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We Need To Talk About Revenge Porn

01/10/2015 5:33 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Man taking picture of his girlfriend in the bedroom

There is a scene in Sex and the City when Samantha Jones plasters Richard Wright's neighbourhood with posters of his face, branded with the words 'CHEATER!' and 'LIAR!!!'. She is stopped by a street cop (Chandra Wilson pre Dr Miranda Bailey) and explains: "This man said he loved me and I caught him eating another woman's pussy."

In 2002, it was funny. We laughed along with Samantha as she exacted her revenge on Richard. He was fully clothed in the picture, of course. And nameless. And who among us hadn't fantasised about making our ex-lovers pay for their transgressions?

Fast-forward to 2015 and it's not quite so amusing. There's a new way to shame and torture our exes, or anyone we simply don't like, provided we can access personal photographs of them.

Enter revenge porn.

The posting of intimate photographs to shame, humiliate and threaten, is on the rise. Particularly cruel ex-partners can now share photographs sent to them privately during a relationship, and ever-resourceful hackers have found ways to obtain the most private of images. These pictures can go 'viral' overnight, with some victims labelling the experience as akin to 'cyber rape'.

Surely this is illegal, right? Wrong. While some legal protections exist in cases where hacking can be demonstrated, or where victims own the copyright to the images, loopholes in laws internationally make it difficult to bring revenge porn practitioners to justice.

The law also varies across country borders (a fact that makes policing the borderless internet particularly fraught), from a recent law change in California that makes it illegal to distribute explicit or naked photographs or videos of someone without their consent, to Australian federal laws, which, though there is currently a push to criminalise revenge porn, presently provide no specific protection.

Many jurisdictions are passing new laws to try to combat the problem, such as the so-called 'sexting' laws recently passed in Victoria, and New Zealand's Harmful Digital Communications Act.

While it's reassuring to think that legislators are finally responding, the narratives surrounding revenge porn are disturbing, a fact highlighted by the recent #MyBodyMyTerms campaign.

A common response to revenge porn is something along the lines of the incredulous, "why would someone send naked pictures of themselves anyway?" -- a question heavy with overtones of judgment, victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

Why someone would send naked pictures of themselves, or simply take them without sending them anywhere, is irrelevant. But the question plays right into the hands of the perpetrators, casting their victims as 'sluts'. As with all victim-blaming, the focus is shifted away from the perpetrators and their abusive actions to become a judgment of the moral characters of the victims.

Arguably, the question "why would you send naked photos of yourself" exists on the same spectrum as another infamous victim-blaming question, "what were you wearing?" The implication is the same: if you choose to represent yourself as a sexual being, how can you expect people to respect your personal boundaries?

While revenge porn also has male victims, the majority are female, and attitudes around female sexuality make revenge porn damaging for women. When women who choose to take or pose for sexually explicit photographs have those photographs distributed without their permission, does their willingness to showcase their sexuality make them somehow culpable, or give them less right to feel victimised?

The answer may seem to be an obvious 'no', but in a culture that condones victim-blaming, where the ideas of purity and promiscuity form a 'good' or 'bad' binary, where the representation of a woman as a sexual being is used as a weapon to shame, threaten and degrade her, it's rarely that simple.

Along with victim-blaming comes the objectification of the victims by anonymous online strangers, who feel entitled to judge a woman's body and appearance. Women who posed for pictures often intended solely for their partners become objects to be appraised and ridiculed, their bodies measured, attacked, laughed at, masturbated over... they are stripped of all control.

And then there are the horror stories. Whole galleries published, branded with the subject's full name, location and occupation. Women so traumatised they legally changed their names to try to escape their online 'reputations'. Women threatened and hounded on social media. Celebrities who suddenly find that their most intimate moments are spreading like wildfire on the internet.

At the heart of it we have to ask: what makes us feel that we have the right to violate someone? Either by publishing private media, or by viewing it online. What gives us the right to judge someone's body? What gives us the right to judge someone's choices? By viewing revenge porn images, we are complicit in a crime. And make no mistake, it is a crime. Even if the law doesn't yet reflect the fact.

As New Zealand actress and revenge porn survivor Teuila Blakely said in a recent video diary, "the fact that people go out of their way in their day to source [revenge porn] out, to share it, to discuss it, and then ridicule or help vilify that person... Honestly, really think about what it is you're doing."

We need to talk about revenge porn because it has to stop.

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Lizzie Marvelly is the editor of villainesse.com

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