Revenge 2.0: The Rise of Nonconsensual Porn

Thordis Elva by Valgarour Gislason
Photo by Valgarður Gíslason

The internet is a vast resource, one that can enlighten and educate us. But for victims of nonconsensual pornography, it can be a murky pool, in which lurk painful reminders of a violation that only takes a Google search to uncover.

Nonconsensual pornography, defined as the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent, has emerged as a 21st-century sex crime facilitated by smartphones and the internet. Sometimes called “revenge porn,” perpetrators typically obtain the images through one of two means: either they hack into the victim’s digital devices or servers where photos are stored, or a romantic partner willingly sends the photos with the expectation that they will never be shared. Regardless, it has devastating consequences for victims, most of whom are young women and girls, including the threat of sexual assault, harassment, getting fired, and being forced to change schools.

So far, the world has been slow to effectively respond to the need to protect women and girls from cyber-abuse, partly because most adults have been slow to accept that sexting has become such an integral part of romance and dating among millennials. However, this is starting to change in the Nordic countries, a region that has long led the world in gender equality. Their governments acknowledge that gender-based online hate speech discourages womensʼ participation in the public sphere, effectively silencing their voices and undermining democracy.

In response, their ministers of gender equality organized a panel of experts to address the growing problem of online hate speech and gender-based violence during the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March, an annual two-week gathering of women’s rights champions from across the globe. On the panel sat five distinguished speakers from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland (all women, unsurprisingly) who identified its dangers from various perspectives and outlined the most effective ways to combat it using political and legal tools. One of these women was Thordis Elva, an Icelandic writer and journalist who passionately described the need to recognize nonconsensual pornography as a form of gender-based violence in order to tackle it. Following the panel, she graciously agreed to a Skype interview with AWT to elaborate her views on the subject.

 
“90 percent of victims worldwide are female and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.”
 

AWT: What exactly is nonconsensual pornography?

Thordis Elva: It’s whenever sexually graphic photos or videos get distributed without the individual’s knowledge or consent. So, let’s say that consensual sexting takes place within an office romance, which then ends. If one of the individuals shares those photos with colleagues without the other’s permission, it would constitute nonconsensual pornography even if they never appear online or get seen by anyone outside the office.

The term “revenge porn” is a misnomer. It can be motivated by revenge, but it isn’t always. In some cases it is about humiliating and denying a person their agency and human rights.

It’s high time we see nonconsensual porn as a sex crime because that’s what it is. It is stripping another person of their right to determine when they are being sexualized or when sexual activity is taking place in their lives. It is a hate crime and needs to be defined and treated as such, with the same zero tolerance we would apply to any other hate crime.

We also can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that this is an act of gender-based violence. 90 percent of victims worldwide are female and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. In Iceland, what little research we have shows that 97 percent of victims are female, 75 percent of whom are under the age of 15. So we are talking about the digital generation making up both the majority of victims and probably the majority of perpetrators, too.

To be fair, it does happen to boys, too, and it can be just as horrible and toxic for them. But there is a tremendous double standard when it comes to what’s allowed for young girls and young boys. The concept of slut-shaming doesn’t hit boys as hard as girls because there is a moral policing of women’s sexuality that goes much further than any moral policing of men’s sexuality. So it doesn’t seem to be as effective of a weapon when it is targeting young boys. We need to talk to both boys and girls about how to be responsible and not violate one another.

 
“… when your digital image or online persona has been objectified in this fashion, it affects your entire being.”
 

AWT: What are the most devastating consequences of nonconsensual porn?

Thordis Elva: In extreme cases, victims of nonconsensual pornography have ended their lives because they didn’t see any other way out of the situation. In my opinion, what led to those deaths was not the nudity depicted in the photographs, but rather the consequent cruelty, condemnation, loss of opportunity, and slut-shaming they faced.

In most cases, victims do not resort to the tragic measure of taking their own life, but it can still be very hard for them to overcome the feeling that their whole identity is now being defined by this thing. Their personal information gets tagged with these sensitive photos, which often appear on really misogynistic websites that turn up during a Google search. Often this vulgar context is more devastating than the photos themselves. Many victims feel like they can’t escape the damage to their reputation because in today’s world, when your digital image or online persona has been objectified in this fashion, it affects your entire being.

