Revenge porn: why it's hard to define and harder to outlaw

Arrest of man who ran US revenge porn website is significant, but UK has yet to outlaw the practice

LAST UPDATED AT 12:21 ON Thu 12 Dec 2013

THE arrest of a San Diego man accused of running a "revenge porn" website has thrown the spotlight on a relatively new but deeply pernicious form of digital abuse. What can be done to stop it? Here are five key questions: 

What is revenge porn?

Revenge porn is the term used for photographs or video footage of a person, which are uploaded to the internet without the subject's permission and usually without their knowledge. The material is often put online by a former lover although there have been cases where hackers have managed to obtain pictures and uploaded them in an effort to humiliate or blackmail the subject. The images are often accompanied by personal details such as a person's Facebook and social media profiles, an act which compounds the sense of violation felt by the victim. 

When did the term become commonplace?

Quite recently. Although the issue of explicit photographs and videos being posted online without the subject's permission is not a new one, the term "revenge porn" has only been around for a couple of years. The website that propelled it into the mainstream consciousness is IsAnyoneUp.com, the brainchild of an American called Hunter Moore. He launched the site in late 2010, encouraging visitors to post "noodz" of their former girlfriends and boyfriends, as well as details about the subject, the BBC reports.

Below each post appeared a "stream of comments from visitors critiquing - to put it lightly - the victim's looks and body", the BBC says. "If anyone complained, they were ridiculed. If they threatened legal action, Mr Moore ignored it. As many of the site's victims soon discovered, they were largely powerless to do anything about it."

Is the San Diego arrest significant?

It is. Kevin Bollaert, 27, ran a site called ugotposted.com that contained nude pictures of about 10,000 women.

The women were allegedly charged $350 to have them removed, the Daily Mirror reports. One woman, whose picture was supplied to the site by a former boyfriend, told investigators that she received a flood of emails, phone calls and "lewd photos" from men who wanted to "hook up". California's attorney general, Kamala Harris, said the site had turned the public humiliation and betrayal of people whose photos were posted "into a commodity".

Bollaert, who has taken down his site, faces 31 felony counts of conspiracy, identity theft and extortion and could be sent to prison for up to 22 years if convicted on all counts.

Is revenge porn illegal in the US?

Only in two states: New Jersey and California. California made revenge porn a criminal offence in October when it introduced a statute making it illegal for anyone "to take and circulate explicit photographs without consent with the intention to harass or annoy". Anyone found guilty of the offence could now face six months in jail, or a $1,000 fine.

The Daily Mail says an increasing number of states, including Maryland, Wisconsin and New York, are considering whether to make revenge porn illegal.

Is it illegal in the UK?

Not at the moment, but there have been calls for legislation. In September, Scottish MPs said that those who post explicit photographs or videos of former partners online without their permission should be prosecuted. Scottish National Party MP Christina McKelvie "called for a legal response in Scotland, citing California and New Jersey where revenge porn is illegal, The Mirror says.

Writing in the New Statesman, Ellie Hutchinson, the co-ordinator for Stop Revenge Porn Scotland, details the harrowing effects of the practice. "Some women are blackmailed, threatened and coerced with the threat of sharing images," she writes. "This is not a one off incident with no repercussions - it is harassment, it is humiliation, it is violence against women. We urgently need to move to a place where we understand that violence against women that occurs online is violence against women. We are way past turning the computer off and walking away." 

Are some of the victims British?

Almost certainly, but cases are heavily undereported. One recent case that highlights the destructive effect of explicit photographs online is the sacking of Mark Shenton, the veteran theatre critic at the Sunday Express. He claims he was given his marching orders this month after nude photos taken by a friend were found on a gay website. Shenton, 51, told The Independent he believes a "malicious third party" tipped off the newspaper about the pictures, which he says were taken in San Francisco some 22 years ago. 

Does everyone agree it should be criminalised?

No, they don't. Wired's Sarah Jeong argues that revenge porn is hard to define and "there are unintended consequences to overbroad laws". She adds: "Failing to take that into consideration when advocating for increased criminal liability is irresponsible."

The issue isn't a simple choice between women's rights and the freedom of the internet, says Jeong. "These are false and unnecessary dichotomies. Refusing to criminalise revenge porn would not make us misogynists. It would instead make us prudent."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Dr Brooke Magnanti says criminalisation is a "tough call". While women need to be protected, "What message do we send by enshrining in law the idea that a naked picture necessarily ruins your life"? she asks. "No one would want to be the victim of a vengeful ex, yet at the same time, we know that bullies only stop chasing once you stop running. As long as nude pictures are considered objects of shame, we have a problem. Stop the shaming, hey presto, revenge porn will cease to exist." · 

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"Bullies only stop chasing when you stop running"
Hmmm, people who browse these websites and shame people in the photos with their words aren't chasing anything. Good luck trying to enlighten the shamers. And good luck convincing the victims to get over it.

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