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6 September 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 1:26pm

Everyone needs to do more in the fight against revenge porn

The annual Violence Against Women and Girls report has revealed more than 200 people have been prosecuted for revenge porn. Here's why that isn't enough. 

By Amelia Tait

As of today, we now know the exact number of people in the UK who have ever been prosecuted for revenge porn. Since the act of distributing sexual images of an individual in order to humiliate them became a crime in April 2015, precisely 206 people have been prosecuted. 206. Is that a good number? It’s a number. It’s much more than the zero the total sat at two years ago. It’s much less than the 3,700 victims who have contacted the Revenge Porn Helpline in the last year alone.

“It’s a reasonable amount,” says Alexandra Whiston-Dew, a solicitor at Mishcon de Reya and manager of the firm and Queen Mary University’s partnership project SPITE (Sharing and Publishing Images to Embarrass), a free legal advice service for victims of revenge porn. “It’s a reasonable number of prosecutions for a relatively new law.”

Reasonable or not, it’s hard to argue that more can’t be done when 61% of reported offences result in no action at all being taken against the perpetrator. Police claim that this is mostly due to either a lack of evidence or victims deciding not to prosecute. There are multiple reasons that victims do this, not least because the evidence they need to showcase to police and their lawyers are their most personal, intimate pictures. There is also little guarantee of anonymity for the victim, who can request a reporting restriction but are thrown into the limelight if it is not granted. But the prosecution process itself is off-putting, as lawyers must prove that a perpetrator was motivated by a desire to humiliate and cause distress.  

“Proving intent is quite difficult and it’s more difficult than in some other offences like harassment,” says Whiston-Dew. “In practice it means that if someone published a private sexual image and they were ‘just having a laugh’, not intending to cause distress, they couldn’t be prosecuted under the revenge porn law.”

Due to this limitation, many successful prosecutions are against ex-partners who were acting after a break up, where a desire for revenge is clearer. Whiston-Dew has experienced cases where an ex-partner threatened to share images with a victim’s church community, family, or employer. In these instances, where threats and blackmail are involved, it is easier to prove intent.

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Ex-partners don’t have a monopoly on seeking revenge, however, and it’s easy to see how a particularly malicious perpetrator could get around the law by publishing images without sending any revealing messages. Because of this, Whiston-Dew thinks things need to change. “I think the bar should be lowered,” she says, “particularly because of the damage it can cause to the victim’s life. They often feel that their whole lives are falling apart.”

Oh, hang on. This just in. I’ve heard you’ve solved the problem. “Shouldn’t take naked images if you don’t want ‘em shared,” you say, nodding sagely. Is that? Sorry, what was that? Did you just mutter the word “sluts”?

Sluts – if you think such a thing exists – are victims of revenge porn, sure. So are virgins. Last year, so were three 11 year olds. So are people who have never taken a naked photograph of themselves in their life. According to the director of public prosecutions, last year a man was charged after sharing intimate pictures of a woman on Facebook. She was not aware the photographs had been taken.

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Victim-blaming is not the sole reserve of old-fashioned slut-shamers, however, and Whiston-Dew tells me that when SPITE was first established, victims often called it after receiving little help from the police. “The police would turn around and say ‘Well you shouldn’t have sent naked pictures’, so there was a huge amount of victim-blaming which was extremely distressing for those individuals.” Thankfully, police began to take it “a little more seriously” after the act came into force. “But it took them a long time to really engage with the subtleties,” she says.

Beyond the police and the law, however, there are other changes that need to be made to ensure the maximum number of prosecutions for revenge porn. Although the internet is international, laws aren’t, and Whiston-Dew says there are difficulties prosecuting cases that were uploaded in different countries. Social media companies also fall under different jurisdictions, so it is hard for the law to compel them to take action when revenge porn is uploaded to their sites. Thankfully, Microsoft and Google have already removed some cases of revenge porn successfully, yet despite updating their community guidelines in 2015, Facebook – the site used by 68% of perpetrators who uploaded revenge porn to social media – has had little success.

Pretty much everyone then, can do more to tackle revenge porn. In order for more victims to go through with prosecution, victim-blaming needs to become an archaic relic of the past. “There has to be a change in the point of view of victim blaming,” says Whiston-Dew, “Hopefully the media attention will empower victims.”

You can tackle victim-blaming in a multitude of ways. Call out those who make degrading comments. Educate people about the complex realities of revenge porn. When a celebrity’s naked picture leaks, resist the urge to look it up. Most importantly, if you want to: take nudes. 

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