Revenge porn: The legacy of women as property in rape law

“Marry me or I’ll make your rape video public.”

This threat was sent to an Australian University student by an abusive ex-boyfriend. Unfortunately, her story is not unique. In an increasing number of countries, rapists are filming the assaults they perpetrate on cell phones in order to blackmail victims into not reporting the crimes. The relationship between camera phones, the Internet, and a lack of legal protection for women has birthed a new technological mechanism for female sexual oppression, with thousands of “revenge porn” victims every day.

In 2013, a US study revealed that 10 per cent of women’s ex-partners threatened to post revenge porn of them, and nearly 60 per cent of those threats became a reality. Revenge porn is essentially a form of sexual violence (committed almost entirely against female victims), which can happen on a massive scale, with hundreds of thousands of men participating in a woman’s violation by viewing her, rape video, filmed sex, naked picture, etc. The damage done to revenge porn victims is immeasurable, resulting in ruined lives (both professionally and personally) and sometimes even suicide. So what is being done to stop this terrible new beast?

While Canada and many U.S. states have criminalized revenge porn, these laws only hold the original poster of the content accountable. That means those who re-post the content as well as the websites that host the content are not subjected to any legal ramifications for their actions nor are they responsible for removing the revenge porn. Let’s think about that for a second…

Let’s say there’s a room full of violent rapists on the other side of a door. One man opens the door and a dozen of them pounce on you. According to current laws, justice has been served when the man who opened the door is held accountable. But nothing will be done about the men who raped you or the company hosting these gang rapes, and you have no right to even be taken out of that gang-rape room.

It clearly is not enough to only criminalize the original person who posted the revenge porn. At very least, websites that host revenge porn should be legally obligated to remove it. Currently, victims have no recourse to remove revenge porn from the Internet unless they turn their bodies into “intellectual property” and file a copyright complaint form, which then becomes publicly archived.

You heard that right. In this legal paradigm, women’s bodies are only recognized as having value for protection in so far as they are considered to be property.

Sound familiar? This absurd lack of legal protection for women has its roots in the historical legacy of rape law. For much of recorded history, women were the property of men. Rape was made illegal on the basis that it was a violation of another man’s property. Fathers were paid reparative sums by men who raped their daughters. Occasionally a daughter was forced to marry her rapist, following a “you break it you buy it” type policy. Thus, marital rape was not a crime, as the husband was not violating another man’s property. This marital rape exemption, allowing husbands to rape their wives on the basis of owning them as property, actually survived in US law into the 1990’s. Feminism challenged this legal paradigm by positioning rape as a crime against the woman herself. Redefining rape as a violently damaging act to a woman, as a person, and not as property.

Recently, “consent” has become part of the discourse around revenge porn. “Intimate images shared without the subject’s consent” is revenge porn’s new definitional phrase, which is a good thing in that it gives the crime connotations of sexual violation. Several online companies like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook have hopped on the bandwagon, creating policies against posting “non-consensual porn.” The focus is finally shifting (slightly) towards the websites that host revenge porn and their role in facilitating acts of sexual violation.

Perhaps the most significant company to respond to this new development — Google — announced in a blog entry last month that they will be removing revenge porn from search results upon request. The company will supposedly be creating a web-tool in the coming weeks that will allow people to report revenge porn for removal. This change in Google’s policy is being compared to their stance on child pornography, which is as follows:

When we discover child abuse imagery [child porn] or are made aware of it, we respond quickly to remove and report it to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.

– Google’s Director of Communications, 2013

Just how well will Google’s new anti-revenge porn policy work in practice? Only time will tell. However, it might be useful to look at how they currently enforce their policy on child porn for a good indication of how this shiny new promise will pan out.*

At any rate, no matter what Google does, it is still just a company. Women are not their priority. They’re still going to prioritize profit above all else, but want, also, to avoid looking like monsters.

It’s the law that should be protecting women, and feminists need to continue to advocate to this end. We must fight this new regime of female oppression. Luckily, our second wave foremothers blazed our path to victory on this issue through their efforts to end the marital rape exemption. This is a new manifestation of an old problem, but we know how to defeat it.

When a woman’s body is sexually violated, it is a crime against her as a person. The crime of revenge porn must be legally regarded as a sexual violation of the woman herself, and not as a copyright violation of her body as intellectual property in order to ensure that companies that profit from hosting/linking to revenge porn cease and desist (remove the content). Victims matter because they are human, not because they are property.

*For my investigation into Google’s enforcement of their child porn policy, see part two of this article, forthcoming.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • C.K. Egbert

    Great work, Susan!

    Revenge porn is merely the natural outgrowth of liberalism’s stubborn defense of pornography; once they permit trafficked women to be raped and their violations posted, they cannot stop it from happening from every woman.

    • derrington

      Gosh, but surely we can leave it to the pro porn feminists to police this since porn is their bag … what’s that you say …? Well isnt it …?!!!! So what the fuck are they for?!

      • This issue is barely talked about, and I DON”T GET WHY NOT??