We also see children being manipulated online, being groomed by pedophiles who actively seek them out and coerce them into taking nude photos of themselves. The abusers threaten to distribute the photos to make the children continue to do whatever they are told. Sometimes abusers don’t even need an actual nude photo to make these threats because you can effectively digitally manipulate any photo into looking like a nude or pornographic photo through various applications like Photoshop.

That’s why simply not taking nude photos can never suffice as a solution. That line of thinking essentially blames the victim by saying that someone has the right to strip you of your autonomy because you expressed your sexuality in this way. It’s like saying to a rape victim she shouldn’t have worn that short skirt or had that drink or flirted. It’s just another way of trying to make victims of abuse responsible for the actions that were perpetrated against them.

AWT: How and when did you first became aware of the issue of nonconsensual porn?

Thordis Elva: I’d been writing about and campaigning against gender-based violence for many years. In 2009, I wrote an award-winning book on how we in Iceland are handling it in our judicial system, in our media, in our politics, our public discourse etc. Since then, I’ve started and participated in many projects that have to do with gender-based violence in one way or another, and I started to notice that not much was being said or done about the fact that it was spilling into the online world.

In my capacity as the chairperson of a women’s shelter in Reykjavik, I also noticed a disturbing trend:10 percent of all the women seeking shelter claimed that their partners threatened to distribute sensitive photos or videos of them if they tried to leave. So revenge or nonconsensual pornography has become a powerful weapon in the hands of abusive people who use it to lock their partners into relationships.

 
“They will continue to be in harm’s way if we don’t find ways to address it.”
 

AWT: How can we begin to combat this behavior?

Thordis Elva: We should start by taking sexting seriously as a means of communication and accepting it as a result of technology. Studies prove sexting has become an integral part of modern day romance, especially among young people, so we should talk about it in sex education classes. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not make it go away, but a lack of information and sensitivity will make young people act in ignorant and irresponsible ways. They will continue to be in harm’s way if we don’t find ways to address it.

We need to teach the generation that is taking their first steps into the world of romance and intimacy to respect consent in this realm of life the same way they would in the offline world. They must understand that, like any other form of sexual activity, without the consent of both or all partners, this constitutes violence.

AWT: Are schools in Iceland starting to work responsible sexting into the curriculum?

Thordis Elva: Yes, I’m happy to say that at the beginning of 2015, telecommunications company Vodafone allowed me to travel around the country and speak to parentsʼ associations about it. They showed tremendous interest in the material.

Typically, a few days after meeting with the parents, I would get a request to come back to the school to give the same lecture to the children. In a little less than a year, I educated 3,000 parents and 14,000 children between the ages of 10 and 20 (with most falling in the 12–15 age bracket).

It was gratifying that so many people were interested, but I couldn’t keep up the pace. Initially, I intended to visit every parentsʼ association in the county, but after reaching about 50 percent, I realized we needed a more systematic approach to make the project self-sustaining and not dependent only on me. So I lead a workshop for school nurses and opened lines of communication to exchange tips and best practices about how to talk to the students about it.

Also, I’d been asked to produce sex ed material for the Icelandic educational authorities and I made it a point to incorporate responsible digital communications.

 
“The parents were overwhelmingly shocked and horrified to learn about the problem.”
 

AWT: How did the parents and students respond to what you told them? Was there any pushback or did the message resonate?

Thordis Elva: With the children, you could usually hear a pin drop during my lectures. They listened intently, not because I’m a particularly captivating lecturer, but because they were so interested in the subject, which no one had ever broached with them before. When I finished, it usually took me at least another hour to leave the building because children would line up to tell me about someone they knew who had a negative experience, get a story off their chest, or ask me more questions. They were starved to talk about it, yearning for someone to open this dialogue with them. On numerous occasions, I had to call child services as a result of what they told me.

I felt I was meeting a tremendous need, which frankly worried and saddened me. They shouldn’t need someone like me to open the discussion about a behavior that is so prevalent. We live in a world that’s connected to the internet 24/7. We should be much more aware of how it’s affecting people.

