The law misses the mark when it comes to revenge porn

Victims of revenge porn, whose private sexual images are disclosed without their consent, often suffer from crushing public humiliation, guilt and serious consequences in their personal and professional life. There are few places to turn for effective assistance. 

Recently, revenge porn cases have hit the front pages. Chrissy Chambers waived her right to anonymity to raise awareness about this serious issue. Across traditional and social media, she recounted the horrifying story of how her ex-partner filmed her rape and broadcast it on porn websites. She only became aware of the broadcast after others had brought it to her attention having viewed the film online.

The shock that many feel when reading stories such as Chrissy’s belies the fact that this is a real and common problem with many victims in the UK. 

Unlike Chrissy Chambers, many of these victims struggle with the fact that they consented to or even took the private sexual image of themselves and sent it to their partner as part of the course of their relationship.

It is no great revelation that people conduct their private lives online. With the rise of socially acceptable sexually provocative selfies flooding social media, it is a small step for those comfortable with expressing themselves through technology to share more revealing private images as part of a consensual sexual relationship. 

The ease with which these images can be disseminated online by the recipient is rarely appreciated. In addition to the obvious channels such as Facebook, You Tube and Twitter, images and films can be uploaded easily to porn websites or even specialist revenge porn websites established for the purpose of publishing sexual images and films without the consent of the subject and to cause maximum harm through public humiliation.

Where some of the more sophisticated social media platforms have reporting functions and deletion policies, many of the porn and revenge porn websites have no such options, no contact information and operate from jurisdictions where it is difficult to bring a claim. 

Alexandra Whiston-Dew
Alexandra Whiston-Dew

The law in England and Wales does not provide effective tools to deal with offences committed online. Revenge porn is no exception.

The traditional criminal arsenal of harassment and blackmail can work alongside the Malicious Communications Act 1988, but such legislation was not designed to apply to revenge porn. Newly created legislation, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, includes section 33: the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress. Elements include that someone must have disclosed a “private sexual photograph or film”… “without the consent” of the relevant individual with the “intention of causing that individual distress”.

However, there are issues when applying this section to real life situations alongside long standing criminal legislation and civil law, including a lack of evidence as to the identity of the publisher, who often posts anonymously. 

Google has taken an important step towards a practical solution for victims. Senior Vice President Amit Singhal announced recently that Google will remove from search listings private sexual images published without the subject’s consent. It remains to be seen whether this will provide the real-world solution where, currently, the law seems to miss the mark.

Alexandra Whiston-Dew is a solicitor at Mishcon de Reya

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