home Crime, Europe, Feminism, Internet 200+ Prosecutions Under New UK ‘Revenge Porn’ Law

200+ Prosecutions Under New UK ‘Revenge Porn’ Law

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has released a report into the prosecution of sexual and domestic violence last year in the UK. The Violence Against Women and Girls Crime Report 2015-16 provides statistics, case studies and contextual information about cases of rape, child sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, stalking, so-called ‘honour’-based violence, forced marriage, images of child abuse and domestic violence, and, for the first time, it includes details of prosecutions that have taken place under the new law against what is known as ‘revenge porn’, which became an offence in England and Wales in 2015. It became an offence in Northern Ireland in February 2016 and in Scotland in April.

So now, when a stranger, friend or (often ex-) partner shares private sexual photographs with others without consent, with the intent of causing the victim humiliation or embarrassment, that person can be arrested, prosecuted and convicted, facing a maximum prison sentence of two years. 206 people were prosecuted last year, in the first year in which revenge porn was officially classed as a crime.

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, stated that these prosecutions were “indicative of the growing number of offences occurring through social media”.

Revenge porn is often instigated by a woman’s ex-partner, who uploads sexual images she shared with them, or that the partner took while they were together, to the internet. Sharing these images on social media can cause embarrassment or humiliation in front of the victim’s friends and family, and there are websites dedicated to hosting revenge porn images, where (invariably) men upload images and sometimes ‘name and shame’ their victims.

The CPS’s report does not reveal the number of cases referred to them by police forces throughout the year the law has been in place. However, the BBC submitted Freedom of Information requests to various police forces across England and Wales and found that 1,160 incidents had been reported to 31 of the 43 police forces across the country. With victims sometimes as young as 11 years old, 61% of the reported offences resulted in no action being taken. The police cite a lack of evidence and victims withdrawing support for action being taken as the main reasons behind action not being taken.

Revenge porn and victim blaming

Like with many sexual offences primarily aimed against women, victims of revenge porn often find themselves held responsible for the behaviour of their abusers. Even when their participation in the creation of sexual images and video was consensual and even enthusiastic, it was made for a specific purpose, perhaps to be shared with only one person or to be enjoyed and then deleted. Perhaps she took photographs of herself naked and didn’t share them, but their partner or other offender took the images from her phone.

In any case, consenting to images being taken in one scenario does not lead to an assumption of consent for those images or videos to be shared with anybody else. “But she shouldn’t have let him take the photos if she didn’t want anyone else to see them” is remarkably similar to “But she shouldn’t have worn such a low-cut top if she didn’t want anybody to grab her breasts”, when you break it down.

That removing a woman’s agency and exploiting her sexuality, against her will, is finally being recognised as a crime in the UK is a step forward, and more social condemnation of the act may come as cases are publicised. What some may explain away as ‘banter’ is a gross violation of a woman’s trust, and this exposure and violation should never be considered to be acceptable.

Revenge porn and suicide

Revenge porn can have a huge impact on its victims, in particular because humiliation on the internet and social media can be reinforced by the pictures being seen by thousands of people. Once images or videos are posted on the web, it can be virtually impossible to ‘recall’ them and remove all copies; even though some porn sites will remove this content on request, other sites clone each other’s content and share it further.

Tiziana Cantone, an Italian woman who was the subject of a homemade sex tape, killed herself 18 months after it was distributed online. Often using her real name and being shared with sexist comments, the virality of the video led to her receiving more than 2,600 abusive messages on WhatsApp. The Independent reports that Cantone “appeared drunk and disoriented” in the video, leading me to question how capable she was of consenting to the video and the sexual activity itself that took place.

Revenge porn and the law

Cantone’s death has led Italian members of parliament to discuss whether a law similar to that in the UK needs to be introduced there. And, while the existence of the UK law is good, it is not yet perfect.

Lawmakers need to consider whether victims of revenge porn should be afforded the same anonymity guaranteed to victims of rape or childhood sexual offences, and whether a two-year minimum sentence is sufficient. Aiming to prosecute more than 39% of reported offences could also be a good goal for law enforcement, who may need to work harder on behalf of victims to reassure them that it is worth taking their claims further.

As with any crime primarily affecting women and girls, conviction levels and any resulting sentences may be disappointing. This is perhaps a good start, but more needs to be done.

Photo: Esther Vargas/Creative Commons

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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women’s issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.