'Revenge Porn' Is Not The Right Term To Describe Our Experiences, Say Victims

Lauren Evans found topless photos of her 14-year-old self on the internet, but she hadn't put them there. This is what she did next.

Lauren Evans is a victim of ‘revenge porn’, a term she hates. “The definition of revenge is someone doing something to you because you’ve done something to them – it implies the victim must have done something to deserve this,” she says. Revenge porn laws in England and Wales were brought in as the government scrambled to protect women against new forms of online abuse, and now they’re under review – but victims are asking if the terminology is making the situation worse.

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You’re browsing the internet when you stumble across a Twitter account pretending to be you. They’ve stolen your profile picture and your name, and are building a large following due to the explicit nature of the pictures they post – topless photos you took of yourself and shared privately - and photos of other unknown women claiming to be you. They encourage followers to make up sexual stories and comment on your body. They’re also sharing links to Snapchat and Instagram accounts and amateur porn sites with more of the same content. What do you do about it?

That was the decision facing Evans, 27, in August 2015, when she discovered a foot fetish account was posting intimate topless photos of her online. Initially Evans, from Hertfordshire, thought a stranger online had stolen the images and was impersonating her, but as she worked her way back through the timeline she realised this was more sinister and had been happening for years. Three years to be precise. The penny dropped when she realised there could only be one person responsible: a man with whom she’d had a digital friendship as a young teenager and shared the pictures privately. Evans called the police.

What followed for Evans was, she says, 16 months of trauma, humiliation and suicidal thoughts. One night she was so worried about her mental health she called a friend to come to her house and keep watch. She spent days in bed unable to go to work or to see a time when there might be light at the end of the tunnel. The man was charged with a criminal offence, and in December 2016 he pleaded guilty. But it wasn’t the closure Evans hoped for.

“1 in 10 Brits have had sexual photos shared without their consent...”

Evans was a victim of what has become known in the UK as ‘revenge porn’: defined as sharing explicit images or videos without the consent of the subject and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress. Recent research found that 1 in 10 Brits has had naked pictures or videos of themselves shared without their consent. The vast majority of victims (81%), like Evans, say they knew the perpetrator – with a third having formerly been in a relationship with them and 17% having been friends.

Revenge porn has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015. The law was four months old when Evans went to the police, but they decided to press charges of ‘possession and distribution of underage images’ instead because she was 14 at the time the photos were taken. The perpetrator was put on the sex offender’s register, given a fine and two weeks of mandatory counselling.

Four years after Evan’s case, revenge porn laws are being re-examined by the law commission to ensure they are fit for purpose. The primary focus is whether the crime should be reclassified as a sexual offence rather than a communications one. This would give victims automatic anonymity as with other forms of sexual abuse. Evans agrees this is a priority but tells HuffPost UK her experience showed her there are many other problems that need addressing too.

Evans says there is a fundamental issue with the name of the offence. “You already feel humiliated and then think you probably won’t get sympathy either because you must, in some way, be at fault.”

Evans says society doesn’t describe other crimes against individuals as ‘revenge’. “It’s not a revenge mugging or burglary, or revenge murder. It’s just murder,” she says. “Stop talking about the supposed motive. Whatever the reported motivation it’s still wrong.” Evans says this often happens with crimes against women. “Newspapers say a male perpetrator was ‘heartbroken’ by an ex-lover and that’s why he killed her,” she says.

She also has a problem with the use of the word ‘porn’. “There’s nothing wrong with being a porn star but we’re not consenting to that. The word porn makes it sound commercialised, like we want this. Like a dodgy category on PornHub.”

There is some confusion over where the name ‘revenge porn’ first originated – whether it was from newsrooms (it appears in British media coverage from around June 2012 onwards) or elsewhere.

Erika Rackley, Professor of Law at Kent Law School says she believes it was a term used by Hunter Moore, an American internet entrepreneur and founder of ‘Is Anyone Up?’, a website which allowed users to post sexual photos of other people without their consent, accompanied by personal information such as their name and address. Moore refused to take pictures down, proudly calling himself a “professional life ruiner” and was eventually sentence to two years in jail. Given the origins of the term could be a perpetrator should it be changed?

“They risk trivialising the true impact and harm of these activities.”

