The Revenge Porn debacle – and what we can do about it.

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Some people are saying that the allegations about UCD male students posting “revenge porn” in a Facebook group with over 200 members is ‘unbelievable’. And as it turns out, the allegations went unsupported, there is no first hand evidence to support the claims.

For so many though, the story was totally believable. Some people still believe it, thinking – well can’t the evidence be deleted? Isn’t there sufficient shame around sexuality and sex crime to prevent victims from coming forward when invited, encouraged even?

One major piece that this has highlighted for me is this question: what made this story so believable? And I feel it’s because this happens now, we all know it. For any of us to say otherwise at this point is somewhat naive.

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We are immersed in a culture that defines and (de)values women on their sexual attractiveness and availability. We are hearing the phrase “rape culture”  far too often in recent years. The word “misogynistic” is being used more and more to describe the treatment of and attitude towards women in the workplace and the media. And just this evening we hear that not even our general election campaign is safe from puerile “humour” involving a troubling attitude towards women.

A few weeks ago UCD student’s union announced a plan for compulsory consent classes for its students. I believe that this is a good thing. But I am saddened that we are at a place where this feels necessary. 64% of female students reported experiencing sexual harassment in a 2014 student survey.  A TCD a survey found that one in four students have experienced sexual assault on campus. One in twelve female students say they are victims of rape or attempted rape in a UCD survey. Please, take a moment to think about these figures. These are your neighbours, your friends, your children.

And so are the perpetrators.

Some people are arguing that by the time these young people enter third level education it’s too late, but it’s not of course. It’s never to late to educate young men (and women) on issues of consent and sexuality. For the men that don’t “need” the classes – great! And it must feel really awful to be tarred with the same brush. But there are men that do.

The recent Facebook group debacle is timely, in that now we can see in pretty concrete terms what a huge problem this is. The fact that there are 200 male students (which is not a “tiny” number… yes someone said that…) who think it’s OK to share photographs of naked women that they claim to have slept with, online, with ratings (!!) is, to say the very least, utterly appalling.

The fact that some observers are blaming these women for “allowing” their photographs to be taken is also appalling. How can anyone be responsible for another’s behaviour? This is classic victim blaming, a phrase we are hearing more and more when it comes to these issues. The responsibility lies solely with the men involved, no one else. Female sexuality is not something to be policed. It is to be celebrated. Breaking the trust of someone who is expressing themselves sexually, an incredibly intimate act and a privilege, and then treating that person as a rateable object is despicable. Then blaming that person for your behaviour is the ultimate absence of personal responsibility, and an abuse of power.

This is the same flavour of disturbing treatment that women who are raped still experience. Questioning women about their drinking habits, their dress, and their sexual history is abhorrent. It’s also unrelated to the crime of rape, which is a choice, made by the rapist.

Sharing nude photographs without consent is the same deal.

What can we do?

We can talk to our sons and our friends about the issue of consent and the issue of objectification and sexualisation of women. We need to teach young people that this behaviour is absolutely not acceptable. We need to lead by example.

That means calling each other on sexist “humour”, on joking references to the new brand of “porn” where women are submissive and men have power, often over multiple women. We need to de-eroticise violence against women. We need to talk with kids and with eachother about the difference between what is erotic for both sexes, and what is abusive.

Because online porn is now how and what young people are learning about sex. They won’t know what’s abusive unless we tell them. We can’t tell them if we are busy pretending it’s not happening or indulging in poor behaviour ourselves. Because they really are learning. Preteens are feeling pressurised to send sexts and “nudes” to their contemporaries. I’m not making this up. Imagine trying to deal with that as a 12 or 13 year old?

Again, please, take a moment to think about that.

We also need to legislate for consent – we have no legal definition at the moment, which partly explains why the reported figures for rape, sexual assault and revenge porn are much lower than the reality.

It’s great to talk about schools and sex ed. Indeed anyone who knows me knows that I am a major supporter (and provider) of sex education including issues of consent and porn.

But given that we cannot change the education or legal systems overnight, and given that many teachers feel ill-equipped and might not be sufficiently trained to deliver this education, we need also to look at what we teach our kids at home. Let’s look at how we respond to advertising, the kind of humour we allow, the comments we make.

How are we all contributing to this? Because make no mistake we are. And that’s why I really believe we can fix this. I really do! It might be awkward at the beginning but then new things often are.

And to the men that say they aren’t sexist, that this has nothing to do with their behaviour – that’s great, it really is, and I know you exist. And my question to you is – when did you last call a male friend on his sexist or abusive behaviour? Or did you laugh as he showed you a naked photo, groped a girl, told her she was frigid or made lewd comments to her in a club?

Maybe you’re so used to it that you haven’t considered it abusive until now? I accept that this might happen! Which is why we all need to talk about it. We can do this.

ps: here’s a great article I spotted on Joe.ie written by Carl Kinsella (@TVsCarlKinsella on Twitter) earlier today. It’s really worth two more minutes of your time!

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