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Revenge porn is newly illegal in Britain: under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act it is a criminal act to distribute private and sexually explicit images of someone without their consent “and with the intent to cause distress”.  This is surely a good thing, and recognises the way in which some women and girls are being sexually shamed and blackmailed via new technologies.  However, research coming out of the universities of Bristol and Central Lancashire casts a bleak light on the creation and sharing of sexual images in young people’s relationships.  The cases we class as “revenge porn” may well not be an appalling aberration, but part of a spectrum of abuse and coercion which is becoming increasingly normalised.

One of the most striking set of statistics from the research, undertaken as part of the project Safeguarding Teen Intimate Relationships, shows the frequency of pressure and coercion in teenager’s sex lives.  Around 44% of the English teenage girls surveyed had sent an intimate image or message to a partner, and 27% had done so “because they felt pressurized” to do so.  This calls into serious question the breezy talk that I often hear around sexting: “Oh, it’s just what they do these days”, “They’re all very tech-savvy, it’s just part of their lives”, “Teens don’t think about it the way we would, they think it’s fine”.  Clearly they don’t.  Or at least the girls don’t.

It is certainly a frequent part of teenager’s sex lives, but nearly a third of girls are doing it as a result of pressure.  This is not the cheerful expression of natural sexual desires via new technologies.  It is the use of technology to coerce and pressure girls in new ways.  If it is happening as a result of “feeling pressurized” – to state the absolutely obvious – then that entire swathe of girls are not deciding to do this because it makes them feel good.  They don’t want this to be part of their sexual lives, but it is becoming so normalized that boys feel they can demand it.

When feminists criticise the hyper-sexualization of media, and the ways in which the objectification of women seems to infest every new technology, we’re often told we should lighten up.  That some women clearly enjoy being objectified or they wouldn’t do it.  That it’s repressed and shaming to suggest that it’s not a natural part of everyone’s sexuality to want people outside their relationship to see them in a sexual way.  It’s regularly suggested that if only we could normalise the public expression of people’s sexualities, then most of the problems around the sexual control and abuse of women would disappear.  These numbers seem to call that seriously into question.  There are clearly thousands of girls for whom this is not a pleasurable part of their emotional and intimate lives, but who are coerced into doing it because they don’t feel they can refuse.

Even bleaker are the numbers on what happens to those images.  More than 40% of the girls who had sent them “said they had been shared with others by a partner”.  This is deeply concerning, and once again rebuts the often-heard argument that young people are sending each other sexual images as a safe part of healthy and respectful relationships.  They are no doubt some people for whom that is the case, but nearly half of girls know that the images and messages they sent ended up being seen by someone other than the recipient, by deliberate sharing.  That’s over 40% who know, incidentally.  There are presumably more who don’t know.  And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that they know their images have been shared because that sharing had a negative effect on their lives.  We know from very public court cases that sexual images of women are used to shame, to degrade and to bully them.  That is likely to be even more the case for teenage girls.

So this research makes it clear that a significant proportion of teenage girls only send intimate pictures of themselves to partners against their will, and that there is an even chance that their partner will then share those images with other people.  This should make us ask some very serious questions about “revenge porn” and boys’ attitudes to sexuality.  Revenge porn is often framed as the effect of break-ups, where images that were produced consensually as part of a loving relationship become weaponised by a vengeful ex-boyfriend by being posted online.  They’re described as the aberrant cases, the unfortunate fallout of modern sexual mores, which need to be stamped out because they don’t reflect most people’s experiences.

The figures don’t support this view.  The sharing of sexual images intended just for a partner is clearly not something only done by a tiny minority of angry exes after an acrimonious falling out.  It’s so widespread as to be normal.  Tens of thousands of girls are facing a situation where sexual images of them are being shared without being able to do anything about it.  And this is unquestionably a gendered phenomenon.  We aren’t facing an epidemic of boys being wheedled and threatened into sending naked pictures of themselves to girls, which are then shared around female friendship groups.  Men aren’t having to buy back their pictures from online revenge porn sites.  Teenage boys aren’t having their lives ruined when they’re branded as slutty or worthless because everyone at school has seen an intimate video of them.

This is another way in which young men are controlling and abusing young women sexually.  It also says very troubling things about teenage boys’ attitudes to sex and porn.  After all, to be slightly crass about it, why look?  There are enough free pornographic pictures and videos online.  Why does a teenager need to see sexual images of his mate’s girlfriend?  Why bother watching a video of her performing a sexual act?  There’s better-filmed and better-produced material washing around the Internet.  There is something very disturbing about the idea, but part of the attraction must be that the girl in the video doesn’t want you to see her like this.  The very fact that “revenge” is a genre of porn says a lot about the pleasure being experienced by the audience for this material.

We seem to be taking it for granted in this discussion that boys and young men will naturally want to watch revenge porn, or sexual images of their friends’ partners.  But the viewers should perhaps be worrying us just as much as the male partners who share this material.  They are watching it in the knowledge that in doing so they are violating a girl’s sexual boundaries.  It’s being exchanged as if the attraction is the fact that she didn’t intend for it to be seen.  This is rape culture in action: the blurring of the lines between male sexual pleasure and the degradation of women.  The framing of sexual material as erotic based on the fact that the woman is unwilling.  Boys who post pictures of their sexual partners online, or share them with friends, are despicable.  But we also should be asking much more basic questions about why anyone watches that material.  Is the aggression and misogyny of “revenge porn” a bug in this system, or an inherent feature?

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