UK

Revenge Porn Is Finally Illegal: Who Are The Victims And Perpetrators Of This Growing Phenomenon?

12/02/2015 13:56 GMT | Updated 12/04/2015 10:59 BST

This article was released in February and has been republished as the law on revenge porn comes into force on 13 April.

When a new Facebook account with Folami Prehaye's name and picture sprung up and began 'adding' people, her actual friends thought it was a little strange.

Folami thought it was even stranger: she hadn't set up a new Facebook profile.

In a vicious, targetted attack, her ex-boyfriend set up the spoof account with her details, and posted explicit, intimate sexual pictures they had taken together - then invited all of her friends and family to see them.

Within hours, the pictures of Folami had also appeared on porn sites around the world and had been viewed nearly 50,000 times.

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Folami's ex-partner posted the pictures after a difficult break-up

Like the increasing number of people affected by the phenomena known as revenge porn, Folami was stunned by what had happened to her.

Her life was "turned upside-down", she says. “The pictures are still out there. I know people are still viewing them. And the worst thing for me is I can’t stop people viewing them,” she told ITV’s This Morning.

She had to report each of the seven photos individually to Facebook, and contact individual webmasters to ask them to take the pictures down, one by one. Some obliged, but others still haven’t get back to her: and online porn keeps spreading.

“Your personal stuff has gone public, and it’s gone worldwide," said Folami. "World wide web, that’s what I kept thinking to myself, you know? To know that the pictures had been viewed on one porn site 48,000 times is ridiculous.”

WHAT IS REVENGE PORN?

The Crown Prosecution Service defines revenge pornography as "typically sexually explicit media that is publicly shared online without the consent of the pictured individual and is usually uploaded by ex-partners."

It adds that the images are often "accompanied by personal information including the pictured individual's full name, links to social media profiles and address, and are shared with the intent to cause distress or harm to the individual."

Although the break-up had been bitter, Folami - an office worker from Bristol - said she never imagined her ex would use private sexual photos against her. “I actually forgot about the photographs, to be honest,” she said.

Her ex, Thomas Samuel, was prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, legislation which covers offenses like rude and threatening letters. Thomas was given a six month suspended jail sentence – meaning he didn’t serve any time, a restraining order, 180 hours of community services, court costs of £86, and a victim surcharge of £80.

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Folami says she's happy she spoke out about her experience

Up until now, the Malicious Communications Act has been the main legislation used to try to tackle revenge porn offenders - along with others Protection from Harassment Act - as there was no specific law forbidding it.

But from 13 April, Britain joins Israel, Germany, and some US states in making revenge porn a crime. A new clause in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill specifically forbids "Disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress". It carries a maximum jail sentence of two years - up from six months under other laws previously used to prosecute revenge porn offenders.

Some herald this as a welcome step by the government to recognise the severity of the act - but critics say the legislation will be virtually useless.

Barbora Bukovska, a senior director at freedom of expression charity Article 19, argued on Radio 4's Today programme in February: “We need to realise that criminal legislation will not resolve this problem. We need a broad range of policy interventions, we need education at home, we need peer pressure and we also need some effective and firm mechanisms for intermediaries, to ensure that these images can be removed from the internet."

She stressed that the law had no means of helping victims to remove the images online once they go viral. "Even if the legislation punishes people, it doesn’t mean that the images will disappear from the internet." A new government helpline for revenge porn, also launched this week, will offer legal advice on how to remove pictures and may get closer to the heart of the problem.

The effects of revenge porn on the victim are devastating. It's not just the embarrassment and devastation after a betrayal by an ex lover: many women fear they will lose their jobs - images are often shared with co-workers - or have their children taken into care if social services believe they are sex workers. Many report feeling unable to leave the house and losing relationships with friends and family members due to feeling ashamed and frightened.

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Many who are victims of revenge porn feel unable to leave their home

Despite the new law, the exact impact and prevalence of revenge porn is still unknown. Instances of revenge porn are believed to be rising, but statistics are woefully lacking. Until now, it has been prosecuted under several different laws and the Ministry of Justice claims it doesn't have any specific data on prosecutions.

No other party involved in the consultation over the new law - the police and CPS, victims and victims associations - could offer any figures or estimates of the scale of the problem. One official told The Huffington Post UK that "the information just doesn't exist". The creation of a new, specific law will finally help to bring some numbers into the discussion as prosecutions are recorded.

