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We need to talk about revenge porn

"Young women who have contacted us talk about feeling “dirty” and “shamed”, they talk about self -harming and depression"

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

This week, California became the latest place to tackle revenge porn. With prison sentences of up to six months or fines of up to $1,000 they have agreed that sharing intimate images without the other person’s consent should be punishable by law. Building on the work of the inspiring women of End Revenge Porn and Army of She, Scotland has begun to explore how we can actively tackle this growing problem here in the UK.

At Scottish Women’s Aid, we’ve been running the Stop Revenge Porn Scotland campaign for the last few months, and by and large we’ve had great support from the public, practitioners, the Police and politicians. We’ve had debates in Parliament, we’ve had round tables with legal experts, we’ve delivered training to civil servants and others, and we’ve created a wall of support for folk to participate in, including two MSPs.

However, there are a couple of questions that we’re continually asked -why did she do it, what would you say to young women thinking about doing it, and why is it such a big deal? Rarely are we asked- how can we stop some young men from sharing these images and/or videos. Rather than revenge porn being some strange perpetrator-less crime, this has more to do with the usual suspects; victim blaming and slut shaming.

For those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with these concepts, this is the social narrative that positions rape and abuse as natural; that holds women responsible for containing these “natural urges”. The argument goes, if we don’t protect ourselves properly, then we can’t blame men for acting out in their “natural ways”. Hence- you were asking for it, what did you expect, you lead him on etc etc. Hugely offensive to all of us. We would all hope that the men and boys in our lives are much, much better than that.

But alongside these responses, young people also face a particular kind of disbelief and minimising. Being teenagers or young people, they have always borne the brunt of moral panics, and in this instance they may be exploring their sexualities through very modern technologies, technologies that often mean nothing to different generations. For many young people, intimacy doesn’t just occur in the bedroom, it occurs online. The world (or at least, the adults in positions of power and authority) massively underestimates just how much the digital world means to digital natives. According to a study by Youth Net, 75 per cent of young people claimed they could not live without the internet and 45% of young people said they felt happiest when they were online. Twice as many 18-year-olds use Facebook than are registered to vote (Electoral commission).

Clearly, this online world is central to their lives. Having pictures or videos emailed to your employers, your teachers, your parents and friends is often just the start of it. Some women are contacted by stranger’s years later with old pictures that have been downloaded and saved. Some women are blackmailed, threatened and coerced with the threat of sharing images. Young women who have contacted us talk about feeling “dirty” and “shamed”, they talk about self -harming and depression. This is not a one off incident with no repercussions- it is harassment, it is humiliation, it is violence against women. Guidance and advice needs to move away from simply talking to your mum or teacher, or deactivating accounts. We urgently need to move to a place where we understand that violence against women that occurs online is violence against women. We are way past turning the computer off and walking away.

Ellie Hutchinson is the co-ordinator for Stop Revenge Porn Scotland, the UK’s first campaign dedicated to this work