Why You Should Think Twice Before Using The Term "Revenge Porn"
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When Leah Juliett was 14 years old, a friend she thought she could trust shared her nude images out of spite after learning Juliett was queer. This is what's referred to as "revenge porn," and it's a kind of non-consensual sexual interaction — even though the stigma and victim-blaming that surrounds these crimes can make victims feel as if they're the ones at fault. Six years later, Juliett still hasn't been able to have her images removed from the internet.
"I was so young, I didn’t consider it an assault," Juliett, now 20, says. "I considered it an event that was triggered by my own wrongdoings."
Thankfully, Juliett came to realize that she's 100% not at fault for what happened, and she's now an activist and the founder of the March Against Revenge Porn, which takes place on April 1 in Brooklyn. "Cyber-sex crimes are certainly forms of assault, and they certainly have the same effects on the victims," she says. "I believe because [victims] are not physically harmed, that the emotional trauma that you go through isn’t [considered] as impactful."
As this issue becomes much more prevalent and legislators scramble to figure out how to protect citizens from being victims of it, the term "revenge porn" itself has become divisive. "Revenge porn" refers to the non-consensual distribution of sexually graphic images of an individual. About 10 million (disproportionately LGBTQ) people in the U.S. have been victims of this form of assault — and yes, it's a form of assault. Victims of revenge porn experience many of the same resulting mental health issues as those who survive physical assault, including PTSD, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
To emphasize the severity of such crimes, some attorneys and activists believe we need to stop calling it "revenge porn" and begin using terminology that more accurately places cyber-based sexual assualt within the same realm as physical sexual assault. Clare McGlynn, a professor of law at Durham Law School who specializes in the subject, prefers the term "image-based sexual abuse," since that makes it clear that these activities are a form of sexual abuse.
According to McGlynn, once private images are distributed online, victims are often on the receiving end of rape threats and abusive comments about their appearance and sexual identity. And by changing the way we speak about these crimes, we could shift the way society talks about them and create a more supportive environment for victims, as well as opportunities to seek justice. "Terminology also frames debates," she says. "The use of this term in the media and in politics obscures the reality of the harm."
Whether we like it or not, how we talk about "revenge porn" affects how we deal with it as a society. One of the most complicated issues of cyber-based sexual assault is that it's a developing legal field with laws that vary from state to state. Currently, 35 states and Washington, D.C. have criminal laws against non-consensual pornography. In some, the offense of distributing someone else's nude images non-consensually is a misdemeanor, while in others it's a felony. (See the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative to find out what the laws are in your state.)
"Victims don't see the material as 'pornography,' and there is a risk this term legitimizes these activities."
Another benefit of calling "revenge porn" something more accurate (like "image-based sexual assault" or "cyber-based sexual assault") is that it could help the victim understand that they experienced abuse, and it's not their fault, McGlynn says. This was a key realization for Juliett. "I’ve turned my own victimization and the depression that has stemmed from that into activism. Now, I advocate for revenge porn victims, especially queer victims of revenge porn, since they’re targeted at a higher rate," she says. "I think that once people start to view it as an assault, they’ll start to differentiate between the victim and the perpetrator."
Another thing to consider is that the term "revenge porn" makes it seem like these crimes may have "legitimate" motivations, or that victims generally provoke perpetrators. "Revenge for what?" Juliett says. "There was nothing [the victim] did that warranted revenge, and that goes back to victim-blaming." She emphasizes that there's nothing wrong with taking nudes, but there's absolutely something wrong with non-consensually distributing them.
Also, many of these crimes have nothing to do with revenge, says Lindsay Lieberman, Esq, senior associate at C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, an internet privacy and sexual consent law firm that fights for victims of cyber sexual harassment, sexual assault, and blackmail. "We use the term 'non-consensual pornography,' because it more broadly covers the different contexts in which intimate images are shared without consent." Lieberman says that other motivations include attention, fame, money, boredom, or no reason at all. "For example, the celebrity hackings have nothing to do with revenge," she says.
And then, of course, there's the use of the word "porn." It's important to distinguish between consensual pornography and non-consensually distributed sexually explicit images — they are not the same thing, and it's incredibly problematic to conflate them. "Victims don't see the material as 'pornography,' and there is a risk this term legitimizes these activities," McGlynn says. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Juliett experienced. "Because my images are on the internet, does not make them pornography," Juliett says. "This is something that I was having a hard time with when I was first telling my parents about it. I didn’t refer to it as 'revenge porn,' because, automatically, they would think poorly of me just because I was associated with pornography."
That said, while Juliett recognizes how harmful the term "revenge porn" can be, she also says that it's "catchy" and it gets people's attention, which is important. That's why she used the term when naming her march. "I’d rather have people use the name 'revenge porn' and have the crime on their radar, rather than not know what it is," she says. As of now, she's not entirely convinced that changing the nomenclature is the best place to begin fighting revenge porn.
It's clearly a thorny issue, but ultimately, it comes down to what individuals, especially victims, prefer. According to Carrie Goldberg, Esq, founder of C.A. Goldberg, since the term "revenge porn" is popular, it's hard to avoid using it. "If a client believes she/he is a victim of 'revenge porn,' that’s what she/he is going to Google," she says. "So for that person to find us to help them, we also need to use the term." As she put it, "My crusade is about systemically fixing the problem, not on renaming it."
We still have a long way to go in terms of ensuring victims receive justice, but at the very least, people can start to change the way we talk about these crimes — whether that means eschewing the term "revenge porn" entirely, or simply showing victims compassion and providing shame-free support. And while what we should call "revenge porn" might still be up in the air, one thing is certain: Possessing and sharing nude photos of yourself is nothing to be ashamed of, so it's never your fault if those photos are put on the internet without your consent. Period.