Every day the term ‘revenge porn’ appears in newspaper headlines around the world and its translations are entering people’s vocabularies everywhere from China to France. Despite its growing popularity, research published in 2018 identified a universal rejection of the term ‘revenge porn’ among activists and researchers. They see it as a misleading term and they have set about developing more accurate alternatives. This article outlines five reasons why we - as feminists - must follow their lead by removing ‘revenge porn’ from our own vocabularies. Drawing from the expertise of anti-‘revenge porn’ activists, this article proposes to replace the term ‘revenge porn’ with ‘Non-consensual Dissemination of Intimate Images’ (NCII), first coined by Coding Rights and InternetLab.
The non-consensual dissemination of intimate images is a new tool of disempowerment built on an old patriarchal production line. As feminists, we all see in NCII a familiar sexist logic. We know that it disproportionately targets young single women. We know it is a tool of control used by a range of people: from abusive partners and sex traffickers to hackers, scammers, and voyeurs. Whether it is distributed by leaflet, DVD, or WhatsApp group, we know NCII shames and silences countless victims every day. Just the threat of having their intimate images leaked leads many people to reduce their online activity. In short, NCII maintains existing power relations. Research indicates that it disproportionately impacts gender and sexually diverse people (GSD), women of colour, people on low incomes, indigenous people, and disabled people. NCII has also been globalised: it is now a form of internationally networked violence that transcends legislative boundaries. Its rise is triggering feminist resistance worldwide: street protestors in South Korea, women’s rights defenders in Zimbabwe, and pressure groups in India are challenging NCII in all its forms – and many begin by deconstructing the term ‘revenge porn’.
Just the threat of having their intimate images leaked leads many people to reduce their online activity. In short, NCII maintains existing power relations.
1. It’s not revenge
Revenge is the act of harming someone in return for an injury or wrong, but when a person posts images non-consensually, it is rarely in response to legitimate wrongdoing on the part of the exposed. The perpetrator may be driven by spite after an intimate relationship has ended. They may be driven by financial incentives; posting nude images or sexual video online for a fee or extorting a victim for money. They may simply be driven by the voyeuristic desire to expose another. But to use the word ‘revenge’ is to assume that victims have committed an original harm for which the perpetrator is owed retribution.
To use the word ‘revenge’ is to assume that victims have committed an original harm for which the perpetrator is owed retribution.
Revenge is not the essential driver of NCII. Beneath revenge is what some theorists have called a ‘logic of outing’. Individuals can gain physical, psychological and economic power through the process of outing that is central to the non-consensual creation, distribution, and consumption of intimate images. Social norms that victim-blame women enable people to enjoy ‘outing’ a woman without associated feelings of guilt. The content they are watching is ‘real’ so the blame is often placed onto the victim for supposedly allowing herself to be filmed. Alongside this all-too-familiar victim-blaming, is the fetishizing of women’s non-consent, visible in everything from advertising to hardcore pornography. Together, these two prevailing norms have allowed NCII to flourish, and led to the rise of the term ‘revenge porn’. Every time we use this term we add blame to victims and mask the actions of abusers who create and knowingly view this content.
2. It’s Not Porn
The term pornography conflates private visual material with public content meant for mass consumption. It turns victims into seemingly consenting porn actors. Using the term ‘pornography’ further distorts an already misunderstood harm because NCII and amateur porn circulate indistinguishably on Adult Film sites. On pornography websites, the fictional and the real become dangerously conflated. Viewers may not know whether they’re watching a fictional or real depiction of non-consent, or whether subjects they’re viewing ever consented to be watched. As legal scholar Mary Anne Franks notes, we are now a society of ‘Peeping Toms’: people can view the most extreme real-life manifestations of their fantasies without a thought for the consent of the watched. NCII has grown into a lucrative arm of the pornography industry and calling NCII ‘pornography’ tacitly permits people to consume that which was created or distributed without consent.
Calling NCII ‘pornography’ tacitly permits people to consume that which was created or distributed without consent.
