I’ve written about revenge porn before, when a law was passed against it. It’s an appalling act of betrayal and it was good to see that it was being dealt with in some way. I’m not a legal expert, and I bear in mind David Allen Green’s dictum that making something illegal doesn’t magic it out of existence, but there seems to be a really strong case that this was a kind of action which was suddenly much more possible within the last few years, and vastly more common, and that needed to be distinguished from other kinds of similar action. In this piece I’d like to think through some of the assumptions which seem to lie behind the law, and the discussions around “revenge porn” more generally. Specifically, I’d like to think about the “demand” side of “revenge porn”, and what it means that men not only share this material, but watch it.
A law against sharing sexually explicit material of people without their consent “with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress” seems to take for granted that a lot of people produce this kind of material, and that they have a right to do so without it being used against them in some specific senses. There’s even an implication, if I’m reading it correctly, that it’s reasonable to share explicit material of themselves with other people and not mean for the pictures or videos are published generally. The idea of distress or embarrassment being caused seems to be in fairly close association with the act of the sharing of them more widely. Without giving the person in the image some form of special enhanced copyright, or making it illegal to possess these kinds of images once the person in them decides they should not exist, the law seems to posit a strong connection with the act of publishing the material and harm being caused to the person portrayed in it.
That might sound absolutely obvious (or conceptually flawed, perhaps, if you’re a lawyer.) But within the discussions I’ve seen around revenge porn, a major element seems to be ignored: the demand for this material. Campaigners and police focus quite rightly on the perpetrators, who upload this material. Much of the online debate has focused on the two elements I’ve identified as implicit in the wording above.
Firstly, the idea that people produce explicit images of themselves, and that it’s reasonable or normal enough to do so that revenge porn can’t simply be waved off as an unfortunate side-effect of people’s ludicrous and unsafe behaviour. The argument that “if you make this stuff, of course it’s going to be shared, so it’s your fault” has often been made online, and often refuted. Previous decades had to deal with questions around explicit, compromising or politically sensitive material in letters, and we have to deal with questions around digital media. The existence of this law (to many people, if not lawyers) looks like a rejection of the idea that people who do this don’t deserve protection, and have only themselves to blame.
Secondly, the idea that distributing this material isn’t an absolute “on switch”. Showing it to one person – which in digital media almost always means producing another copy of the material – is not assumed to be the same as publishing it on a major website. There isn’t a “Manichean notion of publicity” going on here: a situation seems to be envisaged where people will make and share this material (perhaps within an intimate relationship) and that in doing so they aren’t giving permission for it to be shown publicly. That isn’t explicit in the law, but it was in many of the discussions I saw online. Whether that was seen as an effect of the nature of an intimate sexual relationship (we do things with lovers we wouldn’t with other people), the damage done to women in a sexist world of work and politics (no matter how liberated individuals are, the people in power might not be) or simply as a distinction between personal life and pornography (taking an explicit photo of oneself does not instantly make one a commercial performer), it was assumed that it was reasonable not to want this material shared indiscriminately.
There is a third assumption, however, which I didn’t see discussed as much: that if you publish this material, people will look at it. That seems even more obvious than everything I’ve been saying so far, and I think it’s a fair assumption. I’m not quite so naïve and pointing that out might make me sound. But now that there’s a law against “revenge porn”, and a public information campaign about it, it’s worth noticing this third assumption. If people (and by people I mean men, let’s not pretend this happens in a gender-neutral vacuum) deliberately publish sexual images of other people (women) in the knowledge that they don’t want those pictures published, other people (men, I’d hazard) will look at them.
Men can, essentially be relied upon to collude in the harm being caused to the person in the images. After all, if no-one looked at these images, then their publication wouldn’t be able to have the effect the law envisages. More specifically, it men didn’t consume this material whilst knowing the damage it was doing, then it couldn’t have the harmful effect it does. The version of publication which this law, and the wider discussion, assumes will take place is not the slipping of a handful of anonymous images into an archive somewhere, without any mention of the source of them. I may be misunderstanding this, but the “revenge porn” under discussion doesn’t seem to be the reproduction of explicit material without comment or attribution in order that there could be one more set of images of naked women in the world.
The category of “revenge porn” strongly implies – in most cases – that the material will be marked as non-consensual. That may involve attaching the name and address, or the professional details, of the person in the image, in order to cause fear or harm in their offline life. It may just involve identifying the pictures as “my ex-girlfriend”. But whatever form it takes, it involves clearly marking the sexual material as something which will hurt and humiliate the person depicted if the file is viewed. Massive websites were set up where the viewers could be assured that every single sexual thrill they got was harming the person they were looking at. The shame and degradation of women wasn’t a bug in the process of men getting to look at explicit pictures. It was a proudly advertised feature to attract clients.
That’s the aspect of the revenge porn issue which can so easily pass us by when we concentrate (necessarily) on the victim and the perpetrator of this crime. The context of this act is a misogynist society which demands that women perform their sexuality for men, and then shames and ridicules them for doing so. That’s a necessary precondition of any of this happening, and without which “revenge porn” couldn’t function. But it’s not just a diffuse set of harmful social attitudes which make “revenge porn” operate. It’s millions of individual acts by men who equate looking at sexual images with degrading and harming women. It’s a genre, network and system of pornography which openly declares that sexual enjoyment involves – even stems from – wielding power to damage women.
This aspect is less urgent in practice than the elements involving the perpetrator and the victim. It’s certainly less fixable with legislation. But the lack of attention paid to it in public discussion, combined with the way it underpins all the rest of the debate, is a bit surprising. Maybe it’s because it makes us sound melodramatic when pointing it out, or because it sounds like accusing half the population of wishing individual punishment on the other half for being who they are. But maybe it’s also because noticing this fact – that no-one thinks it’s strange that men should want to enjoy sexually explicit material of women whilst knowing that it is harming the women they’re looking at – would raise deeper questions about how our culture imagines sex.