Thanks to LSE, Goldsmiths and City, University of London for hosting me for this virtual keynote at their PhD day event: New Directions in Feminist Thought.
Just out, a new article I wrote for Teen Vogue on revenge porn: “What to Do If You’re a Victim of Revenge Porn.”
I have an op ed on CNN.com today about Facebook’s recent efforts to combat revenge porn.
“Revenge porn” is sexual abuse in a new digital form. A recent study shows that 10% of women under 30 years old in the United States have been victimized by the misuse of their intimate images. Facebook is one of many platforms that host this kind of abuse despite its efforts to tinker with the ways users can report unauthorized content.
This spring, Facebook rolled out a feature allowing users to request that Facebook take down any unauthorized intimate images that are being shared on the platform. And last week, Facebook announced a pilot program for users in Australia to upload nude images of themselves they suspected were being shared without their permission. Facebook would then generate a digital fingerprint of each image so that it couldn’t be shared on the platform.
A better solution would be to give users the power to prevent any images that depict them from ever being posted on the platform.
I’m not sure why, but I was a bit surprised by the low quality of the user comments. Many are victim-blaming (well, just don’t sext then, duh) and others are panicked misinterpretations of free speech. Here’s a good response from user “Dahak:”
Why are so many people confused about the 1st Amendment? It says the government can’t arrest you or penalize you for speaking. Facebook is not the government. Facebook can put whatever restrictions it wants to on its platform. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. If you have a better idea, go build it and popularize it. That is how the free market works.
These disturbing revelations paint a picture of a military culture in which men are building feelings of camaraderie around the exploitation of their female peers. Marines United is a clear illustration of how sexual harassment is about power, not sex. If the men involved in this group just wanted a trove of sexually titillating photos, they could have shared porn or naked images of any random women. Instead, they targeted their fellow Marines.
Most PSAs about sexting tell girls “just don’t sext.” Yet we know that abstinence-only is ineffective, and that this approach blames victims instead of addressing the real problem.
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection recently posted a remarkable video aimed at teens about sexting and privacy violations. It is one of the few PSAs I’ve seen that blame privacy violators rather than victims:
What’s unique about this PSA is that it does not shame the girl for sexting in the first place. Instead, it blames the blame for wrong-doing on the person who shared her image without consent. The girl says, “I trusted him,” which highlights that he broke that trust.
In Canada, teens are better protected from prosecution for child pornography, as long as they sext consensually and within a private, intimate relationship. However, teens cannot consent to the distribution of their images outside the privacy of that relationship. I advocate that the US should adopt a similar reform to child pornography laws.
The video ends with the message: “it’s your body/ it’s your image/ TAKE BACK CONTROL.” This is something I’ve also never seen in a sexting PSA–the idea that girls, in particular, are entitled to ownership over their sexual images. Indeed, that is a key argument of my book, that we should look at sexting as media production and thus grant those who produce sexual images of themselves ownership rights. The point is to respect teens (especially girls’) sexual autonomy in order to better protect them if they are victimized by a privacy violation.
One of the main arguments for decriminalizing consensual teen sexting (with age spans) is that it would prevent victims from being charged. District Attorneys and others who are opposed to this change often claim that law enforcement would never do such a thing, so therefore no legal reform is needed.
This 2016 report on on “sextortion” from the Crimes Against Children Research Center provides new evidence that teenage victims of privacy violations (or threats, or other related harassment) are indeed sometimes threatened with prosecution under child pornography laws:
When victims were minors, perpetrators were often breaking criminal laws about the production or distribution of child pornography, but respondents feared they were vulnerable to criminal charges also. Some respondents [victims of “sextortion”] who described incidents that occurred when they were minors had been threatened with charges or blamed. So in many cases described in the survey, perpetrators were shielded from criminal consequences and respondents had little support from authorities. (p. 55)
Some examples from this survey:
“I was the one who ended up getting in legal trouble since I was the one who sent it.” Female, 16, f2f
“I was told I could be held responsible for making and distributing child pornography.” Female, 14, f2f
“The police threatened to bring me up on charges of distribution of child pornography.” Female, 17, online
“My boyfriend sent my whole family and his friends and my friends the photo. [My family and I] tried to press charges [and get a restraining order against him]. Him and I both looked at jail time, fines, and having to register as a sex offender for ‘child pornography’ since we were both under 18. Luckily, the state [did not press charges].” Female, 15, f2f
“I feel really intensely angry that you can get in legal trouble for sending naked pictures of YOURSELF when under 18. You literally can be charged as a sex offender for it, which is so incredibly wrong because I was the victim. All that law does is protect abusers…” Female, 17, online (p. 52)
The report makes this important recommendation for law enforcement:
[A]s with other sexual assault victims, police need to be trained to focus on perpetrator behavior to avoid exacerbating the sense of shame and self-blame that many victims feel.
In addition, law enforcement agencies need to review policies that lead them to charge young victims of sextortion with child pornography offenses or threaten to do so. Such policies, or victims’ fears of such policies, appeared to deter police reporting of perpetrators who victimized minors and increase the distress of victims who felt they could not get justice. (p. 63)