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"Revenge Porn": A Victim-Blaming Misnomer

Mehak Bajpai
12 May 2020 4:40 PM GMT
Revenge Porn: A Victim-Blaming Misnomer
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The term is a misnomer

With the expansion of cyberspace, every day, privacy is being grossly invaded. One such invasion is where people's intimate pictures and videos are recorded, uploaded and disseminated online without their consent. This is popularly called "revenge porn". We're all aware of a recent incident where a group of boys threatened to circulate intimate pictures of girls out of spite on a group chat called "bois locker room".

For an emerging digital and globalizing society digital exchange of intimate information is a medium though which we can understand new issues on internet governance. Maladies likes "revenge porn" or slut shaming, objectification are not unknown in the new internet age. For new internet laws to be made and enforced properly, we need to understand the context and complex reasons why they manifest in the ways they do.[i]

Not only we do not have a specialized legislation or helplines like many countries worldwide do to address the problem, we do a great injustice to the victims of this cyber terrorism by calling this "revenge pornography". The term fails to communicate the latitude and gravity of the harm. Feminist and media researchers have rejected the term for various reasons that we need to address.[ii] The term is victim blaming in nature that runs the risk of the public and the policy makers being misguided.[iii]

Legal lacunae

There is so specific law to address the issue yet. However, several sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Information Technology Act, 2000 are available to convict the accused but do not cover the nuances of the malady completely.[iv] Also, other Acts such as Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition ) Act, 1986 also criminalizes publication of indecent photographs of women.[v]

However, all these laws suffer from one very basic issue is their gendered nature. For example, section 354C of the IPC assumes that the offender is always male and the victim is always a female. IRWA has a similar problem.

Section 67A of the IT Act is where it gets worse. As you might be aware, this section criminalizes individuals who publish and transmit electronic form of any material which is sexually explicit. The problem of using this to prosecute offenders of nonconsensual dissemination of intimate images and videos is that its ambit is wide enough to cover victims of such offences and prosecute them for transmitting the material. It's specifically problematic for the victims who send this material voluntarily to their ex partners during the relationship.

Moreover, the discourse on the subject must also include the wide array of harms and not just a vengeful ex-partner dynamic. Nonconsensual dissemination of images could also include instances where the victim and the perpetrator are strangers; or cases where perpetrators steal these images from the victims.

Don't call it "revenge" or "porn"

Usage of the word 'revenge' suggests that there was an act on the part of the victim (originally harmful to the perpetrator) which warranted such behavior by the perpetrator. However, the offender may be driven by malevolence after a close relationship is over. In most cases it's generally to restrict the victim from moving on from an intimate relationship. Or sometimes their motivation could be purely monetary; posting such images/videos online for money or extorting the victim for the same. Or sometimes it's as simple as having a voyeuristic desire to expose another.[vi] As discussed in the previous section, the implications and the colors the offence can take is on a wide spectrum, and must not be treated only as being vengeful because a relationship ended.

Some writers suggest that this specific offence is based on something called the "logic of outing".[vii] It suggests that dissemination to information that is sensitive in a society that thrives on blaming victims of sexual offences, people gain psychological, economic and physical power by exposing them, making them feel guilty and disempower them. The point is that the content they are sharing with the world is very real; it involves a very real person who had previously consented to the act. So there's no way it's only the perpetrator's fault. Therefore, for these instances in particular, victims are shamed and blamed for their own victimization.

Moreover, some scholars also suggest that another pillar on which this crime thrives is romanticizing a woman's non consent which is apparent from most hard core pornography available these days. Not just pornography, a non-consenting woman is fetishized even in mainstream movies and ads. Therefore, calling this revenge porn is over simplification of an act that robs people off their right to dignity, mental health and even sometimes livelihood. The term misses the central character of the issue- the abuser.

Other than that, the term "porn" is private visual material with public content meant for mass consumption which gives a sense of victims being the consenting parties even to the extent of dissemination of the material. Pornography as such is an avenue where the lines of consensual content and otherwise are already blurry to the viewer. The term sensationalizes and makes for an attention grabbing headline and makes the victims even more reluctant than they already are to come forward and share their trauma. Reporting these sensitive incidents in a salacious manner only takes us a step backward in raising awareness against the menace.[viii] A minor change in vocabulary can make a huge difference in how we perceive this crime; and how victims perceive themselves.

The impact on the victim is understated

Right from jeopardized relationships with family and friends, victims also suffer a major difficulty in their professional advancement. It exposes them to a major risk of being stalked and teased by those who have seen their images online. If not this, victims live in a fear of losing their current partner and social boycott and in some cases they have also reported being stressed over their children's future in these circumstances. Most of them close their social media accounts and some have even gone to the extent of changing their names. Not only this, more than half of the victims of non-consensual dissemination of intimate material online have reported to have suicidal thoughts, leading to major mental health problems.[ix]

Countries like United Kingdom, for instance, introduced a helpline specifically for victims to report such offences. The Helpline was established in 2015 alongside the law which made it an offence to share intimate images/videos of someone, either on or offline, without their consent with the purpose of causing anguish. These initiatives are important since they provide the victim a safe space to talk about their issues and seek advice first, rather than simply reporting it to the police officials at the first instance who are often not trained to deal with sensitive matters like intimate image abuse. This is not to say that the enforcement of the special law in the UK is without its pitfalls. But it is nevertheless an important insight into what we're not even discussing in India. While dealing with intimate image abuse, a highly empathetic approach is required to encourage victims to actually lodge complaints in the matter. Not only do we need a specific law targeting the problem, we also need trained police men and women to approach the problem with utmost empathy and seriousness.

Views Are Personal Only.

(Author is Research Associate and Research Scholar, National Law University Delhi)



[i] Arora, Payal, and Laura Scheiber. 2017. "Slumdog Romance: Facebook Love and Digital Privacy at the Margins." Media, Culture & Society 39 (3): 408–422. doi:10.1177/0163443717691225. [Crossref], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]

[ii] Sophie Maddocks, Revenge Porn, five reasons why we should not call it by that name, GenderIt.org, Feminist reflection on internet policies, 16th January, 2019. Available at https://www.genderit.org/articles/5-important-reasons-why-we-should-not-call-it-revenge-porn#_ftn4 . She suggests using the term Nonconsensual dissemination of intimate images (NCDII) as coined by other internet portals.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Aditya Krishna, Revenge Porn: Prosecution Under the Current Indian Legal System, The Criminal Law Blog, National Law Univeristy Jodhpur, April 13, 2020. Available at https://criminallawstudiesnluj.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/revenge-porn-prosecution-under-the-current-indian-legal-system/

[v] See Section 4 and section 6 of the Act.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid. Updating to Remain the Same, Wendy Hui Kyong 2016.

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. 2013. "Cyber Civil Rights Statistics on Revenge Porn." Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Accessed 10-May-2020. Available at https://www.cybercivilrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/RPStatistics.pdf. [Google Scholar]

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