In defence of revenge porn

By Jeremy Wilson on October 10th, 2013

All across America, privacy campaigners are gleefully hailing the recent signing into law of a Californian bill designed to end “revenge porn”, the grim practice of posting nude photos and videos of former romantic partners on the internet.

The bill criminalises the distribution “with the intent to harass or annoy” of nude images that were taken with the understanding that they were to remain private. It’s the first of a raft of similar proposals that are sweeping the country; New York will soon have a similar law if the proposals of legislators are adopted.

But the campaigners are wrong, and lawmakers out of their depth. Revenge porn isn’t going anywhere.

What’s the difference between someone posting private pictures online to hurt someone and someone who is simply ambivalent about the hurt they might cause? That’s just the first problem the lawmakers have made for themselves in their attempts to negotiate the first amendment.

Let’s be clear: the “revenge porn” authorities are trying to regulate isn’t hidden camera, stolen or underage content. There’s plenty of legal recourse against that sort of material already and the authorities should pay serious attention to the increasing amounts of it.

What they are trying to do instead is regulate the consequences of stupid decisions made by adults: i.e., allowing yourself to be filmed performing sex acts, somehow imagining that the footage or photos won’t ever see the light of day.

Well, I’m sorry, but the law’s not here to scrub your life clean of your own bad choices.

As has been widely discussed, another gaping hole in the the Californian law is that it doesn’t cover pictures taken by the victim – i.e., selfies, the mainstay of revenge porn. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the author of the law, Sen. Anthony Cannella, excluded selfies from the bill as the already overcrowded Californian prison population wouldn’t be able to cope with the convictions that would be generated.

No, really.

A survey by the Florida-based Cyber Civil Rights Initiative found that 80 per cent of revenge porn victims had taken the photos or videos themselves. This is the crux of the issue: the vast majority of revenge porn is self-taken content.

Hunter Moore, who once ran the most notorious revenge porn site on the web, has characterised the law as something designed to “help stupid people feel better”. He’s right.

Flash your tits or wap out your wang on camera, share it with someone else and you have no excuses when those photos turn up online. Or, to put it in legalese, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Persecuting someone for sharing images you took of yourself and sent to them is itself a kind of petty revenge, often resulting simply from embarrassment. But the embarrassment is most likely your own doing.

Yes, that person betrayed your trust. But refusing to accept any responsibility and whining at the state to step in to help you punish him has more chilling effects than just producing laws so useless they’re offensive. In fact, it’s almost immoral.

Images can’t be removed from the internet and trampling over freedom of expression in the attempt to do so is crazy. I’m not being facetious: if a law had prevented us from meeting Carlos Danger, the New York Mayoral race might have looked quite different.

We are all going to have to get used to this new social landscape in which anything we take and share can pop up in unexpected places. Don’t like how you look under public scrutiny? Then get to the gym.

We don’t need the law to catch up with technology on this issue: it’s people who need to be doing the catching up.