Tackling revenge porn – a gut reaction to Facebook’s approach

10 November 2017

How comfortable do you feel when you read headlines like these - Facebook “remembers” nude images to combat revenge porn or Facebook says it needs your explicit photos to combat revenge porn?  Something in your gut doesn’t feel quite right does it?

Image: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen, Flickr

In the week that Facebook has announced that they are trialling a system that allows users to message themselves their nude pictures in order to combat sexual abuse, it seems timely to reflect on the realities of online and offline social worlds and to recognise who the new gatekeepers are.

Boundaries – online and offline

Young people experience the online and offline social worlds as ‘mutually constituted’.  They share pictures, text based information, connect, and build relationships that move from offline to online and back again. Sharing images of bodies is often voluntary and can be educational, sexual and conversational. But there is a growing problem around sharing private (often sexual) photos or videos, of another person without their consent with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress. It is unclear where the corporeal boundaries are, what they mean and how they can be controlled.

Recent political developments and international research on sex education in digital spaces show an urgent need for a critical review on the safety of online spaces, and a need for more active facilitation.  Whilst there is a certain logic in the current Facebook trial, evidence tells us that a technical tool isn’t the answer. “Misuse” is the word that rings in my ears and leads my gut to tighten. Many will want to be assured that Facebook have given adequate thought to how they handle sensitive content and will need watertight practices in places to ensure that nothing can go wrong.

Understanding gender and violence in a digital era

Meanwhile, how we understand gender and violence in the digital era is a critical and high priority issue for researchers, activists, health practitioners, parents and young people for a variety of personal and professional reasons.

For sex educators understanding this space is crucial. Research carried out by IDS identified the lived experiences of young people in online spaces and how in many developing countries, traditional gatekeepers of sex education, such as governments, religious leaders and parents, still attempt to keep sexuality out of the public sphere.

But these efforts often only lead to the  preventiion of sex education in the classroom, leaving young people to learn about sex online. Online,  genuine sex educators compete for their audience against widespread amateur and professional pornography and the new gatekeepers such as Facebook enforcing self-determined censorship.

IDS research with Love Matters on porn and censorship in sex education also showed that it is extremely difficult to define and recognise porn and that legitimate sex education efforts are subjected to censorship by algorithms which claim these as obscene when there is no nudity or sexual vocabulary involved.  Giving individuals a say in the selection of images which they find obscene is a very useful aspect of the new Facebook initiative which does potentially recognise sexual diversity and agency. But what if these pictures involve sex with minors? Or with animals? Where are the red lines?. Moreover, how will facebook deal with sexual diversity in a world in which same sex relationships are still illegal in many countries? Or what about young minors or people who have been trafficked, and sexually coerced while being filmed? Will Facebook store these? Ultimately we need to deal with the human social realities in all their diversity and complexities. And that means recognising power.

Sex, rights, pleasure and power

In a recent Sex, Rights and Pleasure Lab event held at IDS we worked with young adults in the UK and practitioners to navigate this space and develop interventions to try to combat digitally mediated sexual and gender based violence –including ‘’revenge porn’’ whilst retaining the rights to sexual pleasure and freedom.

Throughout these discussions there was little doubt that social media can help young adults to talk more freely but, it can also create space for bullying and online harassment extending from physical realities in which violence and exclusion are real. Whilst digital sex education can simultaneously be places of social support and sites of extended gender based and sexual violence. Women and LGBT are particularly targets of trolling and other forms of violence. And they do not always have their images at hand which they can share with Facebook.

So is it possible to have pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence for all online and offline? Well it’s complicated. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships and to basic human rights such as freedom from violence. This applies also in on-line spaces. Many platforms are owned by corporations which have not made up their mind whether they are utility services or publishers- two roles that are difficult to combine. So with some trepidation I wish Facebook’s trial huge amounts of luck and hope that my initial unease starts to fade as understanding and awareness of the bigger issues grow.

 

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