Tech + Health

01.07.14

When Sexting Gets Ugly: Flirting Can Become Fodder for Revenge Porn

Sexting can be fun and games, until somebody posts your naked selfie on a website with no permission.

We have a lot to thank our phones for: on-the-go Candy Crush access, spur of the moment selfies and, perhaps most crucially, sexting.

Indeed, the advent of mobile crotch-shot sharing has been something of a double-edged sword for lustful netizens of the modern age, as with great nudie pics comes great responsibility. While the majority of naughty snaps simply live in recipients’ phones, a small number of people have taken it upon themselves to ruin the fun for everyone by sharing said intimate images with third parties. As a result, one slimy Wild West-esque corner of the web—revenge porn, where spurned lovers post compromising photos of their exes—has been allowed to flourish.

And it makes for pretty grim reading: picture posts are frequently accompanied by captions like ‘really hope ur life get destroyed with this upload. Slut.’ and, ‘She also tried to kill herself when we broke up one time by jumping into the cda lake in the winter lol!’

These sites have evaded justice because there are simply no laws modern enough to control them.

Until now.

One state in Australia has taken the law into its own hands (mostly because the government literally can do just that) and introduced new legislation to protect those who sext, making it illegal to distribute explicit images without the person’s consent. In Victoria, located in the country’s south-east, it will now be an offence to intentionally distribute, or threaten to distribute, intimate shots of others. This means that tit-pic-posting your exes will finally be illegal, and that some shred of justice will be served. That the ruling covers not only the distribution of images but the threat of doing so is huge—if wannabe posters are stopped in their tracks before pictures can leak online, the entire sordid enterprise of revenge porn can be stopped in its tracks. (*Update! Today Israel announced a ban on such so-called "revenge porn.")

You don’t have to look far to find harrowing accounts from women who have had their lives ruined by people posting explicit pictures of them online.

Endless tales of those who have been forced out of jobs and into new identities as a result of being betrayed by people they trusted pepper the internet. Take Holly Jacobs from Miami, who changed her name after a former boyfriend did the dirty and spread naked photos of her online, or Charlotte Laws in California, who single-handedly took on revenge porn baron Hunter Moore after a photo of her daughter ended up on his (now defunct) website.

“This isn’t just a case of sparing some small-town bra-toting 19-year-old her blushes in case mom sees her Snapchats.”

While some states around the world have tried to crack down on this seedy phenomenon, their success rate has been severely limited. A few months back, California enacted a law labelling attempts at causing distress by circulating provocative photos ‘disorderly conduct.’ This now qualifies as a misdemeanor which can land those found guilty in jail for up to six months, or with a $1,000 fine (both of which double for repeat offenders).

New Jersey has also made moves to combat revenge porn, prohibiting anyone without consent from sharing explicit photos and successfully convicting those who seek to deliberately cause distress. The law was used to prosecute a Rutgers student whose roommate committed suicide after lewd images of him were posted on the internet, and serves as an important reminder of how badly this unwieldy area needs legal reform.

While this is a good start, unfortunately most of it fails to legislate for anyone who owns the copyright to the image they’re fighting to remove. That’s to say that senders of saucy selfies fall straight through the giant loophole in California’s bill, which effectively enables people to distribute an explicit image as many times as they like so long as the person in it took the photo themselves. Law-makers evidently find it quite hard to believe that sexts initially intended as private fodder between a couple can ultimately turn into ammo for jilted exes to get their own back—not to mention that some photos simply make it into the public sphere because their computer gets hacked.

Is someone who, for example, sends a cheeky pic to her long distance boyfriend of five years really to blame if he suddenly turns and starts posting it wherever he can? Recent research at an Indiana university found that more than 50% of young people have engaged in ‘unwanted sexting,’ often the result of relationship pressure or anxiety, so claiming that the person who initially shares it is the one to blame no matter what the outcome just doesn’t cut it.

This isn’t just a case of sparing some small-town bra-toting 19-year-old her blushes in case mom sees her Snapchats. It’s about realizing the gravity of damage certain people are willing to cause others, and ensuring that every measure is put in place to both stop it from happening, and duly punish anyone who slips through the net. 

Because sure, a lot of these sites get shut down eventually, but is that really justice enough for their victims? Why is it that finally removing these unwarranted images after they have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world is deemed appropriate recompense for those who have been fired, victimized and threatened as a result? And can something that’s been posted on the web ever really be gone? Law professor and anti-revenge porn campaigner Mary Anne Franks believes that this kind of abuse is symptomatic of that which women the world over repeatedly face. She explains: “Like other forms of domestic violence and sexual abuse, revenge porn sends the message that it is acceptable to punish women and girls simply for displeasing men—a truly backward and repressive idea. A society that fails to deter and punish this conduct fails to fulfil basic principles of equality.” By refusing to institute new regulations and relying on elements of pre-existing laws to close these sleazy web enclaves, nothing robust is being created to successfully prevent and prosecute the perpetrators.

It’s not enough to rely on copyright laws to remove intimate selfies or the Child Pornography Act to prevent minors from engaging in smutty smartphone activity. There needs to be legislation specifically pertaining to sexting and revenge porn that reaches past the three states worldwide it is currently being rolled out in. Is it any wonder that the problem isn’t improving when there is virtually no justice afforded to those who fall foul of this legal wasteland?

While I don’t deny that it seems kind of ridiculous for the government to be monitoring junk shots, this is surely preferable to the humiliation and malice not doing so clearly incites. Sending a sext shouldn’t mean lives have to get ruined as a result, and it’s vital that better laws are instituted worldwide to protect those just trying to have some innocent fun. It’s time law-makers stepped up and realized that the way we communicate is changing, and that our judicial system needs to reflect this.