The Crown Prosecution Service has called it "a nasty and invasive crime that appears, anecdotally at least, to have increased as social media use has gone up."

In April 2014, The National Stalking Helpline, Women's Aid and the UK Safer Internet Centre all said they were dealing with a rise in complaints about revenge porn.

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said it was a "worrying trend", and Women's Aid told The Huffington Post UK: “We think it’s going to increase unless something is done, because as the technology becomes more available, more perpetrators will use it."

Women's Aid has seen a rise in reports from "multiple women" who experience revenge porn. It doesn't collect data as it addresses revenge porn as part of wider abuse but the shocking prevalence of domestic violence (one in four women will experience it during their lives) suggests there is scope for a very, very big problem indeed.

What we do know is that revenge porn is an industry: and sadly, there's a market for it.

There are more than 30 different internet sites used in the UK alone specialising in revenge porn content. UK searches for "revenge porn" have rocketed online since 2012, and judging from the results when you type the term into Google, it's people looking for revenge porn to watch, not victims searching for help.

The most popular search term - "gf revenge" - brings up over two million web results. The top site - GF Revenge - even claims to be trademarked and has the tagline "Get sweet revenge on your ex girlfriend by submitting nudie pics for $$$ CASH!" Others have slogans including "Get the dirt before you get hurt" and "amateur teen submissions from people who want revenge on their slut of an ex-girlfriend".

We also know that revenge porn is part of a wider story. It’s not just a one-off event, but can be seen as a manifestation of domestic violence. A pattern has emerged, support groups explain: someone who shares a private image to make a partner suffer is often emotionally controlling, psychologically abusing and sometimes physically violent.

“I’ve never come across a case where it’s a one-off act," Polly Neate, the CEO of domestic violence charity Women's Aid, which has seen calls about revenge porn rise, says definitively. "I have come across cases where people running revenge porn website have hacked into strangers’ accounts and stolen pictures, but I’ve never come across a picture posted by a partner or ex-partner that hasn’t been linked to a wider pattern of abuse. It’s not something that ordinary men do.”

“Forty years of experience of dealing with a variety of different kinds of domestic violence has taught us that none of this kind of behavior occurs in isolation. Perfectly lovely men don’t just suddenly snap because of an argument and hit their partner, that’s not how it works.

"This kind of behavior only happens when a man feels entitled to treat his partner that way, and that will be part of a pattern of behaviour.”

Folami has set up a website to help other victims of revenge porn speak out. She feels satisfied with her ex's punishment: “Even though it’s not a great sentence, it’s something," she said. If I hadn’t done anything about it, then he would have got away with it.”

Folami’s pain is still raw: her and her partner felt an instant attraction when they met, and soon moved in together. The spiteful ending means she is not sure she can forgive him. But revenge porn isn’t always created by a spiteful ex: many men do it to their existing partners.

"Some men will share images of their current partners, either as a punishment for what they perceive to be as bad behaviour, because they find it entertaining or because it’s another form of control,” says Neate.

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Revenge porn is thought to be increasing - but there are no official statistics

“We are aware of some men who will publish images of their partner in order to pretend that she is a sex worker, which puts her at risk. Sometimes men do effectively pimp out their partners. We hear a lot from women whose partners haven’t necessarily shared images, but have threatened to do that if the woman leaves.”

The typical revenge porn victim also isn't who you'd think, Neate explains: “The public perception of revenge porn is that this is something that young guys in relationships with young girls are doing in a moment of anger, or silliness at the end of a relationship. Actually, that’s not what we are seeing."

Women of all ages can be victims - “I have spoken to a number of middle-aged women who are married to their partners," Neate notes - and the ways of distributing the offending content are increasingly creative.

"Some revenge porn is shared on social media - Snapchat is commonly used among young people, as there are ways of saving photo through Snapchat and sharing it," says Neate. "Email is commonly used, particularly if the perpetrator is targeting a particular audience like all the friends or employers of the email account targeted.

In an even more dangerous scenario, pictures are also posted on prostitution websites. "Men have been known to post pictures of their partners and their partner’s addresses, saying things like ‘I’m a sex worker, I particularly work in rape fantasies’ for example, leading to men turning up at their house. "

But the vast majority of revenge porn images and videos are published on dedicated sites, or ordinary porn sites where you can upload pictures of your girlfriend. These lack thorough checks to ensure that the photos are uploaded with the woman's consent - and how could they verify that anyway? - campaigners ask.

