What a slut…

The internet and by extension cell phones have changed the way we communicate and with that, have changed the way we express ourselves. We can share anything we want with whoever we want, there are seemingly no limits. However, what happens when we share something that doesn’t belong to us? When we break a trust and destroy privacy, exposing someone to the world in their most vulnerable form. Revenge porn, or non-consensual porn, is when images or videos that are of an explicit nature are given to a trusted person and then shared with someone else, someone who was never intended to see them. This type of porn grows from sexting and ends with an assault on dignity and sometimes death.

The Centre for Free Expression held a panel to discuss what can be done about sexting and revenge porn in Canada. The panelists were Wanye MacKay, Lara Karaian, and Peter Jacobsen. MacKay is a professor of law at Dalhousie University, chair of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, and former director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Karaian is an associate professor at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Carleton University and expert consultant to the Australian International Consultation on Sexting. Jacobsen is one of Canada’s most distinguished media and defamation lawyers.

In the United States 60% of children between the ages of 9 and 12 and 50% of adults between the ages of 18 and 54 have sexted or shared intimate pictures or videos. These statistics may come off as alarmingly high but what is more alarming is that 1 in 10 of these people have been threatened with exposure, and that’s not taking into account that these threats are underreported. Majority of these threats come from men and are aimed at women. This makes revenge porn a predominantly women’s issue and I will go as far to say that it is violence against women. This is not to say that men cannot be victims, however for some reason when a woman is exposed to society in this way we seem to take a harsher tone, it is somehow more controversial. Women are often shamed for revenge porn and attacked by both the perpetrators and society. The victims of revenge porn are often blamed, wrongfully, for sharing intimate photos. This means that not only are they humiliated and degraded by the perpetrator, but by society and their peers as well and this is where the real issue of revenge porn lies; the victim isn’t to blame, the perpetrator is.

Creating and sharing an intimate picture or video of oneself is not illegal. For adults to share intimate pictures and videos with consent is not illegal. Sharing intimate pictures and videos without consent is illegal. So then why do we as a society come together to shame the creator of the picture and not the one who shared it without consent? Why is the victim at fault? It could be said that if the picture had never been created then the crime would not have happened, but the crime would also not have happened had the picture not been made public, had that person respected basic privacy and kept their trust. The creation of an intimate photo is an expression of sexuality and adults are free to share their expression in this way. However, when the non-consensual sharing occurs we jump on the creator for being stupid or foolish, we blame them and say they had it coming, as though they deserved it. We turn the creator of the picture into a slut and tell them that they are to blame, that this is their fault. However, we don’t turn the perpetrator into an assailant, we don’t tell them they assaulted someone and they were wrong to do it. If someone is a slut do they deserve to be humiliated and punished for their immoral ways? That’s the way society thinks and acts, but that is not true. Being a slut isn’t wrong and it doesn’t mean you should be ruined and chastened; it doesn’t mean you should be ostracized and it doesn’t mean you should be killed. The social death that comes with this level of humiliation and shaming is a real death for the victim, and it can and has led to suicide.

When someone is the victim of revenge porn they suffer emotional distress due to the shame of the incident and the alienation and bullying they receive. This attack on the mental health of a victim is very dangerous and Canada has seen too many cases where this occurs. When someone is constantly harassed and shamed it can destroy their self-confidence and it can destroy them. We as a society know the harm that can come from bullying and yet we still do it, we still allow for bullying to occur in these cases because for some reason it’s ok to bully a slut; it’s ok to hurt someone because they were dumb enough to bring it on themselves. Why don’t we bully the perpetrator? Why are they not shamed and demeaned by the public? They committed a heinous crime against someone’s dignity, they virtually assaulted someone, and we let them go on, we continue the violence.

As a society we need to start putting the blame on the perpetrators of revenge porn and not the victims. Intimate photos are a form of self expression and should not be thought of as wrong or immoral. We are taking away a form of free expression and reinventing it as filth that is to be wiped clean. We seem to be afraid of this kind of self expression, that it’s dirty and somehow of a lesser value. But how can we praise Manet’s Olympia and burn a Hustler magazine, at the core they are providing imagey of the same thing. Does society shame Olympia? Or even Manet? Blaming the victim only makes the situation worse and when it concerns the mental health of a child we as a society are taking large risks in attacking them, not the other way around. Sharing these photos is thought of as a risky behaviour and that only perpetuates the idea that intimate photos are going to get you in trouble. It should be that the non-consensual sharing of intimate photos is a risk, it’s wrong and will get you in trouble not the consensual sharing. When we share something of an intimate nature we have a certain level of trust that it won’t go any farther than that person. When it makes its way to the world that trust has been broken and that person degraded. That’s the crime here and the fault sits with the Judas that broke that trust not the victim.