The parents were overwhelmingly shocked and horrified to learn about the problem and to realize that even if their children ʼbehaveʼ by not taking any nude photos of themselves while they’re still underage, they are still vulnerable to photoshopped images.

I didn’t want them to feel like they’d been stripped of all their security so I always concluded my lectures by proposing various helpful methods to cope with this. I tell them how to talk to their children about being responsible online, how nudity and sexual expression are nothing to be ashamed of, and how responsibility for these crimes should always fall on the perpetrators and not the victims. I also mention available resources like support measures for victims of sex crimes and online abuse.

 
“Often for the perpetrator it is not even about the nudity, but about the humiliation.”
 

AWT: Besides education, how else can we combat this behavior?

Thordis Elva: One way is to try to disarm the abusers by eliminating the shame, stigma, and condemnation that we attach to things like nudity and sexuality. Why should people feel the need to be ashamed when nudity and sexuality are in fact completely normal parts of being an adult human being? It would be a step in the right direction to question why people feel that they have the right to condemn or judge someone based on their nudity or sexual expression.

AWT: How do you go about stripping the power away from abusers? About overcoming shame?

Thordis Elva: Obviously there is no easy solution. But I think enabling women to have power and agency over their bodies is a step in the right direction, because if you don’t feel shame, it’s harder to use it as a weapon against you. So accepting and allowing for nudity and sexual expression among adults would help. Often for the perpetrator it is not even about the nudity, but about the humiliation. It’s about stripping victims of their dignity and rendering them objects. That is the core of the problem.

Wait, can I also talk about porn?

AWT: Of course!

Thordis Elva: I think porn is the elephant in the room here. In Iceland, we have a very dubious track record, with research showing that more than 50 percent of boys aged 16–19 watch porn weekly and 22 percent watch it daily. The high rate of consumption is problematic because a lot of mainstream porn today carries misogynistic messages. It doesn’t portray women as women, but rather as objects. It addresses them as “sluts” and “whores” and “cumbuckets,” to name but a few, which are exactly the same terms appearing in nonconsensual pornography. So young men and boys in Iceland are watching misogynistic porn, they are collecting nude photos of girls in their environment—either through consensual sexting, hacking, or producing digitally manipulated photos—and then posting the sensitive material on websites, some of which are notorious. Their posts include the same terms and express the same view of women as what is typically presented in mainstream porn. This mirroring is by no means a coincidence. It is a direct result of porn molding young men’s minds. We need to be mindful of this.

 
“I think this is a major reason why young people turn to porn to get what they think is the ‘real thing.’”
 

No country on the face of the planet has successfully countered the influence of porn through sex ed. It’s just not happening. Even countries that offer the most comprehensive sex ed don’t do enough, so we see young people all over the world turning to porn for answers to their questions about sex, sexual activity and sexual expression. When they do, they unfortunately often receive messages that fuel misconceptions and stereotypes and are sometimes outright harmful.

AWT: Some countries, including the United States, provide pitifully little sex education, but in those that do a better job with it, why is it still so difficult to counter the negative effects of porn?

Thordis Elva: Because it is nowhere near enough, even in the places with the best sex ed programs. In my opinion, sex education falls short because it is still too focused on biology and bodily functions and not enough on feelings of intimacy and the need for validation and other things that young people are thinking about. We keep it clinical because we are afraid to broach subjects like emotional connection and intimacy. I think this is a major reason why young people turn to porn to get what they think is the “real thing.” In reality, it is staged and sometimes designed to be shocking or provocative. In some cases it is as far from real life intimacy as possible, but when you don’t have any comparison from your own experience, you might not realize this.

Also, no one could foresee the explosion of porn when it came online, so we were ill-prepared as a society to deal with it.

AWT: Can we make porn more benign? If we strip away that part that objectifies women, can we reconfigure porn to send positive messages, or would that just render it a love scene in a romantic comedy?

Thordis Elva: It raises the question of how we define porn. Romantic comedies are not specifically designed to be educational and are no less a staged product than porn. For example, you hardly ever see someone putting on a condom. They may not send such harmful messages, but they are no more realistic than existing mainstream porn because they cut out necessary details.

