We’ve all had the experience of hitting the “Send” button, then realising to our horror that we’ve sent a message to the wrong person. But few of us have done it in quite such a spectacular fashion as Sir Ian Botham. Yesterday he posted a very explicit image of himself on Twitter. I presume he meant to send his privates privately, so he must have been mortified when he discovered that he had posted his penis for all the world to see. The best we can say now to console him, is that whilst his camerawork leaves something to be desired, his subject was not un-impressive.
You could argue that whatever wounds Botham may have suffered through this are self-inflicted. But what if someone else posted explicit pictures of you online – not by mistake, but as a deliberate act of revenge?
From the earliest coy Victorian photographs to the birth of the glossy magazine pornographers have always been quick to exploit the possibilities of new technologies. All pornography is exploitative, but in recent years the availability of cheap video cameras and high-speed broadband has opened the way for yet another iteration: what has become known as “revenge porn.”
Revenge porn describes home-made, sexually explicit images or videos that are shared online without the consent of the person shown in them. Typically, a woman has allowed herself to be filmed masturbating for her partner’s pleasure, or a couple have made a film of themselves having sex, either because they wanted to share the moment later on, or because there was an additional thrill in doing it in front of a camera. When idealised, sexualised images are widespread in films and advertising, it’s hardly surprising if some people get their kicks by playing at being a porn star. Nor is there anything wrong with that, between consenting adults. It may even be that the risk of the pictures being published is part of the thrill – a kind of deferred exhibitionism.
All of that is fine in the privacy of the bedroom. But in an era where sexual availability has become wholly detached from the expectation of permanence there’s every possibility that one of the parties will be left with custody of the images when the relationship breaks down. The rise of revenge porn (or, in the typically measured words of the Daily Mirror, the “sick craze” that is “sweeping Britain”) has come about as thousands of such sexual selfies are uploaded to the internet, some through social networks like Facebook, Twitter and tumblr and others through sites dedicated to revenge porn. Once uploaded, films can be copied and redistributed around the web until they are almost impossible to track down. And of course, where there’s sex, there’s money. Some dedicated revenge porn sites can charge the subjects £300 or more to take down images they probably thought they owned in the first place.
Usually the subject of the images knows of their existence. That can mean that they are open to being blackmailed by an angry ex-partner. But sometimes the first thing a victim knows about it may be a message from a friend saying that they have spotted them online. The sense of betrayal, of loss of dignity and of powerlessness in finding yourself paraded in front of total strangers in the most intimate circumstances can only be imagined.
We shouldn’t avoid the fact that this is a highly gendered issue. In theory men can be victims of revenge porn. But in practise, those who appear in the images are almost always female, whilst those who operate the cameras, those who upload the images and those who view them are overwhelmingly male. This is not simply an issue of invasion of privacy, or of personal treachery – though it is certainly that. It is also an issue of justice – of the abuse of power. One might imagine that there is consent in the making of the films (though there may also be coercion in the coition) but by definition there is no consent in the publication of images that were at best meant for private consumption. Anyone who says that an individual is getting what they deserve for the foolishness of agreeing to be filmed having sex is hugely underestimating the destructive impact of being victimised in this uniquely degrading way.
Uploading revenge porn is not currently illegal, though some think it should be. Last week The House of Lords Communications Committee published a report on abuses conducted through social media. My confidence in the committee wasn’t enhanced by the chair of the committee Lord Best, who admitted on Radio 4’s Today that he and his colleagues “were astonished at the scale of social media.” Nevertheless they decided that offences committed online were sufficiently covered by existing law. There is an amendment backed by two Lib Dem peers to introduce specific legislation on revenge porn, though that too is rather incongruous for a party that has taken a libertarian stance on pornography for many decades.
There would be serious practical problems with any proposed law. The first is that at present people using social networks can choose hide behind a cloak of anonymity. In order to introduce a specific law you would have to impose a requirement for traceability on ISPs. Then there’s the problem of defining what constitutes abuse. Many people will be enjoying some time on the beach this Summer. Some will return with photos and videos that would be fine for the family album, but not for Facebook. Where do you draw the line? Should it be an offence to publish an image of your girlfriend if her face is blurred, or if the picture shows only her genitals?
How should we respond to revenge porn? How can we respond effectively? It’s a puzzle to internet companies, many of whom are utterly at sea when considering the moral dimensions of the technology. Facebook, for instance, currently has a policy of taking down images of women breastfeeding, but not of people having sex.
The difficulty is that long ago we seem to have made the fundamental mistake of deciding that moral responsibility in the arts and media lies exclusively with the viewer, not the creator. The unchallenged first law of the internet is – if you don’t like it, don’t go there. Since public broadcasting began in 1921 there have been concerns about its impact on society. These debates have almost always focussed on the impact that content will have on those who (for want of a better word) consume it. We’ve worried particularly about what the media will do to children and others who we conceive as more vulnerable than ourselves. “Of course violence on TV or video games won’t have any impact on me, but what might it do to the kids?” We have put in place fairly crude systems to mitigate the impact, such as the “9 o’clock watershed” for “adult content” on TV, (which is now honoured more in the breach than the observance.) They always put the moral responsibility on the shoulders of the viewer. Provided they are sufficiently warned, viewers are expected to make their own choices. That’s why the TV announcement that “this programme contains strong language” has become almost ubiquitous. We are not supposed to reply “then why are you broadcasting it?”
But responsibility does not start and end with the consumer. A camera has no moral agency, but a camera – any camera – in the hands of a human being, certainly does. The production of content for television, the internet and the art gallery is not a morally neutral activity. It’s become a truism to say that “we’re all TV Producers now.” But that means we are all potentially pornographers too.
And that brings us back to revenge porn. Just as you can use a paintbrush to paint a masterpiece, or you can use it to poke someone in the eye, so a camera has the potential to create art and tell stories of hope, but it can be used as a weapon. Like most conventional weapons, its power to hurt and destroy has risen exponentially in the last two decades since the dawn of the digital era. Like the shift from conventional weapons to weapons of mass destruction, the internet moves the morality of production into an entirely new dimension. A £30 high street video camera can be used as a weapon that has the power to drive a victim to suicide. If revenge porn teaches us anything, it is that we need to help our society take seriously the human responsibility we exercise when we make images and when we upload them, and not imagine that morality starts and ends with the viewer.