key reasons: firstly, the ex-partner clearly felt that circulating sexually explicit photos was the best method of “getting back” at the victim for breaking up with him.

Secondly, the school which she worked for decided that she was in the wrong and deserved punishment, not the individual who sent private (i.e. never intended for public circulation) photos without the victim’s consent.

These two factors caused serious stress and humiliation for the victim who, despite winning the case against her ex, must now live with the social and emotional consequences. This case highlights the prevailing misogynistic attitudes rampant in Italian society and it is evident that these attitudes are yet to catch up with the legislation in place.

This issue is not confined to Italy. The UK criminalised revenge porn back in 2015 through an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, whereby any distribution of private, sexually explicit photos or videos can entail a punishment of up to two years in prison.

However, progress in legislation does not equal societal progression. Reports of revenge porn in fact surged in the UK during this year’s initial lockdown as the Revenge Porn Helpline reported a 22% rise in reports from last year, claiming that 2020 has been the busiest year on record. Roughly two-thirds of victims are women.

Does this mean that legislation is ineffective as a means of prevention? Of course not. One of the reasons why we are seeing an increase in reports is because of legislation: that is, more victims feel confident to report these acts and so more people are being prosecuted which is a positive outcome.

Unfortunately, legislation can only treat (some of) the symptoms of long-term misogynistic behaviour, not the cause. Many revenge porn campaigners have expressed concern that revenge porn is here for the long-run as an alternative form of domestic and/or sexual abuse.

David Wright, the director of UK Safer Internet Centre, goes as far as to call revenge porn the “new normal”. The problem, then, does not lie solely in legislation: it lies in misogyny.

Back to the case in Italy. The ex-partner felt that circulating sexually explicit photos was the best method of “getting back” at the victim for breaking up with him. Here lies misogynistic problem number one: the notion of “revenge”. The term “revenge porn” itself implies that the perpetrator has a justification for committing the crime (the justification being that the victim broke up with him).

To be clear, there is never a justification for sharing private photos without consent. The term itself therefore highlights how society and the legislation participates in entrenched attitudes of misogyny: what did she do to make him share those photos? Is it her fault? Did she dare upset a man’s fragile ego? Did she deserve it?

What is clear is that societal attitudes need to change before we see any real progress regarding revenge porn.

This leads us neatly into problem number two: the school which she worked for decided that she was in the wrong and deserved punishment. The news report does not specify the genders of those who made the decision to fire her, but what is clear is that their immediate response was that she had also participated in an immoral act in taking and sending a sexually explicit photo of herself in the first place.

It is now rather commonplace for men to send unsolicited pictures to strangers (otherwise known as “dick pics”), yet if a woman dares to take a private, sexual photo to send to their intimate partner, then she must be the one socially reprimanded should that photo ever be seen by eyes of others.

What is clear is that societal attitudes need to change before we see any real progress regarding revenge porn. The issue is not revenge porn itself, it is the wider context around it: the belief that women are initiators of their own abuse, and the belief that it is dirty and wrong for women to express their sexuality and share that with their sexual partners, while sexuality is a source of pride and power for men.

Until we educate ourselves about misogyny, especially unconscious misogyny, and provide better understanding and support for those who experience it, then legislation can only make the act of revenge porn less attractive for fear of punishment. The aim of revenge porn is to inflict embarrassment and shame upon its victims.

Appropriately, then, revenge porn should not simply be an unattractive option for prideful revenge – it should be morally and socially shameful.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/K8h1cY0D__M

 

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