People are still sharing explicit images without the consent of the people in them, and there still is no federal law criminalizing revenge porn. While it might feel like two steps forward and one step back, the climate today is much better online than it was in past decades.
Netflix's recent hit documentary, The Most Hated Man on the Internet, focused on the story of Charlotte Laws, the mother of a young woman whose intimate photos were shared online without her consent. The images were on display on the website IsAnyoneUp.com and they included contact information for her daughter, Kayla. Laws’ crusade to protect her daughter eventually led to the take down of the site in 2012 and the arrest of the site’s founder, Hunter Moore.
At the time, the only recourse for “revenge porn” (which is the common term for this type of violation, although advocates now prefer “nonconsensual pornography” or “image-based sexual abuse”) victims like Kayla was copyright law, which stated that the person who took the photo was the legal owner of it. Therefore, anyone who posted it without permission was violating the victims’ copyright.
But, according to the law, they weren’t violating them sexually. There was no talk of consent or understanding around why someone might take a nude photo or allow a nude photo to be taken of them. In fact, the common response from law enforcement and civilians alike, according to the documentary, was that the women in the photos deserved to be exposed online because they took the photos in the first place.
A lot has changed since Charlotte Laws fought to have her daughter’s images removed from IsAnyoneUp. Forty-nine states plus Washington, DC, and Guam now have laws on the books that criminalize “revenge porn” which specifically address the sexual violence inherent to this type of abuse. In fact, the only state without a specific law is South Carolina, although there has been recent movement in that state to implement one as well. There is no federal law, however, that criminalizes image based sexual abuse.
In the UK, however, there is a federal-level law. Section 33(1) of the Criminal Justice and Court Act 2015 says:
“It is an offence for a person to disclose a private sexual photograph or film if the disclosure is made (a) without the consent of an individual who appears in the photograph or film, and (b) with the intention of causing that individual distress.”
If someone is found guilty of violating Section 33, they face up to two years in prison. There have since been efforts by UK activists to further criminalize threatening to release intimate images of someone. Additionally, both France and Germany have laws specifically criminalizing revenge porn.
Social media companies also took steps to combat nonconsensual sharing of images in the 2010s. In 2015 Reddit took the lead, banning revenge porn in February of that year, followed by Twitter and Facebook in March, Google in June, and Microsoft in July. Each of those steps made it more difficult for abusers to spread nonconsensual images online.
But laws and social media bans can only do so much. The internet is massive and without a cultural change around consent and victimization, it’s not a far stretch to assume that the same type of harassment, death threats, and rape threats would still be running rampant today.
That’s where the #MeToo movement comes into play. In 2018, #metoo started trending on social media, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in our society. Women were sharing stories that had only previously circulated in “whisper networks” and abusers were being held responsible for their actions at a much greater rate than any time in the past.
While #MeToo didn’t wipe away misogyny for good, it did make it socially unacceptable in many circles to blame a victim of sexual harassment or assault for the abuse they’d suffered — and that includes nonconsensual image sharing. It’s much less common (although not unheard of) for a victim, usually a woman, to be blamed if sexual images of her turn up online and #MeToo can definitely be credited for that cultural shift.
Another cultural shift can potentially be credited to sites like OnlyFans, which gives consenting adults a platform for sharing explicit imagery with subscribers. The site has made it possible for everyday people who are not professional porn performers to make money off of their own nudes. Because of its popularity — and because of activism by sex workers rights advocates over the past decade — there’s a much broader cultural acceptance of people (usually women) taking and profiting from nude photos.
That’s not to say that the past decade has led to a complete and total defeat of the sexual double standard, victim-blaming, and online sexual exploitation. It hasn’t. But we have certainly taken more steps closer to that gender equality utopia than in any time in recent decades. Even a recent investigation that unveiled current nonconsensual pornography Reddit threads takes a complete tone of disgust that this is still happening online.
On the other hand, those forums are still out there: People are still sharing explicit images without the consent of the people in them. And there still is no federal law criminalizing revenge porn. But while it might feel like two steps forward and one step back, the climate today is much, much better online than it was in the early 2000s and 2010s. Let’s keep it moving forward.
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