Act will take revenge on porn

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

It was not so much the “ping” of the incoming WhatsApp message that startled me as what it contained. A video clip. Two guys.
Fucking. No longer than 30 seconds, before it abruptly ended. I put the phone down, ashen-faced. Not because I was a prude, but because one of the guys was me.

It was taken ages ago when, in my drugged-up “bad-boy days”, I would send guys I met (or wanted to meet) on hook-up apps all manner of explicit videos and pictures.

Those days are now over, but the internet never forgets — as I was reminded by that WhatsApp message sent by one of my long-forgotten hook-ups, a smiling devil emoji added for effect.

He did nothing with it, fortunately. But he could have.

Others are not as fortunate. In February this year, the body of a 13-year-old Pretoria girl was found in her bedroom. She had died by suicide, after a video clip she sent of herself naked to a friend was shared with others at the school. Her case is not unique. 

Nonconsensual pornography, or revenge porn as it is commonly called, is a phenomenon that is on the rise.

A 2016 report on its global effect refers to it as “a relatively new phenomenon that has grown substantially in the past few years, and involves uploading nude or semi-nude images/videos of a person online without their consent”.

The report — Revenge Porn and Mental Health: A Qualitative Analysis of the Mental Health Effects of Revenge Porn on Female Survivors — was published in the peer-reviewed journal Feminist Criminology.

According to the report, some nonconsensual pornography websites use computer hacking to obtain nude photographs from women, before blackmailing them to have their photos removed.

“These websites often include forums that allow others to leave derogatory or salacious comments about the women in the photos. The first revenge porn website, isanyoneup.com, was created in 2010. In a three-month period in 2011, the website received 10 000 photo submissions,” the report states. 

The effects of nonconsensual pornography include public shaming and humiliation, an inability to find new romantic partners, depression and anxiety, job loss or problems securing new employment, and offline harassment and stalking.

The South African Film and Publication Board has made amendments to Section 18 F of the Films and Publications Act that would make revenge porn illegal.

A statement issued by the board reads: “The section prohibits the distribution of private sexual photographs and films on any electronic medium, especially the internet and social networking platforms, without the consent of the individual who appears in the photograph or film.”

Karen Moross, a counsellor at Johannesburg’s Family Life Centre, says one of the main reasons people share intimate and explicit visual material with others is largely asa result of the technology-driven nature of how relationships today are conducted. “The way we interact and do relationships has altered exponentially. It has altered the way in which we go about negotiating our relationships. The digital world and cyberspace have unique outcomes for a lot of people doing relationships.”

She says that one of the motivating factors for sending sexually explicit material is that people “have a sense of needing to connect; looking for a feeling of belonging and doing intimacy as they would have done in a face-to-face situation back in the day, before technology was used a means of communication”.

Moross adds that because “everything is public [with technology], for victims there is this persistent reminder of this act; it is not something that is done once-off. We must also think about the limitless audience and the perception of that as a victim.

“Given the invisible, infinite audiences and the digital footprint, which is there forever, one can imagine that despair, humiliation and feeling belittled is overwhelming. Because once it’s online, it’s online forever.”

Already approved by Parliament, the board’s amendment Bill is awaiting the president’s signature.

Once it becomes law, it will hopefully stem the tide of nonconsensual porn and the distress it causes —whether it is just for someone like me dreading that incoming WhatsApp message or, more urgently, a 13-year-old unable to live with the humiliation she was subjected to.

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

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