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How Do We Stamp Out Revenge Porn?

The 18 year prison sentence that's just been handed out is a good start, but not giving Revenge Porn sites traffic in the first place would be better.
By Elfy Scott, 08 Apr 2015
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How Do We Stamp Out Revenge Porn?

Space 2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975 - 1976, by Francesca Woodman

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Earlier this week a San Diego court made a landmark decision: to slam the creator of revenge porn site UGotPosted.com, Kevin Bollaert, with an 18-year jail sentence, in addition to demanding $US15,000 paid in restitution to the victims of his crimes and a $US10,000 fine.

What made Bollaert's crime particularly hideous was the fact that he had discovered a way to profit directly off of the victims of revenge porn. When victims of his site made complaints and insisted on having the images removed, they were redirected to a site registered as changemyreputation.com where they would be charged a fee, ranging from $250 to $350 to remove the images. Over the course of two years Bollaert collected over $US30,000 from victims alone in this manner.

Not only was he hosting a site that encouraged jilted exes to ruin women's lives, he decided to hand out some good old fashioned blackmail as well.

Revenge porn has become an increasingly hot-button topic in the past six months. A series of high-profile cases have drawn both public and legal attention to the concept of implicit trust and privacy of certain images online. Perhaps the most definitive case to spur the debate was the mass leak of celebrity nude photos in August of 2014 that the Internet now collectively recognises as The Fappening.

Over 500 photographs were released across 4Chan, Reddit and various pornography sites of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The Fappening exposed that dark underbelly of the Internet to mass media in a way that it had never had before – this was made all the more obvious when a CNN tech analyst reported on the celebrity photo leak as a crime perpetrated by a "hacker known as 4Chan", and we all sat back with one eyebrow raised reflecting that these people simply do not know how the Internet works.

The fact is that years before the Fappening even fappened, scores of other women were victimised by violations of trust on the Internet. In 2010, Hunter Moore launched the notorious site IsAnyoneUp.com where users could anonymously submit naked photographs without the consent of their subjects, giving details about their location and very often, the sexual indiscretions that made them 'deserve' the revenge porn treatment. Moore has since been the target of defamation cases ranging up to $US250,000 and in February of this year entered a guilty plea for aiding and abetting hacking as well as aggravated identity theft, which could see him serve a seven year sentence and be charged a $US500,000 fine.

Both Bollaert and Moore's punishments may seem harsh for crimes that were once perceived as little more than cyber bullying, but it's unquestionably necessary that the law catches up with the insidious potential of this violation. Revenge porn has left countless lives devastated by malicious moral humiliation. Women have lost their jobs, had relationships destroyed and even taken their own lives as a result of violated privacy.

In 2013 a 17 year-old Brazilian girl, Julia Rebecca, took her own life after a video was released online of her engaging in sexual activities with a male and another female. Her family reported that she became increasingly withdrawn and depressed after the video was released until one night she signed off her Twitter account with the following message to her family, "I love you, I'm sorry for not being the perfect daughter but I tried. I'm sorry I'm sorry I love you so much". Her suicide was not an isolated event, and plenty of victims report that they're drawn to thoughts of killing themselves.

Most civilised folk can agree that everybody has a right to take and share explicit photographs of themselves with intimate partners, and that the argument shouldn't focus on encouraging people to "be smart" as much as it should focus on enforcing penalties for those who breach unspoken bonds of trust with these images. So, where does the law currently stand, and how is it moving to help those who have been sexually shamed in public places?

As of February this year, the UK now has legislation expressly forbidding the sharing of photographs or footage that depict subjects engaged in sexual activity or depicted in a sexual way that is not typically revealed in public with an intention to cause harm. 16 US states have now also passed laws which criminalise revenge porn. New Zealand is currently considering changing its privacy act, which could lead to victims being eligible for compensation of up to $200,000 and Canada, Japan, and Israel are all currently working on law reforms to punish perpetrators. Meanwhile, Australia is left in the proverbial dust (as we so often are) with only Victoria holding explicit legislation against non-consensual distribution of intimate sexual images.

Of course, with fresh legislation comes fresh complications and there are certain ambiguities that make it difficult for us to witness justice when it comes to deterring these criminals. Non-consent to distribute and share material is difficult to legally prove, as is the definition of a "sexual image" in many cases. The specification of "intention to cause distress" that is written into the UK law also proves tricky – this means that if a website paid for the image or the perpetrator claims that they were only acting in the name of innocent fun then it's possible they cannot be rightly charged with an offence.

For states and countries that do not currently hold specific legislation against revenge porn, there are other possibilities of legal recourse for victims including various privacy laws, communication decency acts, copyright laws (after all, those photographs are most often taken by the victims themselves, it's their material to own) as well as prenuptial agreements. Although ultimately tangible change is going to come through the drafting of specific laws that seek to hand out harsh penalties to those profiting from these crimes so that the hosting sites themselves can no longer afford to risk providing a forum for these people to operate within.

However, what we also must acknowledge is that revenge porn is inextricably a social (and feminist issue) because it seeks to sexually humiliate women (for the great majority) after a man feels that they have been wronged by them in some capacity. It is the online equivalent of the stocks where both men and women can fling rotten fruit at somebody for being a "slut".

Perhaps some of these men were significantly hurt by a women, but there is something seriously wrong when men feel that the only way to adequately deal with intimate turmoil is to turf their ex-partners onto the Internet and rest assured that mob mentality will denigrate them as a whore for all the world to laugh at. We should be discouraging even participating in the humiliation as a spectator because whoever even browses these images is contributing to a societal problem. Jennifer Lawrence really hit the nail on the head when she addressed the leak of her nude photos in Vanity Fair, saying, "It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime", and that anybody who viewed the photographs was "perpetuating a sexual offence".

Adequately policing the darkest corners of the Internet is an overwhelming concept, so revenge porn is one of those unique issues where social acceptability has to enter into it in a very big way. Bollaert's 18-year prison sentence is a serious deterrent for Internet criminals but it should also stand as a reminder to us, the Internet traffic, to proceed with caution and never view ourselves innocent of these crimes if we click those buttons.

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Liked this? Read these articles about womens' issues:

1) Why Hasn't Instagram Banned the Pro-Bulimia Hashtag #Mia?

2) How Instagram is Perpetuating The Beauty Myth

3) Stop Calling 15 Year-Old Lily-Rose Depp a "Megababe"

4) It's Time to Stop Being Terrified of Periods

5) 4 Docos That Uncover the Dark Side of Fashion Modelling

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