19/03/2017 16:29 GMT | Updated 20/03/2018 05:12 GMT

'Revenge Porn' Is A Form Of Sexual Assault

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Actor Mischa Barton has become the latest in the long line of victims of what is commonly known as 'revenge porn'. Her ex-partner secretly filmed her engaged in sexual activity and has been touting the videos for sale. Bravely speaking out about her experiences, Mischa said "I came forward to fight this, not only for myself but for all the women out there. I want to protect them from the pain and humiliation that I have had to go through. No woman should have to go through this."

Mischa's lawyer Lisa Bloom also spoke on her behalf and said, 'revenge pornography' is a horrific crime: it's a 'form of sexual assault'. Mischa is not the first victim to think of her experiences as a form of sexual violence. YouTuber star Chrissy Chambers who also had sexual images of her taken and then distributed without her consent has demanded that perpetrators are held "accountable for sexual assault". Hunger Games actor Jennifer Lawrence referred to the extensive distribution of her naked images following a hack of the iCloud as a "sex crime".

And it's not just celebrities who are victims. Keeley Richards-Shaw from North Yorkshire became a victim when her ex-boyfriend took and shared sexual images of her without her agreement. 'How anyone can fail to see revenge porn as a sexual crime is beyond me', she said. Indeed, this is why the label 'revenge porn' is so problematic, with many now using the term #ImageBasedSexualAbuse

Unfortunately, while victims see this crime as a form of sexual assault, this is not acknowledged by the UK Government. And this has significant adverse consequences. While Mischa has bravely gone public about what has happened, many others do not want to do the same because of the harassment and humiliation they face. They want their privacy protected and do not want to be named in the media. But there is no automatic right to anonymity for victims of image-based sexual abuse, unlike for other victims of sexual offences. Keeley found this out when she reported her ex-boyfriend to the police, and her name was spread all over the news. She is now campaigning for automatic anonymity: #NoMoreNaming

Government ministers have rejected calls to grant automatic anonymity. They say that the offence is not a sexual one as it requires 'no element of sexual contact, sexual intent or gratification'. This entirely misunderstands the nature of sexual offending. There are many sexual offences which do not require sexual contact and, in light of technological advances, it is simply no longer sensible to separate offences into 'contact' and 'non-contact'. The harms can be as intense as other forms of sexual abuse.

Further, sexual violence is driven by power and control, with men believing that they have the right to sex, regardless of consent. Research has found that motives of perpetrators of sexual violence such as rape and sexual assault include: humiliation, grievances, and punishment, as well as entertainment recreation and sexual gratification. And most importantly, victims experience 'revenge porn' as a form of sexual assault.

So, revenge porn' - or rather image-based sexual abuse - is a sexual offence. The harm comes from the fact that it is sexual images that are shared without consent; the images go viral because they are sexual. Non-sexual images would simply not have the same potency to cause harm; nor would thousands of others distribute these images. Sharing private sexual images without consent exploits an individuals' sexual identity and infringes their sexual autonomy. The online abuse which accompanies distribution of private sexual images includes sexual threats (rape threats), as well as abusive comments about the victim's appearance, body, sexuality and sexual agency. New research has shown how all different forms of image-based sexual abuse - including 'revenge porn', 'upskirting', sexual extortion, sexualised photoshopping - share common characteristics with other forms of sexual offending.

It is vital that it is recognised in law and policy that image-based sexual abuse is indeed a form of sexual violence and that automatic anonymity be granted to all complainants, in the same way as for other sexual crimes. This will help to ensure other victims do not have their names and images shared widely across the media, encouraging more to come forward and report these crimes, or take action in the civil courts as Mischa has done.