17 Nov 2017

'Revenge porn': putting women in their place

11:15 am on 17 November 2017

Opinion - There have been a few stories in the news about what's commonly referred to as "revenge porn".

Man on phone

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

That phrase presents your first two problems.

When do you seek "revenge"? When someone's done you wrong. But when it comes to "revenge porn", usually the worst anyone's done is break up with you. Sometimes all they did was star in an excellent remake of an 80s cult classic comedy.

What's "porn"? You know it when you see it; it's also a consensual activity performed for public consumption, usually by professionals. (For this reason experts urge us to stop using the phrase "child pornography", favouring "child abuse material".)

What's "revenge porn"? The malicious publication of private images to embarrass or hurt the person in them, for no good reason. It's neither revenge nor porn.

But that's almost fitting: it's a mess of contradictions. Designed to be shameful - yet the images being shared are, initially at least, signs of intimacy and trust. It's supposed to make us think less of the woman's (it's always a woman's) moral standards - but shouldn't we think far less of the person breaking her trust so despicably?

We know it's a crime, but we blame the victim. Look at Facebook's suggestion that people worried about revenge porn should, um, give Facebook access to their nudes in advance.

As Van Badham wrote in the Guardian: "Maybe - just maybe - it's more than the images that oblige scrutiny here. It's the actual douchebags who share them and the platforms that allow them to be shared.

"You shouldn't need to send naked pictures of yourself to register an abuse. All you should have to do is make a phone call [to the police] and action should be taken on your behalf."

The problem isn't people taking sexually explicit images of themselves. It's not even sharing those images with partners of their choice. It's that others use those images to intimidate and bully, and, often, get away with it.

In the case of Thomas Evans, the soldier dismissed from the army this week, his target made a complaint in 2014; it wasn't followed up until his phone was seized in relation to other matters.

How does this happen? Why does it, for want of a better word, "work"?

Because damaging attitudes towards sex, and women, and women's sexual expression, are still prevalent in our society. This isn't new. It's simply an internet-specific application of age-old misogyny: making women's bodies a source of shame they can never escape.

Every ad break tells the story: women can't be happy unless their legs are smooth, their hair is glossy, their deodorant is clear, their cold sores are invisible, and they show absolutely no sign of having a period.

Every news cycle tells the other story: women's short skirts distract men. Girls' short skirts distract men. Women getting drunk should take precautions. Women jogging at night should take precautions. Women on Tinder should take precautions.

So don't wear short skirts. Don't drink. Don't try to meet people online. Or offline. Don't take nude photos. If you do, share them with Mark Zuckerberg. Invest in a fetching red cloak and white bonnet while you're at it.

Women are constantly being put in their place, and that place is nowhere. Either you're not taking care of yourself, or you're trying too hard and no one will take you seriously. You're leading him on, or you're being frigid. You should try meeting new people, but what did you expect when you tried to meet new people?

So, back to "revenge porn". You have to appeal to men, and men are visual creatures. How could they be attracted to your personality or wit if they haven't seen your areolae? But shame on you for taking such pictures, have you no self-respect?

And if you aren't conventionally attractive? How dare you think anyone would want to look at you sexually (even the person who was, presumably, very keen to have sex with you.) If you're a woman of colour? Add a host of additional stigma, because women of colour are regularly objectified as hypersexual, or commodities, or both (see: that scene in Full Metal Jacket). If you're a trans woman, the publication of intimate images doesn't just feed demeaning tropes about trans women's bodies. It could get you killed.

There's no easy fix. But we must begin by looking beyond the individual stories to the toxic attitudes which hold women hostage to impossible standards of beauty, sexuality, and reputation; and ensure that the only people who feel shamed by "revenge porn" are the cowardly weasels who perpetuate it.

*Stephanie Rodgers is a unionist, blogger and communications consultant.

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