If Facebook is serious about gender-based hate, why is it still hosting revenge porn?

Want to get back at your girlfriend for leaving you? Upload a photo she gave you in private and let strangers help you abuse her. Facebook won't do anything about it.

Facebook has a problem with women. That was clear about the time it started to take down photos that showed women’s mastectomy scars whilst leaving images that apparently showed women beaten and raped.

As problems go, it’s been a longstanding one (I wrote back in October 2011 about their housing of rape promoting groups – groups like “Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you don’t want to wake her up” – and refusal to do anything about it). It’s also been progressing. As last month’s outcry over misogynistic pages showed, over the past two years horrific (warning: not hyperbole) words have been joined by horrific pictures

After a targeted campaign by feminist groups, Facebook finally listened. They made a public commitment to improve their handling of gender-based hate. 

I wonder, then, why "revenge porn" pages are sitting on the site.

By unhappy accident, I stumbled upon one last week. After less than five minutes of investigation via the Facebook search tool, I’d found 22 more. (Having continued to search over the past few days, it was creepily easy to keep finding new pages.)

Pages with the declared intention to (quote) "Expose all the slags and sluts" and "Inbox pictures of your nude ex and get them back for the bad things!" Want to get back at your girlfriend for leaving you? Upload a photo she gave you in private and let strangers help you abuse her. 

It’s been known for a while that there are websites dedicated to "revenge porn". They’re about humiliation and shaming women for being sexual. And now Facebook is part of it.

On the site’s pages, there’s photo after photo of women in their underwear or holding their breasts. Some are masturbating. One I saw was a woman giving oral sex – a picture that showed her face.

Facebook’s "comment" and "like" functions allow an added layer of sleazy misogyny. With a click, users can rate what they see or write what they’d like to do to the victim. (Examples: "i would smash you in" and "there a boss pear [sic] of tits to sponk all over lool.")

Under one photo of a woman holding her breasts that showed her bedroom, users proceeded to have a conversation about how she needed to “spend less time in front of that mirror and start cleaning up that room. what [sic] shit hole.” (10 likes).  I imagine they lifted that one out of the sexist’s rulebook: while calling a woman a slag, tell her to do more housework.

Whether the victim is named varies. On some pages, there are photos of undressed women and above each – with a chilling lack of comment – is their full name. On others, the photos are anonymous and fellow Facebook users bate the poster to name and shame her.

Many of the pages have a town or city in their title, as if this is a trend with regional affiliations. Disturbingly, it also makes it easier for anyone to identify and find the victims. (The NS has decided not to give any more details, or link to any such sites, to avoid further distress to those featured.)

Holly Jacobs, Founder of End Revenge Porn, tells me that so far she’s seen limited action from Facebook in dealing with the issue. “Several people have told me that after they report pages like [these], Facebook refuses to remove them on account that they are not violating any of their terms of service,” she says. “I’d love for Facebook to eventually recognize that these are essentially promoting violence against women, but I suppose that will take some time.”

Pornography, in and of itself, clearly violates Facebook’s terms and conditions. As such, if you report a page that shows sexual acts or nudity, the explicit content means it should be taken down (though that's cold comfort to the naked victims in the meantime). But what about the revenge porn pages where women aren’t naked? Many of the victims I saw were in their bra and pants. To the cold wording of terms and conditions, an ex-boyfriend vengefully posting a photo of a woman in her underwear could be no different than a girl posting a photo of herself on holiday in a bikini. If Facebook’s point of concern is nudity rather than misogyny, what happens to the (technically covered) women currently having their image abused on the site?

Or put it another way, does a woman having her image put online to shame and humiliate only matter to Facebook if it shows her nipples or genitals?

If Facebook is serious about gender-based hate, it needs to get to grips with this: clarifying where it stands on revenge porn and dealing with what’s currently festering under its name. Or, as its users stumble across themselves exposed for other’s twisted amusement, Facebook’s problem with women is only going to get darker. 

Facebook has made a public commitment to improve their handling of gender-based hate, and yet revenge porn is depressingly easy to find on the site. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
Show Hide image

How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times