Sex, Rights and Pleasure: become part of the solution to revenge porn

11 January 2017

A girl from my high school had a dozen nude pictures she had taken for her boyfriend distributed to all her classmates when he became her ex. A few months later, I witnessed a guy from a different school but same social circle telling a group of people the story of this  ‘slut’ and shaming her for not consenting to have sex with him after the second date. In his mind, if she had taken those pictures in the past, she was not entitled to refuse intercourse with him. 

What is ‘revenge porn’?

‘Revenge porn’ is the sharing of private, sexual materials, either photos or videos, of another person without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress. It can happen both online and offline, by sharing images electronically or in a traditional way. It includes the uploading of images to the internet, sharing by text and e-mail, or showing someone a physical or electronic image. Often images are used to get revenge on a partner after a break-up. It can have devastating consequences for victims including a severe impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Why does it matter?

Currently there are over 3000 websites that host revenge porn. In addition there are countless stories of revenge porn affecting victim’s personals lives in multiple aspects for which they are not prepared, including their mental health, school attendance, professional careers, and social lives. The distribution of private images to family members, friends or in work environments can also happen through every-day platforms such as email, text messages or social networks. Victims of this type of harassment have lost jobs, abandoned school, and suffered from anxiety, social isolation and even committed suicide in extreme cases. This creates a tension between the right of experiencing sexuality with pleasure and freedom, and the potential threats of sharing images in so-believed privacy.

The World Association for Sexual Health and the World Health Organisation’s definition of sexual health is ‘a state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence’, which makes digitally mediated sexual violence a sexual health problem that requires personal, national and global action.

This kind of sexual violence, which primarily affects women, is present in all realms, from Hollywood superstars to students all over the world, making the problem global at scale. However, the issue has been problematised and dealt with in diverse ways in different countries.

How is revenge porn dealt with globally?

Dealing with the distribution of these images presents a dilemma: many argue revenge porn content can only me removed after it has been made public, as any prior instance would represent censoring free speech. This presents a conundrum, in which victims are not able to protect themselves until after the damage has been done.

The Philippines was the first country to criminalize revenge porn in 2009. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Spain and Japan, as well as some states in the United States of America and Australia, have followed in enacting laws that sanction it ex-post its publication. In Latin America Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are at the forefront of the discussion with legislation under debate, but no country has legal protection for victims yet. In the Americas, the American Convention creates the legal preconditions to consider revenge porn as non-protected speech creating a framework that can restrict this kind of content’s circulation. This type of regulation could be considered as a model to be replicated in other regions where current legal frameworks restrict preventing it, as tool to deal with it ex-ante distribution.

In addition to criminalizing the distribution of private images, legal frameworks allow States to create institutions to help victims. One such example is the UK’s Revenge Porn Helpline which offers free and confidential advice and support.

Online platforms have also established norms to regulate revenge porn. Google and Bing provide users with a web form to request the removal of links related to revenge pornography from search engines, and Microsoft will also remove content from OneDrive or Xbox Live when notified by a victim. Also, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter offer users the ability to report revenge pornography and request its removal. However, their definition of what is porn and what gets censored has not gone without controversy as it can undermine online sex education efforts.

What can we do about it?

Civil society has amplified demands for action on sexual and gender-based violence on numerous occasions. The #NiUnaMenos movement which began in Argentina and later expanded across Latina America, and the Shukumisa Campaign in South Africa, are just two examples of the power of citizen mobilisation and participation. While legal frameworks to protect victims are a necessary, civil society participation is key to inform and provide solutions, as well as to push the issue to the top of public and policy agendas.

We are taking a step in this direction during the Sex, Rights and Pleasure Lab, hosted by IDS and the University of Sussex from 17-20 January, where students and practitioners will work together to reflect and take  action to tackle this global development challenge. Please join us by signing up here!

Natalia Herbst holds an MA in Development Studies from IDS and has worked as an advisor on diversity and inclusion policies at the Government of the City of Buenos Aires. 

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