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‘Revenge porn’: Exposing cruel disclosure

This is a sidebar to my earlier post about social norms as one of the solutions to social cruelty online, zooming in on one form of it.

camera“Revenge porn” needs to be understood and exposed for what it is so it can be neutralized. Its power to harm will lessen as we stigmatize the shaming rather than its victims.

So let’s be completely clear about what revenge porn is: malicious distribution of someone’s nude or sexually explicit photos without his or her consent.

Focus on distribution, not creation

According to University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks, the more accurate term is “nonconsensual pornography” – because it’s “disclosure of private, sexually explicit photos or videos” without the consent of the person whose images are being disclosed, she said in a talk at the National Network to End Domestic Violence‘s (NNEDV’s) Tech Summit last week. “Legally and ethically, the focus should be on the disclosure, not the creation, of the images.” Why? Because it’s the disclosure that harms. In many cases the images were created consensually by both partners or by the person who is later victimized by his or her partner (with “selfies,” the distribution of which California’s “revenge porn law” absurdly doesn’t address).

Another reason why “revenge porn” isn’t accurate is because we often think in terms of a single act of revenge. Even if images are shared once in a single act of anger on a lot of Web sites, they can be widely viewed for a long time because it’s hard to get them all taken down. But the victimization can go on and on, too, when a perpetrator becomes a kind of stalker, monitoring the victim and sharing images of her in more and more places at particularly vulnerable times in her life.

From victim to activist

The sociopathic version is what Holly Jacobs, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, experienced. After a 3-year long-distance relationship ended, her ex-boyfriend became a stalker who for years followed her online and distributed explicit photos and images both publicly and in a targeted way to people in her personal and professional life, she said, also speaking at the Tech Summit. Getting images taken down became her “other full-time job,” Jacobs said. After years of working to get images deleted from hundreds of Web sites, carefully providing evidence for but failing to get help from police departments and finally the FBI (at the time there were no laws against “revenge porn” so they told her it wasn’t a crime) and having to explain to employers and colleagues why they were seeing these images of her online, she turned a corner. She had a kind of epiphany she describes here that started her on the road to healing her own life and helping other victims do the same.

Why am I putting all this in a blog about youth? Cases like Jacobs’s, especially the sociopathic ones, are very rare, fortunately. So I’m not in any way suggesting that “revenge porn” is exploding. It’s a subset of harmful sexting, and harmful sexting itself is rare (one study put it at 8% of the 25-30% of youth who had engaged in sexting).

Shaming, not sexting, is the weapon

But sexting is not the weapon; public shaming – usually called “slut-shaming” (because females are usually the victims) – is the weapon of the revenge porn perpetrator. I’m writing about all this because I worry that alarmist messaging and policy making about youth sexting is reinforcing the public shaming that feeds abuse of sexting and increases harm. Remember what I wrote above from Professor Franks’s remarks – that, to reduce harm (and increase the credibility of efforts to reduce harm), we need to focus on the disclosure of sexting photos not the creation of them (and remember that sexual images have been part of human sexuality probably since they were carved into cave walls).

What’s particularly concerning where youth are concerned is that “efforts are under way to criminalize this self-creation behavior,” writes author and digital risk educator Nancy Willard, J.D, in EmbraceCivility.org. “These well-intended efforts are misplaced. Efforts to criminalize self-creation could increase sexual abuse because this is likely to cause those young people who are actually being abused to fear reporting such abuse.”

Sexual health education crucial

For the very reason that 1) a single impulsive burst of anger, plus 2) the copy-and-paste convenience of digital media with its powers of irreversible instant mass distribution, plus 3) adults’ fears, misunderstanding and stigmatization of sexting are converging now, accurate information, media literacy and education are more important than ever. Sexting, its implications and the full spectrum of motivations behind it – from flirting to consensual sexual activity to sexual harassment to criminal extortion – need to be part of sexual health education.

We all, especially our children, who are just learning what healthy relationships look like, need to know what they do and don’t look like in the digital age. They need to know that coercive sexting and the nonconsensual distribution of “sexts” is sexual harassment, because knowledge is safety and self-actualization.

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