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revenge porn: why amending ip and privacy laws isn’t enough

Trigger warning: discussion of violence against women

Hundreds of Australian women have had sexual or revealing images of themselves uploaded online without their consent. South Australian police are currently trying to block access to the US website where the photos are published. Many of the photos have been retrieved from private Facebook accounts, or directly uploaded by former partners, in neither case with the permission of the photos’ subjects. The non-consensual online publishing of personal photos, often originally taken with permission, by a former or current partner to degrade and humiliate the subject is part of a phenomenon known as “revenge porn.” It is a form of sexual assault.

Combatting revenge porn – both removing the images from the internet and prosecuting the uploaders and the websites that host them – is currently very difficult. There are no federal laws specifically catering to revenge porn in Australia. The existing privacy laws protect individuals from the government or a company infringing upon their rights, but don’t cater to violations perpetrated by a current or former partner. Australia’s current laws on assault, which are designed to respond to cases of physical or sexual harm, similarly don’t allow for the damage caused by the non-consensual publishing of private photos. There has been discussion of altering privacy laws to account for revenge porn, or subjecting the photos to copyright claims on the grounds that the photos belong to the person who took them. Last year, Victoria introduced two new laws targeting people who ‘maliciously distribute internet images of another person without their consent’ and ‘threaten to distribute internet images of another person without their consent’.

However, it is unclear how effective state-based or even federal laws would be, given the stateless nature of the internet itself. Google has recently announced a policy of honouring requests for the removal from its search results of sexually explicit photos posted without the consent of the subject. However, the search engine is unable to actually remove the photos from the websites.

An additional problem with any laws that revolve around the infringement of copyright or privacy is that neither option caters to the fact that revenge pornography predominately affects women. Upwards of 80% of revenge porn victims are women. Revenge pornography is an online extension of the real-world harassment and objectification of women; positioning it as a privacy or ownership issue fundamentally misrepresents the problem by ignoring its relationship with widespread and systemic sexual abuse of women.

Dr Michael Salter, a lecturer in Criminology at University of Western Sydney, says: ‘Revenge porn maps onto existing power inequities in the online economy in which men share pornography with one another to affirm masculine bonds via an objectification of women, often with strongly derogatory overtones.’ Revenge porn is a gender issue and any legal response must treat it as such. Indeed, the intent to brutalise the subjects of the photos was emphasised by the responses from the website in question when asked to remove the photos of the Australian women. One user who contacted the website and demanded that her photos be taken was told ’F— off you autistic whore… you cannot do anything to stop us’.

Again, revenge porn’s status as a gender issue was made painfully clear on Wednesday, when – in response to the release of the photos – a Facebook post by Channel Seven’s Sunrise asked ‘what’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?’ When this prompted immediate backlash, the post was removed and replaced with ‘a stern warning for people who share risqué photos online…’ When the non-consensual publishing of photos to degrade and punish the women they feature is responded to with blatantly gendered victim blaming, it is clear that the problem is more complicated than breaches of copyright.

Revenge porn is symptomatic of a misogynistic culture that wishes to punish women for expressing their sexuality. While the internet and the popularity of amateur-style porn provides a very new and specific theatre for the dissemination of revenge porn, the intent behind it is just garden-variety sexism.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or gender-based violence in Australia, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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