Interview: Revenge Porn Helpline

We spoke to Rebecca Sharp of the Revenge Porn Helpline (https://revengepornhelpline.org.uk/) about preventing the illegal sharing of intimate photos and what to do once it has happened. For an example of the impact this crime can have, please see our first-person experience here.

The Revenge Porn Helpline Charity is the only charity in the UK that offers help to adult victims of illegal photo sharing. They have existed since 2015, and help tackle the problem of people sharing intimate images online as a way of seeking revenge, humiliating or blackmailing individuals. Since launch it has taken over 6000 calls.


TA: Can you briefly explain what the Helpline Charity does?

RS: We can help with a range of things: practical assistance with the removal of images from the internet, support for victims who want to take their case to court (we have a partnership with the QMUL Legal Advice Centre) alongside basic emotional support. Although we can’t offer long-term therapy and have to direct our clients to other solutions. We assist our clients as preferred, whether they just want the images removed from the internet or they want to start campaigning and shouting from the rooftops. Different people heal in different ways.

How do you remove content that’s already been shared – isn’t that practically impossible?

Well, we sit alongside the UK Data Center, so there are certain things we can do in collaboration with them. We can request that the content is removed from some websites, and have social media sites review and remove it faster than they normally would. Even if websites are not cooperative, which sometimes happens, or if they’re on the dark web, there are ways in which we can hide the content so it doesn’t come up in search engine results.

Of course most social media sites don’t allow nudity – or revenge porn, for that matter – at all, so it is removed quite quickly even without our help. If the images are shared via text, for example, and are stored on private devices instead of on a website, we have less control – we can’t access private devices – but in those cases we’d recommend that the victim go to the police, who are able to do something.

When you say you support victims who want to take action, what are the most common reasons for victims not reporting perpetrators to the police?

Often it’s shame. You have to understand that having this content shared is an incredibly vulnerable experience. It’s your most intimate self that has essentially been shared with potentially tens of thousands of people, often in a very short time. You can imagine how that feels. It can be incredibly traumatic, and having people know this has happened to you can make it more so – having to go to a police station and explain; not having anonymity. There are still some very old-fashioned attitudes toward revenge porn as well that make the situation worse.

Have you noticed any trends in the time you have existed – increases or changes in types of cases?

So the term revenge porn is popularly used in the media, but really what we deal with is just image based sexual abuse. Sometimes the images in question have been sent to an ex-partner in good faith, but content is often shared under different circumstances: by friends, brief sexual acquaintances, it can be stolen from victims’ devices or recorded without their knowing, which is a whole different crime. The number of cases in general is growing, but we’ve been receiving an increasing number of extortion cases, where victims are contacted by someone who has intimate images of them and are then blackmailed to pay the perpetrator to keep it private.

How hard is it to take legal action against the perpetrators? Are there still deficiencies in the legislation, despite some recent changes?

Yes there have been some changes recently, especially in the law on threatening to share images. But, we’re always fighting to make the legislation more stringent and to make it easier to prosecute perpetrators. One of the main issues at the moment is that victims don’t receive anonymity in court. For most other sexual offences, the victim can choose to remain anonymous so the judge and jury don’t know who they are. Having to tell even more people about their experience often makes it much more traumatic for victims to go to court, and so it’s more unlikely that they will. We’d like to see that change. Another complication we often run into is lack of evidence – if the perpetrator knows that the victim has gone to the police, they’ll often delete the content themselves, and then it’s much harder to prove that they shared it in the first place. For that reason, we always advise that victims collect screenshots of as much as possible as soon as they see or are told about it.

Entirely computer-generated images are not currently legally considered revenge porn. In an age of increasing photo editing technology, should this be reconsidered?

Although it’s not included in the legislation, it can be just as traumatic and harmful to the victims as authentic images. Photoshopped content is most common in the Asian and Muslim communities, where it can be hugely damaging to the subjects. We help victims as much as we can without the backing of the law, but that’s another thing that needs to change legally. It’s really a question of the law catching up with technology, which moves a lot faster.

When an article on revenge porn pops up on Facebook, there’s often an attitude expressed in the comment section along the lines of “If you take a photo/send someone a photo, any consequences are your own fault”. Do you encounter this attitude in the real world, or is it just some questionable people on Facebook?

That attitude certainly exists, although it is more prevalent online as people have anonymity and say things they probably wouldn’t usually. We absolutely oppose it. Taking a photo is not a crime, sending it to someone is not a crime: the crime occurs when anyone spreads it without the subject’s consent. You have every right to take and share intimate photos. If you compare it to other crimes you can see exactly how ridiculous that way of thinking is: it’s like saying, if someone breaks into your house, that you should have expected it, you shouldn’t have left the door unlocked or you should have had a burglar alarm. However easy it is to commit a crime, it’s not okay.

But as we’ve seen happen with other forms of sexual assault, the conversation will change and modernise. Legislation helps prevent this sort of victim blaming as well, educating people that it’s not normal, it’s not acceptable. It’s a crime.

Do you often receive complaints from current students? Do you think there is a hesitance to report fellow students?

We don’t know whether our victims are students or not, but we’ve had cases involving universities before and it is definitely a problem on campuses.

Can revenge porn be prevented in the first place, or is it an inevitable consequence of blurring life and technology?

We are seeing a rise in cases as technology and social media continue to be more prevalent. I mean, apart from stricter legislation, the way to prevent the illegal sharing of content is through a change in attitude. This happens gradually through discussion in private and in the media. For example after it’s happened to a celebrity. Although people forget that it can be just as traumatic for them as for other people; just because they’re in the public eye doesn’t mean they want to share their most intimate self with the public eye. Through education, and ensuring people know it’s a crime. Through a change in the attitude you mentioned so it becomes less shameful and taking legal action becomes less of a daunting prospect to victims.

The Revenge Porn Helpline is running a crowd-funder to raise £90,000. Please find further details: here.  

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