3. It’s Not Entertainment
In 2018, tens of thousands of Korean women gathered in Seoul to protest the widespread use of spy cameras in public places. Two of their slogans ‘my life is not your porn’ and ‘I am not Korean porn’ capture an essential problem with the term ‘revenge porn’: it turns a harmful act into a form of entertainment. The term ‘revenge porn’ is attention-grabbing and salacious – perfect for newspaper headlines. This type of reporting does no justice to the experiences of victims. It is activists and researchers who tell the real story of NCII.
News reporting too often focuses on a small number of celebrity victims, but activists draw attention to the ubiquity of NCII in our daily lives. They also represent the needs of victims who may lack public support, such as sex workers.
‘It’s very rare that you get a woman escaping from a violent or controlling relationship that is not also being subject to these behaviors online’ – Intimate Partner Violence Activist, Australia
Note: The quotations featured in this article originate from interviews conducted for the author’s MA Thesis, entitled ‘Against Revenge Porn: A contemporary history of Thought and Action’.
The continued use of victim-blaming terms like ‘revenge porn’ in mainstream media has contributed to the formation of public awareness campaigns advising women not to share intimate content at all. Rather than limiting individuals’ freedom of expression, campaigns should focus on the actions of perpetrators and bystanders. In their 2017 report, the European Women’s Lobby seeks to change the narrative by coining a set of terms that draw attention to perpetrators. They list: the cyberstalker, the groomer, the recruiter, the creepshotter, the voyeur, etc. For each abuser, they list common habitats and strategies.
‘I think we need to refocus the message. Bystanders could be intervening before an image is taken without consent, or before an image is shared without consent, refusing to send that image on, or contacting the victim to let them know that images have been shared’ – Researcher, Australia
Activists in the most hostile environments have found creative ways to raise awareness of NCII as a crime – not a form of entertainment. The only option victims have to reclaim their ‘real’ online self is to issue constant take-down requests - and even this is a privilege afforded only to some. Under these conditions, creating and consuming liberatory media is an essential route of resistance. From feminist digital security guides to gifs, memes, and comics, this content encourages victims to take back control of the technology that has silenced them. Through this homegrown content, activists promote a politics of shamelessness that reverses the logic of outing that underpins NCII.
‘ I think media, can have a huge, huge effect on issues like this and the effect of media is often overlooked. If the messaging is right, [we] could destigmatize young women in this situation and influence young men to realize that sharing these pictures is not cool’ – Media Maker, United States
Producing subversive media on their own platforms returns control to users, but activists who try to change the narrative about ‘revenge porn’ remain vulnerable to surveillance and harassment. Anti-cyberharassment groups like Heart Mob challenge this head-on, while NCII advocacy group BADASS exploits Facebook as a ‘victim’ database. They search for women’s profiles, alert them to their victimization, offer support, solidarity, and access to a lawyer. The European Women’s Lobby’s 2017 report provides a comprehensive list of similar organizations and initiatives seeking to challenge cyberharassment. As activists create new routes of resistance, more and more victims travel from silence to dissent, armed with vocabularies that no longer blame and stigmatize them.
4. It’s Not New
In 1953, naked pictures of Marilyn Monroe were printed without her consent in the first ever edition of Playboy magazine, which went on to sell 50,000 copies. The photos Monroe posed for as a struggling young actress was distributed at a later date without her consent for someone else’s monetary gain – just one example of ‘revenge porn’ from years before it was ever named. These photos are still circulating on the internet now, alongside the non-consensually published images of today’s NCII victims. As technology advanced from the analogue camera to the video cassette recorder, to the webcam, each new device has increasingly indulged our voyeuristic desires in ways connected to surveillance. Non-consensually captured content is now crowdsourced and catalogued into enormous digital databases like creepshots.com, a self-proclaimed one-stop shop for pictures of women’s ‘asses, boobs, cleavage, legs, and short skirts’.
As technology advanced from the analogue camera, to the video cassette recorder, to the webcam, each new device has increasingly indulged our voyeuristic desires in ways connected to surveillance.
The term ‘revenge porn’ does not evoke this history, and its use obscures the obvious connections between NCII and other crimes that disregard women’s consent – from street harassment to rape. The term ‘revenge porn’ repackages an age-old harm as a new-fangled digital problem. It obscures the reality that women experience much more severe and life-threatening forms of online abuse related to their gender.
‘The solution is not technical, and it is not in the law. The problem is not the Internet and it is not Facebook. It's not the forums, it's not 4chan, it's not Twitter, it's not anonymity, it's not freedom of expression. The problem is that we live in a culture of patriarchy that has many expressions on and offline’ - Activist, Latin America
5. It’s not that simple
The term ‘revenge porn’ is often applied to a range of different crimes. In Australia, a woman steals intimate images of a couple she works for and shares them online. In Ireland, Facebook users print photos of teenage girls in bikinis, ejaculate onto them and then re-upload the photos tagging the victim. In the U.K., non-consensual naked images are used by an abuser to control his victim, while a group of women are targeted by hackers who steal intimate images from their iCloud storage. All these scenarios fall under the umbrella of ‘revenge porn’, yet the image this term creates in most people’s minds is of just one scenario: A jealous ex-boyfriend seeking to hurt their former girlfriend by exposing her body, controlling her representation, and damaging her reputation. The term ‘revenge porn’ oversimplifies a complex array of harms. In several contexts, this has led to the creation of narrow legislation focused on the vengeful motivations of the perpetrator rather than the consent of the victim.
Some activists are determined to tackle NCII as a standalone issue through legislative change, and Mariana Valente reports in more detail here on the risks and opportunities of this strategy. Activists have also campaigned for international legislation against NCII and other online abuses. After several years of advocacy (summarised here by Jan Moolman), the UNHRC’s 2017 report explicitly acknowledges NCII as a form of online gender-based violence.
Some activists position NCII within a broader ‘women’s interests’ platform. Especially in regions where older colonial laws and/or new obscenity laws criminalize victims of NCII for creating ‘immoral’ content. Here it is strategically important to communicate NCII as a ‘women’s issue’ so that local feminist organizations take ownership of it.
‘There is still an attitude that revenge porn is self-inflicted, and because of this it doesn’t deserve the same attention as other issues like women’s inheritance. But I think that sort of piecemeal approach is not going to help us in the struggle. We need to be able to tackle different manifestations of gender discrimination as they arise, especially these new forms’ – Researcher, Africa
While some activists seek to reform laws and regulations, others take a more oppositional approach, seeing NCII as a problem perpetuated by State and corporate control of cyberspace. They practise what Mariana Fossatti calls a technopolitical approach: putting forward an essential critical voice against any attempt to ‘fix’ NCII without challenging the underlying systems that sustain it.
Facebook’s non-consensual intimate image pilot is a ‘quick fix’ that puts any potential victim on high alert: If they think their images have been leaked, they must anticipate their own victimization by sending their pictures to themselves on Facebook. In the creation of tools like this, even the most well-meaning corporate safety teams cannot address the wider disempowerment of victims. In this article, Joana Varon and Paz Peña list the steps corporates could take to challenge GBV holistically. A quick fix will inevitably do more to protect a platform’s share price than its users.
‘Activists are constantly hacking Facebook and using it to pursue something that Facebook was not thinking. I believe that people are brave and good and creative enough to hack any kind of tool. But we need to understand that the tool itself is exploitative. The profiling, the algorithm, it’s not there to support diversity or minority’ – Activist, Europe
The rise of NCII has led to a moment in which some victims are being heard, and others are being silenced in a ‘second tier’ internet. In this environment of centralised control, radical individualism, and digital inequality, we must connect across contexts to pursue an alternative, feminist, decolonised internet. Now is also a time when governments are legislating against online abuse and public attitudes are in flux. It is a point at which the responsibility of platforms for content and user data is yet to be determined. In this moment of upheaval, a small change in vocabulary could have a big influence on policies and public attitudes.
A small change in vocabulary could have a big influence on policies and public attitudes.
 The term ‘networked violence’ is used by Ganaele Langlois and Andrea Slane in their 2017 article ‘Economies of Reputation: The Case of Revenge Porn’.
 These interviews (but not these particular quotations) also informed the 2018 research article ‘From Non-consensual Pornography to Image-based Sexual Abuse: Charting the Course of a Problem with Many Names’.