Australian women deserve legal protection from revenge porn

Clementine Ford: "Feeling confident and unconcerned about sending nude photographs to a partner is exactly how I should ...

Clementine Ford: "Feeling confident and unconcerned about sending nude photographs to a partner is exactly how I should feel." Photo: Supplied

 Many people will be familiar with the term 'revenge porn'. This is the colloquial term for a partner or ex-partner posting nude photographs or videos online with the express purpose of causing humiliation or distress. As the internet becomes more and more integrated with daily human activity, the practice of transporting sexual violence like 'revenge porn' into online spaces is increasing.

But 'revenge porn' shouldn't just be seen in the context of intimate partner violence. It's also being widely used as a more technological form of misogyny and abuse. In June this year, hundreds of women in South Australia had their nude photographs stolen or hacked and shared by criminals (who also managed to maintain their own anonymity and escape prosecution). Much of the public's response was to question why these women had taken naked photographs of themselves in the first place. Didn't they know that we live in a technological world? Are they really that naive? If women upload nude photographs to the internet, what can they expect if someone steals those photos or shares them without permission and sexually exposes them to widespread humiliation? Do they really have anyone to blame but themselves?

To those of you whose heads are nodding along with that sentiment, let's phrase that question in another way. If a woman goes out at night in a short skirt and proceeds to drink alcohol while flirting with a man, should she really expect not to be raped? And if she is raped, does she really have anyone to blame but herself?

As with so many examples of betrayal, violation and criminal activity, the problem isn't with the medium but with the people exploiting it. As a society, we should be vehemently invested in these criminals being held to account for their actions instead of replicating the same tired sexism that has historically seen women's clothing, behaviour, social activities and bodies blamed for inciting violence.

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In Australia, the Victoria and South Australia legislatures have both passed bills to criminalise the act of revenge porn and nude photo hacks but a Commonwealth statement is necessary. Thankfully, Terri Butler and Tim Watts - both federal Labor MPs - are collaborating to introduce a Private Members Bill into the Commonwealth that will similarly outlaw revenge porn in Australia. They are currently accepting petition signatures to support their bill, and I urge everyone invested in opposing rape culture to go and sign it immediately.

This isn't just about addressing sexual violence in the online space. It's about accepting that there is no difference between the online and offline worlds, and that legislation must be transparent and cohesive across both mediums. 'The internet' is still too commonly thought of as something separate to culture and society. Online engagement is positioned as an entertainment or distraction, something we can opt in and out of at will without experiencing any real impact on our lives. But this is a simplistic view that assumes online technology is peripheral to the day to day to humdrum of human existence, rather than something that has woven its way through the very fabric of it. Our online and offline worlds have become so indistinguishable from each other that it's absurd to continue treating the crimes that take place therein as somehow different.

As I wrote last year in response to the widespread theft of celebrities' private photographs, sharing and distributing nude images stolen without consent is not just bad manners - it's an iteration of sexual assault that needs to be taken very seriously.

I don't say this as someone speaking from a theoretical standpoint but as someone with direct experience. I travel a lot for work. I'm a sexually active woman. I have a smartphone. All of these things combine to make it not just more likely but almost predictably true that I'll have experience of using technology for sexual expression. Yes, I'm well practiced in snapping and sending nude pictures to trusted intimates, and haven't (yet) experienced any violation or betrayal as a result of it.

Stupid! I can hear some people cry. Inviting danger! Be practical! Stop being such an attention seeking slut and understand that other people have bad intentions! IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG, YOU ONLY HAVE YOURSELF TO BLAME!

Guess what? Feeling confident and unconcerned about sending nude photographs to a partner is exactly how I should feel. It is exactly what I'm entitled to feel, and it is exactly what I should expect when engaging in consensual sexual activity with an intimate partner. There are reasons why almost every owner of a smartphone has experimented with sexual selfies on at least one occasion, even if they never send them to anyone. It's because it feels liberating and intoxicating. It's a healthy way to interact with lovers when you're apart from them. It's exciting and sexy and fun, and it is absolutely and unequivocally the kind of behaviour that everyone should feel encouraged to participate in without shame or fear.

Currently, Australia's legislation lags woefully behind that of many other countries and individual states. This doesn't make us more enlightened about the nature of sexual expression and consequences. It makes us regressive and hackneyed. It speaks to the multitude of insidious attitudes about sex and violence that makes Australia a dangerous place for girls and women to live in.

As hard as it might be for old fashioned luddites to accept, the online world is completely indiscernible from what we like to think of as 'the real world'. The boundaries of cyberspace might be difficult to detect, but that doesn't mean the people moving in that space are any less real - and it certainly doesn't mean they're any less entitled to the full protection of the law.

Yes, there will always be people who choose to sexually exploit, harm and violate others, most often women and children. But if the law can't do its job in protecting victims from predators, what purpose does it serve?