SPECIAL REPORT: ‘Revenge’ porn made me feel sick and dirty

People uploading naked images of others without consent are indulging in a form of abuse.

Posting pornographic images of an individual online without their consent is a growing form of abuse for which there is no criminal sanction in Ireland. Joyce Fegan talks to victims and experts.

APPROXIMATELY 70% of people living in Ireland own a smartphone and a further 80% are active on social media. Put the two together, and at the swipe of a thumb, we can date, communicate, and connect with each other online.

But equally, we can use that powerful combination to harass, abuse and shame one another too.

Perhaps the most psychologically damaging of cyber crimes is that which we call “revenge porn”, where intimate photos or videos are shared online without the consent of the person depicted in them.

The content can either have been derived from the consensual exchange of images, commonly known as sexting, or else it can be obtained through covert filming.

Possessing revenge porn can be used to control another person by threatening to disclose it to friends, family and further, or else it can be used to humiliate the target by actually uploading it on to the internet, sometimes even without the victim’s knowledge.

It has a devastating impact on its victims and often the content can never be fully retrieved. Worse still, the act is not illegal in Ireland.

Jane (not her real name) is an Irish woman who was the victim of revenge porn. The intimate photos and video of her were online for a year before she knew anything about them.

“Last February I went out for dinner with a friend of mine and he told me he had something to tell me. He told me it was quite a big thing and he wanted to wait until there wasn’t too many people around in case of my reaction to it,” she said.

“He handed me his phone with an image on it and all I saw was the ad on the bottom of it, I didn’t actually see the content of the page he was showing me but when I looked at it again, there were photos of me on the screen.

“There were naked photos of me on the screen along with videos and descriptions of me saying how old I was, where I lived, everything. The only thing it skipped out on was my name.”

She knew it was her because she has some very distinctive tattoos that were designed especially for her.

“I couldn’t fully compute what I was actually seeing in front of me. I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t imagine who would do that or why they’d do it,” said Jane.

“The photos were naked pictures of my body, not my face in them. And then there was a 10-minute video that my ex-boyfriend had secretly filmed about four or five years ago of the two of us and there are glimpses of my face in it, but you can see me in it. He secretly filmed and uploaded to this porn website. It was depicted as amateur porn.”

The covert footage had been filmed on a computer webcam in her ex-boyfriend’s bedroom, in his parent’s house. Jane had no idea the camera was on.

In relation to the images, she explained that they had both taken photos of themselves and exchanged them with one another while they were dating.

However, crucially both Jane and her former partner agreed to delete any images they held of each other after their amicable break-up more than four years ago. He did not maintain his side of the agreement.

Jane said the discovery made her feel “sick and disgusting”.

“It made me feel really dirty, to be honest. I didn’t know how to deal with that. It’s one of the most intimate personal things. I felt so vulnerable and violated. It is a violation of my trust. It’s a violation of my basic human rights. I can’t understand it. It makes me physically sick that someone would do that to me,” she said.

Jane told her story on Today with Sean O’Rourke last month.

She explained the protective steps she took once she had gathered herself post-discovery, but when she went to the police she was told there was nothing in law that could be done for her.

“I took screenshots of it on my computer and saved them on a USB and I went with my parents to the Garda station.

“I thought it would be really difficult [to tell my parents] but I’ve got really understanding parents. So I just sat down and said I need to go to the Garda station, they asked why and I said what had happened and that was it, we just packed up and [went] off to the Garda station.

“The gardaí were lovely, I’ve never dealt with them before in my life. They made me feel so at ease, so comfortable, [they] told me they’d sort out this problem that I didn’t have to worry about anything, that they’d get barristers, solicitors, everything for me and that he would have to be the one that was worrying not me. They’d sort it all out. I just had to come back in to make a statement,” she said.

However, because of a gap in the criminal law in relation to cyber crime, there was nothing the gardaí could do to help Jane.

A garda had managed to get the content taken down from the website by emailing them and explaining that it had been uploaded non-consensually.

However, Jane’s ex-boyfriend reuploaded everything again the next day.

Jane and her parents were forced to take the matter into their own hands from there.

“I went with my parents to his parents’ house where he lives and his mum was there and he was there.

“I told him I knew what he had done and he was completely in denial, he said he didn’t do anything, that it wasn’t him,” she said.

He finally broke down when her father intervened and stated that they had proof that it was him that had done this and they knew what steps to take.

Jane’s ex-boyfriend then proceeded to delete everything in front of her and said he had no reasons for doing what he did.

She explained that their relationship had ended peacefully in their early 20s and they remained in contact for a period, before falling out of touch.

“It was actually a really amicable ending. About a week later we exchanged our things, kind of boxes of memorabilia. We gave them back to each other and it was fine, it was a perfectly amicable break-up,” said Jane.

Jane, alongside with her solicitor Dermot McNamara, Senator Ged Nash and TD Brendan Ryan, are now campaigning for a change in the law.

One barrister who works in this area is Fergal Crehan. He runs a privacy consultancy, the Hit Team, for people who find themselves in Jane’s position and want to have the footage taken off the web immediately.

Fergal Crehan heads up Hit Team. Picture: Brendan Lyon

He receives on average one query a week in relation to so-called revenge porn.

“About two years ago I was starting to get a couple of cases like this referred to me from solicitors. This kind of case doesn’t generally go to court, so I’m not acting for clients as a barrister. I set up the Hit Team in 2014 as a privacy consultancy, separate from my practice as a barrister,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“Overwhelmingly, the victims are women. The age tends to be under 30 and probably most commonly under 25.

“There are cases where they [images/videos shared] are by people who are strangers, but they usually came from relationships, such as longer term relationships that have broken down acrimoniously, or you’ve had your conquest and this is the trophy you bring home — it’s not OK just to score on a night out you have to show the lads.

