Revenge Porn: What Can You Do If You're A Victim?

"Revenge porn" refers to the malicious distribution of sexually explicit content without the consent of the individual involved. Usually, the culprit is an ex-partner who intends to hurt or humiliate the "star" of the recorded sex act. The NSW government this week announced a parliamentary inquiry into existing laws and whether there was any need for reform — but what if you're a victim right now? This is where the law currently stands.

Revenge porn picture from Shutterstock

Google's recent decision to remove content at the request of victims of revenge porn is a huge win for victims' rights. Governments are also reacting to the growing problem of revenge porn – including here in NSW. The offence of revenge porn usually involves the following aspects:

  • an existing or previous relationship;
  • an intent to cause harm;
  • the unauthorised public release of intimate images; and
  • the act is facilitated by technology.

While this is neither a legal definition nor an exhaustive one, it does capture the concept of how revenge porn is seen in today's society. But is revenge porn just one example of technology intersecting with sexual and domestic violence? And what legal efforts have been made to combat it?

The rise of revenge porn

A number of factors have driven the rise in incidences of revenge porn. This includes the wide availability to create content through devices such as smartphones and the ability to distribute this content via the internet and other communication channels.

Various legislative acts in jurisdictions around the world provide for specific revenge porn offences. These typically contain requirements of non-consensual distribution or publication of intimate images, intent on the part of the offender and the infliction of harm.

While a number of jurisdictions have enacted legislation to combat revenge porn, substantial challenges for law enforcement remain. First, police action requires the victim becoming aware of images being posted.

Second, offences of this nature often are transnational in nature — they occur in multiple countries and multiple legal jurisdictions. This poses investigative challenges in securing the evidence needed to prosecute.

Third, the acts are often deliberately conducted in such a way as to preserve the offender's anonymity.

Comparison of US and international revenge porn laws:

Source: Terry Goldsworthy

Google is the latest in a series of high-profile internet companies to enact a removal policy. Reddit, Twitter and Facebook have already initiated such policies.

Google will consider the removal of material only once users have submitted an online request. The final decision as to whether content should be removed remains a matter for Google.

Though Google has identified that the decision was motivated by its appreciation of the destructive nature such material has on (mostly female) victims, it is consistent with Google's current policy of removing sensitive personal information such as bank account numbers and signatures.

However, the announcement is not universally welcomed. The decision to remove revenge porn has been cited as a potential infringement of the right to free speech.

The criticisms are not all centred on civil rights arguments either. Legitimate concerns are raised as to how exactly the policy will be administered and how Google will deal with historic revenge porn images that have been freely available.

Revenge porn as sexual violence

While most would agree that revenge porn is deplorable, the act can also be viewed as a digital extension of sexual violence, making it a far more serious crime.

That stalking, domestic violence, intimate partner violence and sexual assault are all linked in some way is not a new idea. Research has consistently shown that victims affected by these offences experience psychological and physiological symptoms including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They may also in some circumstances be at risk of physical harm – for example, physical assault or forced sexual contact.

In the past, recommendations have been made for specific laws to target stalking on the internet, as it is viewed as an entirely new type of crime or behaviour, similar to the response for revenge porn. Others contend that cyberstalking is a covert form of stalking and merely a new means for offenders to pursue their victims.

How technology has impacted on criminal activity.

Cyberstalking research

Surveys in the US have shown that approximately one-quarter of female stalking victims are contacted and harassed via e-mail or instant messaging. Cyberstalking behaviours are most likely to involve:

  • threatening, harassing or obscene e-mails;
  • live chat harassment or online verbal abuse;
  • threatening or obscene calls to a cell phone;
  • improper messages on message boards; and
  • text and instant messaging.

The scourge of cyberstalking is considered just as damaging as any other type of pursuit behaviour. It can lead to the same types of physical and mental harm. An ongoing stalking survey, exploring victim responses, is looking at, among other things, the use of online technology to harass someone.

While there have been further calls for specific legislation to deal with issues like revenge porn, that in itself will not be the solution. In many states, traditional laws already capture revenge porn as an offence.

Making police investigations more effective by addressing the investigative barriers is much more important. In essence, the law enforcement response needs to be modernised to meet the changing technological environment.

Technology's rise has impacted our lives in almost very aspect, and the nature of criminal acts is no exception. It is how prepared we are to meet this challenge, and how effective our responses are as a society, that will be the true indicators of success in combating new and emerging criminal threats.

What to do if you're a victim right now

It seems likely that revenge pornography legislation will be gradually rolled out across Australia during the next few years. But what can you do in the meantime?

Surprisingly, there isn't a whole lot of information online that can help in this area: typing "revenge porn victim, help needed" into Google brings up a bunch of overseas articles and salacious news stories but very little in the way of advice. Here's a brief overview of the current laws as we understand them.

While the exact rules differ slightly from state to state, it is illegal under Commonwealth law to publish sexually explicit images of someone without their consent. You should definitely contact the police if this kind of material is being spread online, or if you feel unsafe or threatened in any way. Rest assured, your concerns will be treated very seriously.

On its website, the National Youth Law Centre provides two real-life examples of perpetrators who were charged for revenge porn-related offenses:

A 20 year old boy posted 6 nude photos of his 18 year old ex-girlfriend on Facebook as a revenge for breaking up with him. His ex-girlfriend reported this to the police and he removed the photos for a short time. When he re-posted those photos later that day, the Police arrested and charged him with posting indecent pictures. He was given a 6 months home detention and was left with a criminal record.   In another case, a 19 year old boy used Skype to stream a video of him having sex with an 18 year old girl to several of his friends. When she found out that she was filmed without her consent, she reported this to the police. The boy was found guilty of using the internet in a menacing, harassing or offensive way and of committing an act of indecency.

Naturally, you should also report the offending material to the organisation that is hosting it; be it Facebook, an internet forum or even a porn site. You can also apply for a protection order to stop a person from contacting you or sending out images to harass you.

It is also a good idea to confide in a trusted family member or friend and to seek legal advice. This isn't something you need to face alone. In the words of a Latrobe University paper on the subject: "By speaking out you will be raising awareness of the seriousness of this issue and maybe encourage other victims to seek assistance as well."

The ConversationTerry Goldsworthy is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Bond University.
Joseph Crowley is Senior Teaching Fellow at Bond University.
Matthew Raj is PhD Student and Teaching Fellow at Bond University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Chris Jager also contributed to this article.


Comments

    If I was a victim of revenge porn I guess I would have to formally apologise to everyone who saw it........I might also be liable to pay for their PTSD counseling as well.

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