Feature

Why it’s time to rename and reclaim ‘revenge porn’

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We speak to the lawyers behind the third-wave feminist movement

US reality star Rob Kardashian shocked us all when he recently posted a series of explicit photographs of his ex-girlfriend and mother of his baby, Blac Chyna, on his Instagram account. Within minutes of the images, since deleted, going online, horrified spectators were quick to lambast Kardashian’s actions as ‘revenge porn’.

A phrase that’s rocketed from totally unfamiliar to common parlance in recent history, revenge porn was put on the map in part thanks to high profile victims like The O.C. star Mishca Barton and former X-Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos. The law scrambled to build its defences and revenge porn was specifically criminalised under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 during the Tory/Lib Dem coalition. Those convicted face a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

There are laws in half of all US states expressly applicable to revenge porn, including in Chyna’s residence of California. But, as legal action between the reality stars rumbles on, lawyers and campaigners have used the incident as further ammunition behind a campaign they’ve long been fighting.

Their cause: not a change in the law nor in sentencing — but in name.

The ins and outs of this are succinctly summarised by Fran Ridout, criminal barrister and deputy head of the Legal Advice Centre (LAC) at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

LAC’s Sharing and Publishing Images to Embarrass (SPITE) is an award winning pro bono project which helps victims of explicit photo sharing without using the “offensive and inaccurate” title revenge porn in its name. Ridout tells us:

When private sexual images are shared without consent, they may not be considered to be pornographic in nature by the person depicted in the photograph. Equally the disclosure of the image can happen for one of a number of reasons — not just for the purpose of revenge. The sharing may be done by a person who does not know the victim.  Revenge also has the connotation that the victim has done something wrong for which the perpetrator is seeking retribution.  This is misleading and can contribute to a culture of victim blaming.

Revenge porn’s victim-unfriendly connotations are what spurs Durham University law professor Clare McGlynn and Birmingham Law School’s Professor Erika Rackley — both keen proponents of a name change.

In a jointly penned research paper, McGlynn and Rackley argue this issue goes to the heart of the criminal justice system. “A major purpose of the criminal law is to express societal condemnation of specific activities with the hope of changing people’s behaviour,” they say. “The law can only achieve these purposes if the label applied to a crime is the right one. And ‘revenge porn’ is the wrong one.”

McGlynn, speaking to Legal Cheek, offers an alternative:

We’ve argued that the correct term we should be using is ‘image-based sexual abuse’. This term avoids the problems of ‘porn’ and ‘revenge’ and also ensures that we take into account all these forms of abuse, including upskirting for example.

McGlynn and Rackley believe their terminology better reflects the nature of the offence, the harm it causes and the range of behaviours it can take — and it seems law centres and sex abuse support services do too:

Ridout agrees image-based sexual abuse is “a more appropriate term”. But, she adds this vital pinch of scepticism:

[W]e have to acknowledge that the public will see a phrase like revenge porn and immediately know is being referred to. It could take a long time for this familiarity to be associated with a different name.    

If you have been a victim of revenge porn and would like to contact the centre, please email: lac@qmul.ac.uk

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