“I would get more than one query a week on average,” he said.

Mr Crehan believes people may have been a victim of revenge porn but accept it as part of modern-day life and do nothing about it.

“I tend to get an increase in queries when the issue has been in the news and that leads me to believe that this has happened to a lot of people and so when they read about it, they think that’s not OK what happened to me, that was wrong.

“There may be an assumption that this is dating in the 21st Century or there’s nothing that can be done either,” he stated.

In terms of the impact revenge porn has had on victims, he said the fear in the aftermath is all-pervasive.

“One of the main things I see is fear, worry about who else is going to see this, sometimes they’re obsessively checking the footage or imagery to see how many views it has received.

“I had one particular client who had difficulty getting a job and she googled her name. She’d been sending out CVs and not getting call backs, so she was wondering why and this led her to google her name.

“She then asked how long has ‘this’ [revenge porn] been up, all this second-guessing. When she googles her name now, the search comes up clean,” he explained.

Due to the unfortunate term revenge porn, there is often an assumption that the victim carries some responsibility, they somehow acted improperly at one point and they could have done something to preempt the situation.

American writer Jessica Valenti, in her 2008 book, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, argues that women’s bodies have always been a target for sexual shaming whereas men’s are not, and that a double sexual standard exists.

“Why is a woman less of a person, or (my favourite) ‘dirty,’ because she has sex?

“When you think about what the purpose of the word ‘slut’ is: Controlling women through shame and humiliation. Women’s bodies are always the ones that are being vied over for control — whether it’s rape, reproductive rights, or violence against women, it’s our bodies that are the battleground, not men’s,” she writes.

Closer to home Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid here says that revenge porn is just a new tactic being adopted by abusers.

Margaret Martin of Women’s Aid with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Picture: Paul Sharp

“This thing about non-consensual sharing of images, is what people commonly call revenge porn, it’s part of a whole range of tactics that abusive partners use particularly around shaming.

“They use shaming very much in relationships for a variety of reasons, really in terms of trying to control, in trying to shame her to make her more dependent, to have something to hold over her,” explained Ms Martin.

She said that shame is a powerful weapon used by abusers to control an individual and that it binds people into complete silence.

“If you’re in a relationship where you’ve been shamed and you’ve been made do things you’re deeply ashamed of, it’s very difficult to talk about that and find your way out of that and I think that’s one of the things that’s a real concern,” she stated.

In terms of statistics, Women’s Aid UK found that 41% of domestic abuse victims that used their services, had been tracked or harassed using electronic devices. Whereas Women’s Aid in Ireland found that 20% of their service users in 2015, had been tracked and between April and December of last year 293 incidences of online abuse were disclosed to them.

“I think whatever we’re dealing with at the moment, this is not going to go away and the issues around the safety, the well-being, around the mental well-being and around reputation for young women is going to be huge,” said Ms Martin.

Cliona Saidlear, head of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland believes that as a society, we need to respond urgently to this phenomenon.

“The rapid rise of new technologies and platforms requires a rapid adaption in terms of our responses and culture.

“Revenge porn (an unfortunate term) can be both devastating and confusing for survivors and those victimised in this way. It can be a part of a pattern of abuse including sexual violence, however it may also be committed in isolation of other forms of sexual violence,” she told the Irish Examiner.

“Perpetrators need to understand that it is an offence and that it will be taken seriously and acted upon. Victims should know that there is support for them and this will be taken seriously.”

Similarly to her peers and to victims like Jane, she pointed to the gap in our legal system that leaves this act to go unpunished.

“However, there are weaknesses in the capacity of the justice system to respond. We have no dedicated offence of revenge porn,” she said.

What to do if you’ve been a victim of revenge porn

Joyce Fegan

Despite the gap in criminal law, there are several steps you can take if private, sexually explicit material depicting your body is posted online without your consent.

Women’s Aid advises victims to contact the hosting website or social media platform immediately.

“There may be an online complaint button: if so, use it and make clear in your online complaint that the material is an invasion of your privacy, and data protection rights, and has been uploaded without your consent,” reads their guidelines.

Women’s Aid also urges victims to take screenshots of any complaints you make, so that you have a copy of them for your own records. Irish people can also contact the privacy consultancy, the Hit Team.

Most of the major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have strict rules when it comes to the non-consensual posting of intimate photos and videos.

Facebook for example, has built an extensive reporting infrastructure which enables any suspicious activity to be flagged quickly.

Every piece of content on Facebook can be reported to the platform, and every report is investigated by their trained safety experts.

This is in operation 24 hours a day and for seven days a week.

The social media platform has a zero-tolerance stance when it comes to “sextortion”.

Micro-blogging site Twitter also has similarly stringent policies in place.

“Twitter has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to this type of behaviour. Users may not post intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject’s consent.

“In instances such as this, reported accounts that violate this rule will be permanently suspended. We also encourage users to make the police aware immediately,” Karen White, Twitter’s senior public policy manager for Europe, told the Irish Examiner.

Twitter has several easy-to-access reporting functions in place such as their mute, block, and bystander reporting buttons.

Social media platform Snapchat, where content can only be viewed for a specific period of time, also has strict rules when it comes to the distribution of sexually explicit material.

“Snapchat prohibits accounts that use public stories to distribute sexually explicit content or promote sexually explicit content found outside of Snapchat,” reads its guidelines

“Do not take Snaps of people without their knowledge and consent.

“Take extra care not to violate people’s privacy in private spaces, like someone’s home, a bathroom, dressing room, or locker room.”

And according to Instagram, their community guidelines state they have a trained team of reviewers who respond and check reports around the clock.

“We move quickly to remove any content or shut down accounts which violate our community guidelines, including those who post nude photos,” reads their guidelines.

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