Revenge porn: (n): Sharing sexually explicit photos or videos of another person online without their consent, usually with malicious intent.
THE TERM ‘REVENGE porn’ is a complicated one: for every ex with an axe to grind, there are those who give less thought to the pictures they share. We think of porn rings as hidden away on the dark web, far from the sterile, daylight world of social media.
And yet when reports surfaced last week of a Facebook thread between 200 male UCD Agricultural Science students where they shared and compared nude photos of women they had slept with, the phrase ‘porn ring’ described it entirely accurately.
It’s interesting how the group’s participants rated women in addition to sharing their photos. Their actions recall Facebook’s earliest incarnation as ‘Facemash’ in 2003, a site where Ivy League users browsed pictures of their fellow students and compared them for hotness.
Even today, as the world’s leading social network and a would-be global force, Facebook has always had a way of dehumanising people–in this sense, it’s little surprise how casually the #UCD200 used it to attack their female classmates.
But it’s never that simple, because one of the stark truths of ‘revenge porn’ is that you forfeit control over what you are seeing, even as you consume it. A picture might be the result of force, or blackmail. The subject might be underage, unwilling, or unconscious.
How it happened to me
This incident put me in mind of something that happened in my first year at another university. I was eighteen and skittish, anorexic–severely, at the time–and grasping at an illusory air of maturity which I believed casual sex could offer. Having gone home with a guy from the year ahead of me, halfway through I heard the synthetic click of an iPhone camera shutter, somewhere in the darkness behind my head. Confused and a little disturbed, I pretended not to hear and soon after made an excuse not to stay the night. The sex was perfunctory, awkward. But the picture felt like a violation.
I feel indifferent to this brush with ‘revenge porn’ today. That unpleasant encounter might live forgotten on an old phone, rotting in darkness on a SIM card. It might just as easily have been seen by hundreds, or thousands, as by none at all. Maybe he’s in the picture, too, fixed in a static smirk at getting away with it. What would you, the reader, have advised? That I should have grabbed his phone out of his hand (I know that I should have..) and risked confrontation? That I shouldn’t have been having sex in the first place?
Not every ‘revenge porn’ photo happens this way; in fact it’s estimated that 80% of ‘revenge porn’ shots are originally self-portraits. But that doesn’t diminish each image as an act of aggression, one multiplied by the eyes which consume it. Does it matter if someone contributed to the group, or just passively stood by and watched? One grim, near-hilarious quote given to The College Tribune saw a member of the Facebook thread defend himself:
Most of the guys on the group don’t even partake in what’s happening! I personally have only sent 3 photos and a story or 2.
What is harder to defend is that part of the appeal of ‘revenge porn’ lies in trespassing on another person’s smartphone. You are fetishising a lack of consent. It brings to light the inherentlygendered nature of online interaction: though it can serve as a tool of empowerment, the internet can still very quickly and efficiently destroy a woman’s life. It brings access and traceability, making them easier to track down and blame.
Technology has failed to overwrite the outdated values which prize women for their appearance of purity. No woman ever asked for this weight on her shoulders. No woman ever asked for visibility as violence.
In a climate like this, to take a picture of yourself and send it to someone means something more than a throwaway dick pic. It is an act of profound trust, courage and self-love.
Revenge porn must be taken seriously
In a comment to Buzzfeed News, author Louise O’Neil asked “Did people think women’s bodies were something they were entitled to use for their own amusement; their sexuality something to be laughed at?” Her words get at something many overlook: that taking photos is sexuality, now. Sex is mediated just like every other facet of our lives. We are in thrall to self-surveillance–we consume it and we eroticise it. Those who victim-blame and argue ‘don’t take the photos in the first place’ might as well petition Apple to stop making smartphones with cameras.
It’s possible that the UCD thread was created without any greater misogynistic purpose. Anyone who regularly torrents films, or trolls comments, can tell you how easy it is to do bad things on the internet. But institutions, and increasingly governments, are beginning to take revenge porn seriously. Twitter and reddit have banned it, and in February of last year it became illegal in England and Wales. In parts of the US it has long been against the law, and lawyers are even beginning to offer ‘social media prenups’.
Consent classes might prevent this happening again. But meanwhile the students whose photos were leaked will never recover their privacy, because the photos cannot be unseen. They are forced to live with the consequences of ‘lad culture’ at its most indiscriminate.
Roisin Kiberd is a writer. Follow her on Twitter here.