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Reclaiming the Conversation

It’s Not “Revenge Porn,” It’s “Electronic Sexual Assault”

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The 2015 annual conference of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) is being held in Washington, DC this week, and as usual, it is has been an energizing and thought-provoking experience. FOSI Founder and CEO Steven Balkam and his staff do a terrific job of putting together a compelling slate of presentations on some of the most current and pressing Internet safety issues.

I’ll be writing some brief summaries and posting some audio of various sessions in the next few days, but one demands a more immediate update. Yesterday, I attended a break-out session entitled “Revenge Porn”: The Response to Cyber Exploitation. The panelists included:

  • Jennifer Hanley, Family Online Safety Institute (Moderator)
  • Cindy Southworth, National Network to End Domestic Violence
  • LaMont Walker, Microsoft
  • Ethel Quayle, University of Edinburgh
  • Laura Higgins, South West Grid for Learning

The panelists engaged in a compelling and informative discussion of the problem of “revenge porn” and the global resources that are being devoted to combat the problem. There was complete agreement, however, that the term itself — “revenge porn” — is a glib media creation that does not actually describe the real scope or true nature of the problem. In many cases, the non-consensual distribution of someone’s intimate images is not revenge (i.e., retribution for some actual or perceived wrong done by that person) but instead, is a malicious attempt to inflict harm.

A couple of the panelists (Cindy Southworth and Laura Higgins) also argued emphatically that sexually explicit images distributed without consent are not “pornography” and should not be described as “revenge porn.” Holly Jacobs, whom I met at the Tyler Clementi Safety Conference has a better version: she refers to these images as “nonconsensual pornography.” That at least strips away the misuse of “revenge,” but still links the nonconsensual images to the adult industry.

There wasn’t time for Southworth and Higgins to elaborate on their antipathy to the term “revenge porn,” but I can think of at least three reasons why we should actively try to move this conversation away from any association with pornography:

  1. So-called “revenge porn” is not actually pornography; it is evidence of a crime. Nonconsensual images are distinct from those images created by a for-profit adult company, which has nominally obtained the consent of the person depicted in exchange for payment or other consideration [NB: I am consciously putting aside for the moment the entirely legitimate conversation about how much consent in the adult industry is freely given.]
  2. Regardless of our personal feelings and beliefs, there can be little argument that pornography has become an increasingly mainstream phenomenon (see, e.g.,porn chic“). By referring to non-consensual images as “revenge porn,” we reduce what is actually evidence of a crime to merely another niche category of the pornography industry.
  3. There is victim-blaming and slut-shaming inherent in the term “pornography.” As I detailed in Obscene Profits, the word “pornography” was coined in the mid-1800s by combining the Greek words for harlot (porne) and writing (-graphos), with a -y tacked on to align it with the form of English words. (Interestingly, while the word focuses on writing, I believe that it was actually created in response to the invention and enormous popularity of the camera, which made sexually-explicit images available to the general population for the first time.) The implication, however subtle, of the term “revenge porn” is that the depicted individual is someone of loose morals who really shouldn’t complain that his or her images wound up online.

During the Q&A session, I proposed an alternative term for this phenomenon that I think is much more accurate: “Electronic Sexual Assault.” I would define it as follows:

The use of any digital imaging device, online service, or other form of electronic communication to create, possess, disseminate, distribute, or otherwise promulgate an intimate, nude, or sexually explicit image (either still or moving) of an individual or individuals without the express consent of each person depicted therein.

This is merely a first draft of a concept that I hope could eventually replace the inapt and frankly, unnecessarily ugly term “revenge porn.” I think it offers a number of advantages:

  1. It focuses our attention on the behavior, not the victim. Our goal should be to reinforce norms of behavior regarding how we treat each other and the consequences for betrayal of trust;
  2. It underscores the reality that for victims of nonconsensual recording or distribution, the impact is analogous to actual physical sexual assault. In fact, in some cases, the harm may be even more acute because of the global nature of the ongoing violation or the crippling psychological impact of NOT knowing how far the images have spread;
  3. Classifying this behavior as “electronic sexual assault” sends a clear message to the criminal justice system, from law enforcement investigators to judges, that this is a serious crime with serious consequences;
  4. The legal framework implicit in “electronic sexual assault” allows us to focus on the reality that a betrayal of trust may occur at different points along the spectrum of a relationship. For instance, an individual might consent to have his or her partner take a nude photo, but not to its redistribution. If the partner does so, the assault lies in the redistribution but not in the original creation. Of course there will be a certain amount of “he said, she said,” but the legal system has experience in addressing those evidentiary issues in instances of physical assault; and
  5. It decouples the classification of the images from “pornography,” and permits us to see them for what they actually are: evidence, not entertainment.

There are a lot of different issues that need to be examined in detail, and I recognize that it is an uphill battle to change embedded language. But it can be done, and it is important.

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