Language Matters: The Problem with ‘Revenge Porn’

By Ashley Ambesi

A recent study into technology-facilitated abuse revealed that the phenomenon known as ‘revenge porn’ – that is, the non-consensual sharing of intimate or sexual images – is widespread among Australian adults, with 1 in 10 participants having directly experienced the behaviour. It has been suggested that this is symptomatic of society’s migration from the physical to the digital realm, which is contributing to an emerging form of abuse– that of digital sexual violence. The prevalence of internet-capable mobile devices assists abusers to adapt traditional stalking and harassment behaviours for use in online platforms, particularly social media sites. There also appears to be a burgeoning commercial market for such material, with at least 3,000 pornography websites featuring revenge porn content operating in 2014.

The consequences of non-consensual image sharing can range from humiliation and embarrassment, to mental health issues, loss of employment and suicide. A number of legislative recommendations have emphasised the harms associated with this form of abuse and the necessity for the law to acknowledge ‘revenge porn’ as a serious social problem. However, in formulating an effective legislative framework, it is important to acknowledge that there are language issues surrounding the current terminology. ‘Revenge porn’ has been labelled ‘euphemistic, titillating [and] narrow’ and the result of using such dismissive language is that negative social attitudes towards victims may be perpetuated.

The conventional understanding of a ‘revenge porn’ scenario involves a vengeful ex-partner distributing nude or sexual images of a former lover onto social media sites in order to embarrass or humiliate them to friends, family and co-workers. However, this is only one of many circumstances in which non-consensual intimate image sharing occurs in the modern age.

One Queensland case involved a woman’s photos, including photoshopped images of her face on nude bodies, being uploaded onto adult websites along with her address and a request that men visit her home for violent sexual encounters. In instances like this, the attacker extends the harm beyond emotional distress or embarrassment and places the victim at risk of physical harm, making her feel unsafe in her own home. Images of sexual assault are often distributed for similar means, prolonging feelings of vulnerability and violation in victims by broadcasting the images through an unregulated medium.

The motivations and intentions behind online sexual violence are not always as clear as the ‘revenge porn’ moniker implies – they can range from blackmail, coercion, entertainment, financial gain, sexual gratification and social validation, in addition to revenge. As an umbrella term, it is currently used to describe a vast range of sexually abusive and violent online behaviours that it does not adequately capture. Domestic Violence Victoria noted that women experiencing family violence are at a higher risk of being subject to threats of non-consensual distribution as a means of intimidation, isolation or control, forcing them to stay in abusive relationships. Indeed, a Domestic Violence Resource Centre survey found that 98 per cent of domestic violence workers reported that their clients had experienced ‘technology-enabled abuse’, such as ‘revenge porn’, highlighting the need for appropriately drafted legislation that adequately captures the scope of this problem.

Linguistically, the connotations embedded in the words ‘revenge’ and ‘pornography’ are problematic. The word ‘revenge’ is emotive; it suggests notions of betrayal or injury. Its use in this context can be seen to imply that the victim may have done something to provoke retribution. This implication lies uncomfortably close to the victim-blaming rhetoric surrounding some rape cases and ‘revenge porn’ victims often experience similar shaming. The use of the word ‘pornography’ places focus on the actual content of the image instead of on the disgraceful behaviour of the perpetrator in distributing it. This misdirection serves to diminish the harm that victims experience following a malicious upload of intimate material. It is also important to note that not all intimate images are sexually graphic and so the use of ‘pornography’ is disingenuous and reductive. The recent Senate Inquiry Report recommended the use of ‘non-consensual sharing of intimate images’ instead, a term that has been utilised by international jurisdictions in tackling the phenomenon.

Actively using language that acknowledges the wide scope of motivations and consequences behind these behaviours helps to generate a social discourse free from the judgemental language that too often accompanies discussions of sexual assault. The aim here is to encourage victims to report abuse and actively begin seeking help without fear of the stigma associated with being in such a situation. An appropriately drafted federal law, such as the Bill currently before Parliament, has significant expressive value as a step toward open condemnation of the behaviour as a form of serious abuse. The real work, however, lies in educating the community at large as to how image-based digital harassment can occur outside of media-popularised paradigms and that the victim’s role in the creation of the image has no bearing on its wrongful distribution.

Ashley Ambesi is currently completing a Honours thesis on this topic in her final year of a Bachelor of Laws (Graduate Entry) at La Trobe Law School.

La Trobe