THE 'KING OF REVENGE PORN'

The term 'revenge porn' was probably coined to describe the business of Hunter Moore, a Californian who ran the now defunct website 'Is Anyone Up?'

It posted revealing photos of real people - many of which had been obtained illegally by ex-partners for 'revenge' - and linked to their social media profiles. The site was visited by up to 350,000 users a day and made him thousands.

Moore allegedly paid his associate Charlie Evans to hack into hundreds of people's email accounts and steal nude photos. If people complained, he punished the complaints, along with the victim's personal information.

The FBI said that while many people sent him sexual pictures they took of themselves, his empire was ultimately founded on hacking. Moore was arrested in early 2014 by the FBI, accused of hacking into web accounts for profit.

He now lives with his parents on $100,000 bail, is allowed no access to the Internet and is monitored. Facebook initially banned him for life and then also banned his cat, Alan, after other accounts were set up under 'Alan''s name".

Overwhelmingly, victim groups say, women are the victims and men are the perpetrators, but Mark Brooks, the chairman of men’s domestic violence charity Men Kind, told The Huffington Post UK he "suspects it is happening" to men as well. Men Kind has never received calls about revenge porn, but Brooks is aware of gay men being “outed” by ex-partners through the sharing of explicit images against their will.

The images shared are often taken consensually - US campaign group End Revenge Porn found in a survey that 80% of pictures used the victim had taken the photo themselves, meaning that they own the rights to those pictures and could have rights under copyright law.

“We do get reports of women saying the pictures were taken without their consent – they have been filmed while their partner was raping them, for example, and those images were then shared which obviously compounds the humiliation", Polly Neate says. "We do know that women have sometimes taken these images consensually, but even when they have, they don’t expect them to be used for a malicious purpose. If you love someone and you trust someone, you don’t think they are going to do that.”

The word "revenge" doesn't do the offence justice, many think - but no better word has been found. "The closest anyone’s come up with is ‘non-consensual sharing of explicit images’ which is a mouthful," Neate admits.

"Revenge suggests that something bad has been done to you: that’s the primary problem. This behaviour is a form of control. The perpetrator might think something bad has been done to him, and he certainly feels entitled to humiliate and attempt to control his partner. But it’s not necessarily because anything has been done.”

This week's new law is as much a gesture as it is an attempt to secure more prosecutions under a clearer framework, but Shailesh Vara claims legislation "will make prosecutions more effective and leave those convicted of it facing a possible prison sentence."

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A digital poster from a Ministry of Justice campaign launching today

But a law can only go so far, and the Ministry of Justice launched an advertising campaign, feeling it needs to communicate to perpetrators that revenge porn is a serious crime.

"We feel that more of a cultural change is needed in addition to a change in the law," an MoJ spokeswoman told The Huffington Post UK, "to ensure that revenge porn is seen as the serious issue that it is and it becomes culturally unacceptable to do it."

The police are no exception. "We’re hoping the new law will make a big difference," says Neate. "Currently police don’t know it’s a serious offence and they are very poor in responding to it. We’re hoping that if women know about it they can go to the police and they will know experiences have to be taken seriously, that it’s a very serious criminal offence."

Changing minds is complex, and comes down to the same issues of victim-blaming that cloud the debate around rape and domestic violence. “There is a particular stigma about being a sexually active women in our society," says Neate.

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A poster from the new awareness campaign

The "she asked for it" argument can appear to gain traction because of the fact that most women willingly pose for the photos involved in revenge porn.

Neate says: “One would hope that the shame and the stigma would attach to the [perpetrator], but in the response we see people are usually saying, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have taken that photo, she shouldn’t have shared it with him, she shouldn’t have been promiscuous.’”

One of the MoJ's digital revenge porn posters featured a victim whose life has been shattered, with the aim of showing the devastating effects to those who think revenge porn is "a bit of fun".

Support groups also hope to get the attention of the millions of potentially unwitting criminals - people who look at and then share the images. “What we would like to see is people being much, much more careful about re-posting these types of images," Neate explains, "because even if you don’t know that it’s an illegal photo, if you haven’t checked, you’re committing a sexual offence.”

The new UK revenge porn helpline can be reached on 0845 6000 459.

For confidential advice on revenge porn and other domestic abuse issues, women can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Men can contact the Men’s Advice Line on 0808 801 0327.