Emma Holten has spoken and now it’s time for action against revenge porn

Danish journalist Emma Holten has given us yet another wake-up call on revenge porn, by publishing an article and a video telling the story of how she recovered from the humiliation it caused her. She found her own way to cope with it, which was to publish photos of herself as a “sexual subject instead of an object”. Of course, this is far from being a general solution for revenge porn victims, but it was her way and a powerful act. It wasn’t Holten’s new photos that caught my attention, however, but how she explained the violent course of events after her computer had been hacked and her private photos posted online.

Holten still does not know who broke into her computer. Like most other perpetrators his or her intentions were obviously to cause distress and humiliation. But Holten illuminates how it is not just the original perpetrator, but a depressingly large community of online harassers, who feed off revenge porn. She received hundreds of messages and emails, most of them degrading, some also threatening (such as “SEND ME MORE NUDES OR ILL SEND THE ONES I HAVE TO YOUR BOSS”). And she soon realized that it wasn’t her nudity that was exciting, but the fact that the photos were online against her will. Furthermore, and in her own words:

Then, suddenly, I noticed that this dynamic – sexualisation against her will – was everywhere. Take ‘creepshots’, a global phenomenon which entails photographing women without their knowledge or consent, in order to share them in a sexual context online. On similar sites, people link to Facebook pages asking if anyone can hack or find more pictures of the girl. Here, again, women are used as objects whose lack of consent, of participation, provides the reason and allure of their sexualisation.

When I first started dealing with revenge porn cases in my legal practice, I was baffled by the brutality of the perpetrators. Most of them are not strangers, but ex-partners or boyfriends (or in a few cases girlfriends) who acquired the images that they later posted online within intimate relationships. Then they choose to turn trust into a cruel weapon. That in itself is not a new phenomenon; sexual violence has for centuries been most frequently committed within relationships of trust. But the level to which strangers participate in – and contribute to – the abuse associated with revenge porn, is something different.

Of course, all pornography raises questions of consent. Clearly it is “easy” for men and women to justify most pornography consumption: after all the actors and actresses were (probably) paid, and they could have chosen not to participate. (This sort of justification generally ignores well established facts about how the porn industry really works, but that’s another story). In the case of revenge pornography the coercion is unquestionable. And as Holten describes so brilliantly, it is not simple nudity but fundamentally the victim’s lack of consent which the hundreds of thousands of harassers enjoy. Some enjoy the humiliation so much that they spend significant amounts of time passing the images around and harassing the victim, whom they have never met! This includes emails to family members and employers of the victim. For some reason, the harassers feel that an innocent (young) woman, a total stranger, deserves not only to be abused and humiliated, but also to lose her job.

Emma Holten has taken an important step that clarifies the nature of revenge porn and how it causes harm.  Now, we have to react, and to act. There is obviously something wrong with a culture where so many men (in Holten’s case they were all men) enjoy harassing and degrading women they have never met. This calls for raising social awareness and education (including mandatory sex education), but also for changes to the law. The law should not only criminalize revenge porn as is suggested in the bill currently under debate in the British Parliament. It should also offer a civil remedy for victims to be able to seek justice from perpetrators, harassers and website operators, who profit from the abuse and refuse to remove it. At McAllister Olivarius we are using our resources to take on this fight. And we urge you to join us!