What’s wrong with new revenge porn felony laws

Arizona just passed a new felony law addressing sexting privacy violations.

What does it get right?

  • The crime occurs when someone “knows or should have known that the depicted person has not consented to the disclosure.” This means that the behavior that’s targeted here is the nonconsensual distribution of private nude or sexual images.
    • The language “should have known” seems to indicate that nude or sexual images should be considered private by default.
  • Unlike many of the misdemeanors created to address teen sexting, merely creating sexual images of oneself is not criminalized.
  • Unlike many of the existing sexting misdemeanors, this law doesn’t target teenagers, it’s age-neutral.

So what’s the problem?

  • Criminal law has been a spectacular failure at addressing the intimacy of violence.
    • This law is too harsh. Research suggests that when punishments are harsh, victims are less likely to report and officials are less likely to press charges against intimate partners and acquaintances. Like other forms of sexual violence, the perpetrator of nonconsensual sexting will likely be known to the victim. Most people will not send a partner or even an ex-partner to jail for 2.5 years on a felony conviction, which is the standard sentence in this new law if the person in the image can be recognized.
    • Privacy violations might be best handled by civil law. While that system is of course imperfect, I suspect that people would be much more likely to use it to address this kind of violation.
  • Decades of research show that people of color, low income people, and LGBTQ people are disproportionately prosecuted for most crimes. There is no reason to suspect that this one would be any different.
  • Some people report sharing unwanted sexual images they’ve received (eg. an unsolicited or aggressive “dic pic”) with friends as a way to commiserate and resist this new form of flashing and harassment. Are those actions really the same as a person sending their ex-girlfriend’s nude picture to 100 people in order to humiliate her?

Watching slut-shaming

In the past few months, there’s been a lot of media attention to girls who’ve died by suicide after being raped in public settings (eg. at parties) by multiple assailants, shamed and humiliated by peers, and failed by the adults in schools and justice departments who should have supported them. Audrie Pott was 15 when she took her own life and Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 years old. Parsons’ father wrote in a public statement:

My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.

Some of the media coverage makes these tragedies seem like technology problems, and in all these cases digital photographs and distribution indeed heightened the slut-shaming both girls experienced. When tragedies like this happen in other parts of the world, people often blame a misogynistic culture that is supposedly uniquely terrible “over there.” When it happens here, it’s much easier to blame technology. 

These are not the first, nor will they be the last girls to commit suicide after being raped and then slut-shamed for it. It’s well established in the literature that suicide attempts are strongly correlated with child sexual abuse. These particular cases get so much attention because of the heightened shaming these girls experienced through social media. What’s genuinely new in these cases is not the slut-shaming from peers but the fact that the rest of us can see it. The evidence that is left behind when people socialize online makes once-private locker-room talk and whispers in the hallway public and visible to adults.

My hope is that youth educators and parents who are shocked by what Pott and Parsons’ peers said about them online can understand that what these girls experienced was not an exception but merely a highly visible (and, I hope, extreme?) version of what happens to survivors of rape all the time. Social media lets us see slut-shaming and rape culture in the light of day, but when we talk about these cases we have to recognize that these attitudes are not unique to teens or to a few bad people–they are absolutely endemic in (adult) mainstream culture.

update: Beth Lyons has a great post at Shameless about how the media have been reporting Parsons as a victim of “bullying”–which is really, really the wrong word for what happened to her.

Fantastic new sexting report released today

albury sexting report coverA fantastic new report on sexting from Kath Albury, Kate Crawford, Paul Byron, and Ben Mathews was released today. They offer a list of practical recommendations that legislators, educators, prosecutors, and parents would do well to take into account. Here are some highlights of the report’s excellent recommendations:

  • We recommend that both educational and legal responses to sexting reflect ‘harm reduction’ principles rather than promoting abstinence from the production and exchange of digital photos between peers or from using social media.
  • We recommend that sexting education be more focused on fostering ethical, respectful practices between intimate partners and within friendship networks.
  • We recommend that educational strategies that address sexting, including information resources for adults, seek to problematise and challenge gendered double-standards in relation to concepts such as ‘provocativeness’, ‘self-confidence’, ‘responsibility’, ‘consequences’ and ‘reputation’.
  • We recommend that educational strategies that address sexting, including information resources for adults, distinguish between non-consensual production and distribution of sexting images and consensual image sharing.
  • These educational strategies should emphasise ethical frameworks, and recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy, rather than shaming young people for sexting. Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.

Twitter cleavage posts, the personal, and the political

An article up today on Feministing critiques #kuboobs’ claim that women who post decapitated cleavage shots on twitter in support of their sports team are engaging in a feminist act.

Leaving aside the often-unproductive question of whether this is or is not “feminist,” I want to talk about an interesting assumption we see in a lot of commentary like this: That women should choose to objectify themselves less for the good of all women.

Two questions:

(1) How can less self-objectification actually help accomplish any of the goals of feminism to redistribute resources, reorganize society, end discrimination, end violence, etc.? Thought experiment: If all women decided to stop showing cleavage tomorrow, what exactly would change, and how?

(2) What does it even mean to choose to self-objectify less? This is such a culture- and context-specific thing that defining it seems impossible. Wearing lipstick and showing one’s ankles used to be seen as whorish self-objectification. So, we are left with this: Is a self-objectifier just someone who dresses “sexier than I do?”

The Feministing article ends with this question:

Whether women have a responsibility to forgo personal pleasures for the movement’s good is a question I’m still struggling to figure out (though, I’ll admit, I’m leaning toward “yes”).

What I am thinking about (obviously, in relation to the commentary I read about sexting) is why feminists are always trying to make ourselves (and other women, sometimes coercively) “better” in hopes that this will lead to social change. If the problems we face are structural and institutional, maybe those places (and not people posting their cleavage on twitter) is where we should focus our attention.

Amanda Todd suicide: How can we blame sexism instead of the internet?

Aimée Morrison has a thoughtful piece up at Hook and Eye on Amanda Todd’s suicide.

But the internet isn’t really the problem. “Bullying” isn’t really the problem. The problem is systemic, pervasive, all-encompassing sexism, and the stifling of female power, the rigid policing of female identity.

She also observes that the ways that we tend to talk about bullying is in sex- and gender-neutral terms. Focusing exclusively on how bullying takes on new mediated forms is troubling because it erases how bullying is located in larger contexts and systems of power and privilege. 

Are there anti-bullying programs that explicitly address race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and other systems of inequality? What do (and could) they look like?