Trying to define porn is tricky. In Iceland, it is illegal to buy sex. In other words, it is illegal to pay another person for any sexual activity. However, being a prostitute is legal. This is known as the Swedish model. So from an Icelandic perspective, paying someone to have sex on camera is illegal because you are paying for sexual activity to take place. We still have access to it just like anyone in the world with an internet connection, but there is no local porn production because that would be against the law. That ambiguity speaks volumes about how we as a nation feel about exploiting body and sex for financial gain.

And we are anything but prudes! Icelanders are known for being liberal and non-prejudiced when it comes to our bodies and sexual expression.

 
“… they face real difficulties getting these photos taken down.”
 

AWT: And that’s what is so worrying! If this is such a problem in Iceland, I don’t even want to think about how long it will take to change mindsets in more conservative societies.

Thordis Elva: Exactly. I was shocked to discover the extent of the problem even here. When I started touring schools, I always made it a point to ask the students whether they knew someone their age who had gotten or sent a nude photo. On average, 75 percent of hands would fly up in the air. And we are talking about 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds. Moreover, about 15 percent knew someone who had been a victim of nonconsensual porn, which I found utterly heartbreaking because I know for a fact that it left some with psychological injuries and long-lasting self-esteem issues. And they face real difficulties getting these photos taken down. Many of the websites, especially the most notorious ones, are hosted in other countries and out of the jurisdiction of the local police. At the same time, the people creating or keeping up these sites are using web browsers that hide their identities and leave them untraceable online, so there is very little we can do about nude photos of children as young as 12 out there for everyone to see.

AWT: One of your fellow panelists at CSW mentioned that the Americanization of Nordic culture through Hollywood and the internet has started to erode gender equality and the open-mindedness about nudity and sexuality for which Nordic countries are known. Do you agree?

Thordis Elva: To some extent, yes. Not too long ago, say 30 years ago at the most, nudity, especially toplessness, was socially acceptable. I remember how on warm, sunny days, you would see women walking around topless in public pools without anyone thinking twice about it. No one even frowned upon landscapers or gardeners taking off their tops when working outdoors in good weather. But our mindset began to change as social media exposed us to more conservative ideas about nudity, like censoring images of female nipples. We started to balk at things that never seemed scandalous before, especially young people who grew up with the internet. It created a generational divide in Iceland where women over 40 take exposed nipples for granted and do not understand why women below the age of 25 feel such a need to participate in the “free the nipple” campaign, for example. Meanwhile, women who grew up in a world dominated by platforms like YouTube and Facebook, which censor female nipples, feel that by supporting that campaign they are being tremendously provocative and rebelling against a system that discriminates against women’s bodies and not men’s. Some say this is a step backwards from the time when we used to feel more free with our bodies.

 
“Some survivors have also made good use of a fairly new law called ‘the right to be forgotten,’ which allows you to remove search results about you from search engines like Google.”
 

AWT: Any parting thoughts on grappling with nonconsensual porn?

Thordis Elva: Again, just like crimes motivated by race or ethnicity or religion, this must be considered a hate crime. It is a hate crime with gender at its core and as such is a form of gender-based violence. So we need to employ the same tactics against this that we use to battle gender-based violence in general.

I’d also like to remind people that not all hope is lost if you fall victim to it. You can petition Google, Reddit, Facebook, YouTube—they all have policies in place that are supposed to hinder the distribution of nonconsensual porn. You can contact search engines and ask to be de-indexed from their site. Some survivors have also made good use of a fairly new law called “the right to be forgotten,” which allows you to remove search results about you from search engines like Google. So there is some light amidst the darkness. More and more countries are adopting legislation outlawing nonconsensual porn. I believe Germany has come the farthest so far. In Germany, if I know you are in possession of a nude photo of me against my will, even if you don’t plan to distribute it, you are legally obliged to hand it over to me if I ask you to. Thankfully, other countries are starting to jump on the bandwagon, realizing that this is something real that harms people.

This essay originally appeared in the Body issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Body issue here or read My Hairy Legs and Me: A Puberty Story.

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