Part of the problem is that the term ‘revenge porn’ is now written in English law. But Evans isn’t the only one who believes the name should be changed. Actress Amber Heard has also pushed for a change in the terminology (after naked photos of her from 2014 were circulated on the internet). And the most comprehensive victim report to date on the topic [‘Shattering Lives and Myths’, 2019] also did not use the term ‘revenge porn’ throughout because it said it “failed to cover the nature of breadth of abusive behaviour”.

One survivor quoted in the report, Vicky*, said: “I really don’t like the phrase [revenge porn] because I feel like although they are pornographic images, do you really want pictures of your body being talked about as porn? I feel like the term is negative to victims. It’s a form of sexual abuse. Not porn.”

Another, Lucy*, said: “It’s an abuse of me and my body. It feels like it’s on par with sexual abuse – the toll it has taken on me. I know people might think that sounds like an exaggeration but that is how I feel. I think it’s important the abuse forms part of the name.”

Not only is it linguistically problematic, but many survivors feel the phrase can be a legal stumbling block too, as the name enshrines the concept of revenge as the only motivating factor in these cases. Evans says she felt her caseworker didn’t believe she “qualified” for a ‘revenge porn’ charges because the perpetrator said his motivation wasn’t “revenge”.

Although it’s a grim truth, Evans says it’s a good thing she was underage when the images were taken or they might not have secured a conviction at all, because of this ‘revenge’ logic.

Professor Rackley says the term also minimises how much of an impact this crime has on people’s lives. “They risk trivialising the true impact and harm of these activities. Thus while it seems to be widely accepted that image-based sexual abuse causes considerable harm (in the media, from government, from social media) the general public do not recognise or understand them.”

Rackley says the name should be changed to instead be ‘image-based sexual abuse’ [IBSA], which would also cover upskirting, cyberflashing, deepfake pornography and other crimes in the future. “This is about capturing a wider continuum of activities that all involve the non-consensual creating and/or distribution of sexual images.”

Professor Clare McGlynn, who specialises in law at Durham University, agrees with replacing ‘revenge porn’ with IBSA. She says: “This better explains the nature and impact of the behaviours.” And victims are in favour of this transition too. Evans says: “Image-based sexual abuse is a bit of a mouthful but it sounds much more accurate – it highlights that it is sexual abuse and not just an angry ex who decides to show your pictures to your mum on Facebook.”

Another issue that urgently needs addressing, say campaigners, are loopholes in the current law that allow porn companies to profit off material that is filmed without women’s consent.

Kate Isaacs runs the campaign #NotYourPorn . She says: “There is nothing in the law about registered porn companies, even though they’re based in the UK [MindGeek who own PornHub, YouPorn, Brazzers, RedTube and many more are registered in west London]. Porn websites are a tool for perpetrators to get images shared very quickly and companies are profiting from it.”

Isaacs started her work at the end of May after her friend’s iCloud account was hacked and images stolen from her phone that she thought had been deleted. They were uploaded to PornHub earlier this year.

They were taken down after a few days but users are able to download content from PornHub, and then re-upload it, so removing the original source didn’t solve the problem.

Corey Price, vice president at Pornhub tells HuffPost UK: “Pornhub strongly condemns non-consensual content, including revenge porn. Revenge porn content that is uploaded to Pornhub directly violates our Terms of Service and is removed as soon as we are made aware of it. Those who are on Pornhub and identify any material that is distributed without the consent of the individuals involved can and fill out the form found there to request the removal of nonconsensual material. All takedown requests submitted via the form are expedited to our support team for immediate removal.”

But Isaacs wants the government to take action to ensure the porn industry is held to greater account, and regulation is put in place for the porn industry to require explicit consent from the subject(s) of the video, including age verification, before being uploaded to their websites. “We need damage prevention rather than control after the fact,” she says.

“Now my friend googles her name every day and there is constantly more there,” she says. “My friend is a shell of her former self. She was this lively character and has just shrunk because she’s so mortified,” says Issacs.

The Law Commission, the body tasked with reviewing the legislation, have said they will not be reporting back with their findings until 2021 – a deadline which academics and victims have all said is too long to wait. But will it be worth the wait if the law is changed to make victims feel better supported in the future? Either way changing the terminology in public discourse will be a different battle altogether. “How do we insure that revenge porn is not used in headlines and to grab attention,” says McGlynn. “That is a more difficult issue altogether.”