Time to make Revenge Porn sharing a criminal act in Canada

Is it time to make the sharing of Revenge Porn a criminal act in Canada? “A friend sends you a naked picture of a girl he knows. Is it a big deal to share it with others?” asks one scenario from Draw the Line, a campaign targeting youth that challenges problematic behaviours and ideas, especially regarding sexual harassment and violence against women.

This “big deal” is happening – a lot. There is limited data (mostly anecdotal and from the U.S.), but one online survey found that 20 per cent of teens and 33 percent of young adults polled had sent nude pictures of themselves via text or e-mail. Another recent study at a private high school found that nearly 20 per cent of students had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves, and that 25 percent admitted to forwarding similar images to others.

This isn’t just a teen issue. A survey of adults between 18 and 54 found that 1 in 10 ex-partners threatened to post intimate photos online – and in 60 per cent of cases, the exes made good on that threat. There’s a plethora of consenting nude adults in the professional and amateur porn communities, yet there are sites and businesses built on sharing photos and videos of (mostly) women without their consent – the now defunct r/creepshots on Reddit, disturbingly popular “check out my ex” websites, and all kinds of nastiness from Hunter Moore.

Currently in Canada there is no real legal recourse for such awfulness – but that’s changing. On Friday, a long-awaited report from the CCSO Cybercrime working group was released, recommending changes to the Criminal Code regarding harassment and bullying via electronic communications (or “cyberbullying”), and modernizing investigative processes. If you can get over the comically outdated tendency of placing “cyber” in front of every word, it’s a great report. It also recommends creating an entirely new criminal offence for the nonconsensual sharing of intimate photos.

Dubbed by many news outlets as the Rehteah Parsons law, a private member’s bill proposing just that was read in the house in late June by NDP MP Robert Chisholm. It places a great emphasis on proof of consent, but will be further refined by parliamentary experts. Similar laws already exist in New Jersey, several Australian states, Germany and has been proposed in Florida.

Ms. Parsons, a 17-year old Nova Scotia teen, killed herself in April after being relentlessly harassed online and in person since November, 2011. Her family alleges that four boys sexually assaulted her at a party while she was intoxicated and vomiting. Allegedly, one boy took and shared a photo of the incident, that photo was shared widely in her school and town within three days.

Even without her face prominently in the photo, Ms. Parsons was reportedly shamed and called a “slut” by her peers. She received Facebook messages and texts requesting sex with her. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that what happened to her was “simply criminal activity.”

It was strikingly similar to what happened to then 12-year-old Amanda Todd, who flashed someone via webcam on a whim. A year later someone used that photo (along with knowledge of where she lived and went to school) to allegedly blackmail her into “putting on a show,” before posting the images online anyway. Though Ms. Todd switched schools, talked openly about what happened to her, and made presentations on dealing with “cyberbullies,” she killed herself one month before her 16th birthday.

Too often it’s Ms. Parsons (why was she drinking with boys?) and Ms. Todd (why would she ever flash someone?) who are blamed for what happened to them. Victim blaming is, of course, nothing new, but it is disturbing and seems to happen to every woman exploited in this fashion. The top-voted comment on a Gawker story about Holly Jacobs, the advocate behind End Revenge Porn and who was tormented by an ex who shared pictures of her with friends, co-workers and the Internet, is this: “…the best advice remains, DON’T MAKE PORNOGRAPHIC VIDEOS FOR YOUR BRAINDEAD MOUTH-BREATHING BODY SPRAY WEARING MEDIOCRE FRATBOY OF A BOYFRIEND. Like, EVER.”

Except it’s often regular men, everyday Joes, sharing this stuff. When Ms. Todd died, I ranted on Facebook about the injustice of not ever being able to safely share something with a partner. I received messages from protective friends urging me to never do so. The problem always seems to be women’s sexuality – never the eagerness with which people exploit it or hate on it.

Equally heinous is the tendency to write off what happened to Ms. Parsons and Ms. Todd as simple “cyberbullying,” when in both cases it was actually malicious exploitation. As Beth Lyons wrote about on the Shameless Magazine blog after Ms. Parsons died: “…bullying has become a catch-all term that means everything and nothing. Its ubiquity renders it benign as a concept, which is a disservice to those who are bullied as well as those who are dealing with other kinds of conflict and violence.”

The report recommends that all levels of government take a comprehensive approach to cyberbullying and nonconsensual media sharing, because these behaviours won’t change unless attitudes do. That will be a much bigger challenge than updating the Criminal Code, but there are initiatives like Creating Consent and Internet activists like Stephanie Guthrie working on it.

The days of treating the Internet (and other electronic means of communicating) as the Wild West, free of consequences, have been over for a long time – and this report and proposed legislation prove it.

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