But what is the truth?

Lying is a part of being a human. We lie all the time for different reasons. We lie to each other and to ourselves. Does that mean it’s ok to lie? In certain situations lying can be beneficial and in others it can lead to destruction. Knowing that humans have the ability and motive to lie, does that mean we shouldn’t trust each other?

Recently, Jian Ghomeshi, former radio broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was put on trial for four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking for which he was acquitted because it was found that the accusers were lying. The judge believed that the complainants were being “deceptive and manipulative” with their evidence and therefore could no longer be a trusted source of the truth. The court no longer had sufficient faith in the reliability or sincerity of the complainants and thus was left with a reasonable doubt. That closed the trial on Jian Ghomeshi and at the same time transformed these women from victims into perpetrators, and into liars. However, what if these women really did feel that they were victims of sexual assault? Will this trial change the way we see sexual assault victims?

The Centre for Women and Trans People at Ryerson hosted a crafternoon in support of survivors of sexual assault on the same day that the Ghomeshi trial ended. This event was to show that regardless of this trial we should believe survivors of sexual assault. This is also why the Centre has a survivor support line (416-260-0100) and offers services and supplies for safe sex and a safe space for women and trans people.

Sexual Assault can be a difficult issue in court because it can sometimes rely on “he said, she said” evidence, this is why victims often feel they will not be believed, they feel like they don’t have proof. This is also why there are few sexual assault convictions, without witnesses or physical evidence a court can have difficulty convicting. This is also why it is important to tell survivors you believe them and to support them because if no one says anything nothing can be done to stop it and more people will be victimized. The Department of Justice notes that sexual assault is among the crimes that are the least likely to be reported and in 1999 found that 78% of sexual assault cases were not reported to police in Canada. Additionally, sexual assault incidents are generally reported well after the fact and this can be due to various reasons. The 1999 General Social Survey on Victimization found that incidents were not reported by victims because: they were dealt with in another way, deemed not important enough, or that they did not want to involve the police. Some victims believe that the police cannot or will not help them when they have been sexually assaulted and others fear revenge from their assailant.

Another serious issue that comes out of sexual assault is that victims often do not seek out help or support. Fear and shame are built into sexual assault and the victims want privacy as a result. This is detrimental to their health and to the health of society because again if the police or anyone doesn’t know, then we can’t do anything about it. This is another reason to give support and to believe someone when they confide in you. It is very difficult to relive the memories and to share them and to have someone brush them off or not believe you is devastating. There is another part to this however, the victim usually knows their offender. In 2000, 80% of sexual assault cases were committed by someone who was known to the victim. Almost 30% of the offenders were family members of their victims and 10% were friends. This makes the situation even worse for the victim because the relationship they hold with the accused may hold them back from reporting the crime. It also puts them at risk for a repeat assault and damages their mental health as they must to continue to live their life with the offender and in silence.

I have written a lot about supporting survivors in this column and so I would like to give some ways to do that. If someone tells you that they have experienced sexual violence the best thing to do is listen, hear what they are saying and give them the space to say it. You want them to feel that they are not alone and that you believe them, we all have the right to be and feel safe. Do not push for information because it is their story to tell and they will give what they want to and they may not even remember all of it. Shock and fear can cause our memories to be repressed and for them to lose order making it difficult for someone to recall. Also, offer support services. The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres has a list of different kinds of support services in Ontario that are available to everyone. Additionally, it is important to understand that we all have common beliefs about sexual violence some of which are myths. Doing research on sexual violence can be useful regardless of whether you know someone who was assaulted or not. The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres is a useful resource for this kind of research and has a list of common sexual violence myths.

Sexual violence is horrific. It has been a part of human culture for some time and unfortunately will probably continue to be, just like lying. However, when it comes to lying and sexual violence do we really know what the truth is? If there are no witnesses and no physical evidence how do we know who is telling the truth and what it really is? Someone can say something happened but what if they lied? Lying about sexual assault is not common in Canada, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. These kinds of questions and statements are why victims of sexual assault do not speak out, they fear that they will not be believed. Our justice system works by keeping people innocent until proven guilty, but when you are the victim of sexual assault you are also treated like the guilty party and can unjustly be turned from victim into liar.