Revenge porn: experts call for laws to be reformed to stop men sharing sexual images on WhatsApp group chats

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
A new platform is also being launched to support victims of revenge porn and make the reporting of online crime easier.

Experts are calling for laws around revenge porn to be changed to stop sexual images being shared on WhatsApp group chats, as victims tell of the “devastating” impacts of the crime.

Clare McGlynn, a law professor at the University of Durham who works in the field of image-based sexual abuse, says the legislation surrounding revenge porn - which was first created in 2015 - does not reflect the current online landscape and needs to be updated to better protect victims.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She told NationalWorld: “Within the current legal framework, it is a criminal offence to share a sexual image without consent, but only if you can show the perpetrator is doing it to directly cause the victim ‘distress’ - something which is very difficult to prove. It also assumes the scenario of the malicious ex-boyfriend sharing images of his ex-girlfriend as a form of revenge, but it doesn’t cover the men who share images of their partners in WhatsApp groups amongst friends, with the intent of just boosting their status.”

SWGfl’s Revenge Porn Helpline, which supports victims of ‘intimate image abuse’ and helps remove the unconsenual content from the Internet (with a take-down rate of 90%), is also calling for the government to update the legislation. Sophie Mortimer, who works as a helpline manager at the organisation, told NationalWorld that “women are dying” from these online sexual offences - and so there is no time to lose when it comes to reviewing the law.

Speaking on the impacts and “mental health repercussions” that revenge porn can have, Ms Mortimer said: “People tell us they feel shame, embarrassment and humiliation - this can come from themselves or from family, friends and colleagues who turn against them them following the offence. We always try to push back against this victim-blaming narrative, as it’s unhelpful, unfair, and avoids where the responsibility actually lies - with the perpetrator who shared the image without consent.”

Sophie Mortimer (left) and Clare McGlynn (right) are working on new platform ‘Minerva’ to support victims of revenge porn. Sophie Mortimer (left) and Clare McGlynn (right) are working on new platform ‘Minerva’ to support victims of revenge porn.
Sophie Mortimer (left) and Clare McGlynn (right) are working on new platform ‘Minerva’ to support victims of revenge porn. | Sophie Mortimer (left) and Clare McGlynn (right)

Professor McGlynn added: “Women I’ve spoken to talk about the experience of revenge porn as this devastating social rupture - everything changes, and they view their lives as divided into before and after these images have been shared.” She added that the experience can feel “constant and relentless” as once the images or videos are online, “each new share is like a separate assault.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Something else that the outdated legislation can affect is reporting levels. According to the Revenge Porn Helpline, just one in four incidents of online abuse are reported. Ms Mortimer said that when victims contact the helpline, workers always encourage them to go to the police - but that this can be difficult not only because the reporting experience is sometimes “less than positive”, but also as it can seem pointless since perpetrators are rarely convicted. Professor McGlynn suggested this is due to the difficulty of proving “intent to cause distress” when it comes to cases like these.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) told NationalWorld that it was “aware of concerns around the effectiveness of current law” and asked the Law Commission to review the revenge porn legislation. Recommendations were presented to the government over the summer, but no response plans have been announced yet.

A MoJ spokesperson told NationalWorld: “Nearly 1,000 abusers have been convicted since we outlawed revenge porn, but we asked the Law Commission to explore whether the law could be strengthened further to keep the public safer. We are carefully considering its recommendations and will respond in due course.”

They also added that “stalking, harassment, malicious communication and blackmail laws can already be used to prosecute those who share intimate images of others online without their consent”, and highlighted that the Home Office provided the Revenge Porn Helpline with £120,000 under the Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy in 2021/2 and is providing £150,000 in 2022/3.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Women have described the experience of revenge porn as “devastating”. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorldWomen have described the experience of revenge porn as “devastating”. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld
Women have described the experience of revenge porn as “devastating”. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld | Kim Mogg / NationalWorld

What else can be done to help victims of revenge porn?

In the meantime then, campaigners and charities are working on creating better resources and support for victims. This was the catalyst for the creation of new platform ‘Minerva’, which Ms Mortimer and Professor McGlynn have helped bring to life.

Due to be launched in March 2023, ‘Minerva’ will be a one-stop, 24/7 secure platform that will aim to ease the reporting of online abuse and help women rebuild their lives. Professor McGlynn said that the fact that support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week is “really important for online abuse” as it can happen at any time.

Ms Mortimer added that it is particularly significant that this is a “one-stop platform”. She commented: “In these cases, people rarely experience a single crime or one form of abuse. If they are a victim of revenge porn for instance, they are also often a victim of stalking, bullying, and sometimes domestic abuse. What this means is that we often have to send people to multiple places - e.g. a stalking helpline and the police.

“People who are already distressed don’t want to move from place to place - contacting one person takes enough courage as it is. So Minerva puts it all in one place - reporting, support, advice, evidence, etc.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Something else that could help protect victims is the government’s Online Safety Bill. Professor McGlynn commented: “It is not living up to its full potential at the moment, but it is a potentially really significant piece of legislation as one of its key aims is to try to better regulate social media and internet platforms. This is important because, in reality, if we’re going to reduce online violence against women and mitigate the harm, we need social media companies to actively take steps to reduce harmful content online.”

Currently, the bill is facing some opposition - with critics suggesting the legislation could impact free speech. But Professor McGlynn argued: “What’s missing in that discussion is that women and girls’ speech online is restricted because there’s so much abuse. They’re fearful of going online. It’s vital to regulate social media companies, ironically, in order to free women’s speech.”

Research commissioned by SWGfL found that more than half of participants (55.9%) stopped or reduced online interactions as a result of online abuse, 47.5% stopped or reduced their use of social media, and 39% expressed themselves less online.

The Revenge Porn Helpline is hopeful that the bill will be back in Parliament soon. Ms Mortimer commented: “I appreciate that there’s a lot going on in the political landscape at the moment. But women are experiencing this all the time, every day. Women are dying from this. So we need people to hear us.”

Related topics: