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"

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

Photograph: Getty Images

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

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.