SPECIAL REPORT: Psychological effect of cyber-abuse can be devastating

Women are told the only way to be protected is to restrict their self-expression

Attempts to remove revenge porn from the internet has mistakenly been labelled as censorship of free speech, writes Joyce Fegan

FOR A behaviour that is not yet classified as illegal in Ireland, psychologically revenge porn can have deep and devastating effects.

Professor of law at Miami University, Mary Anne Franks, says the act can silence women and destroy their futures.

“The publication of private, intimate images (also called ‘revenge porn’) destroys women’s careers, educational opportunities, and relationships. Women are routinely targeted with sexualised and violent threats merely for expressing opinions or having a public profile,” she said.

Prof Franks stated that this act can silence women and force them to retreat from society. She added that in incidences of so-called revenge porn, attempts to report or erase them, can be seen as censoring free speech.

“In response to these abuses, women and girls leave jobs, change schools, retreat from public discourse, refrain from expressing their opinions, and withdraw from social media. That is, technology-facilitated abuse drives women and girls out of public spaces, both online and offline, and removes their voices and their contributions from public discourse.

“And yet these forms of harassment and abuse are frequently characterised as ‘speech’ or ‘expression,’ whereas efforts to combat them are characterised as ‘censorship’,” she said.

Similar to the phenomenon of victim-blaming in cases of rape, whereby a victim is seen as having had some ability to stop the crime, she argues that the same belief can be seen in incidences of revenge porn.

“Women are told that the only way to be protected from these violations and indignities is to restrict their self-expression: Don’t express your opinions publicly. Don’t compete with male colleagues. Don’t anger your abusive spouse. Don’t take naked pictures. Don’t wear skirts. Don’t get raped.

“The cumulative effect of all this is to silence women. It teaches women to be docile, submissive, sexless, conventional, and devoid of opinions, or else face devastating injury to their privacy, their careers, their safety, their families,” said Prof Franks.

Dr Mary Aiken, a cyberpsychologist, has studied the effects of online crime for a number of years.

She said virtual harassment can have deeper consequences than physical abuse. Dr Aiken cites “fear, alarm, depression, stress, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, loss of trust”, as some of the responses to online abuse.

From the point of view of the abuser, their behaviour can be warped by something called the ‘online disinhibition effect.’

Professor of psychology at Rider University, John Suler, developed the theory and published it as The Online Disinhibition Effect in CyberPsychology & Behavior in July 2004. It refers to how some people act out more intensely online, than how they would in person. This loss of inhibition comes in six factors: Dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimisation of authority.

Dr Aiken argues that this “online disinhibition effect” is behind many cyber-crimes.

Attempts to remove revenge porn from the internet has mistakenly been labelled as censorship of free speech, writes Joyce Fegan

More on this topic

New laws to tackle revenge porn welcomedNew laws to tackle revenge porn welcomed

Howlin says people found guilty of revenge porn should be added to sex offenders registerHowlin says people found guilty of revenge porn should be added to sex offenders register

Revenge porn to be made a crimeRevenge porn to be made a crime

Government backs Labour party bill that would mean tough penalties for people who distribute revenge pornGovernment backs Labour party bill that would mean tough penalties for people who distribute revenge porn


Ahead of the final episodes this week, Jessie Collins charts Normal People’s phenomenal success — and wonders how we’ll cope without it.Normal People ends tonight - how will we cope when it's all over?

More From The Irish Examiner