Violent men increasingly using ‘revenge porn’ as form of control in abusive relationships

A young woman who had a sexual video of her posted on a porn website by an abusive ex-partner was told by police he did not mean harm because it wasn’t on a “high-volume site” like PornHub.

The story of “Jess” is just one of many about abusive men increasingly using “revenge porn” to force women to stay with them or cause them harm, say advocates of a new law proposed to outlaw the practice.

An amendment to the Harmful Digital Communications Act seeks to explicitly make posting of intimate images and recordings without consent – sometimes referred to as revenge porn – illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison.

The law change, which has the support of all parties, would also allow courts to issue take-down orders for revenge-porn recordings.

Currently the Harmful Digital Communications Act requires someone to intend to hurt someone when they post explicit images, and the prosecution has to prove posting the images caused harm.

The amendment is currently open for public submissions.

During a Justice Committee meeting today, National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges principal policy adviser Dr Natalie Thorburn said their research showed abusers increasingly using intimate content as a tactic to “control and degrade women”.

One woman they’d spoken to said her partner would force her to have sex, especially after a fight, threatening to send photos/videos he’d taken without her knowledge to family and friends if she did or said anything to upset him.

“A lot of the time he would show it to his friends anyway as a means of bragging or something,” the woman reported.

Another participant tried to end her relationship with an abuser.

“[He] sent me secret recordings of us having sex from during our relationship, I didn’t know that they existed.”

Thorburn also spoke of another woman, referred to as “Jess”, 22, who had an ex-partner post a video of her having sex to a porn site.

She went to police about it, but was told “because her video had not been put on Pornhub – a widely recognised high-volume site – that this indicated the perpetrator did not mean to cause harm”.

“Her case couldn’t be prosecuted, because it was too hard to prove intent to cause harm,” Thorburn said.

Jess was even told to contact her perpetrator to ask him to take down the recordings.

She was then expected to build her case and evidence of her own victimisation and prove that the perpetrator deliberately caused her harm, Thorburn said.

“Our research has demonstrated that harmful behaviour in the digital space is an extension of harmful behaviour in person – there’s no separation between how abuse plays out in online versus in person,” Thorburn said.

Their research showed there was a “massive need for this Bill and that it represents a huge step forward”.

But it needed to properly address digital forms of gendered violence, she said.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said they’d found sharing of intimate images and recordings online was becoming increasingly common.

A Netsafe survey in 2019 found 5 per cent of New Zealand adults – or 170,000 people – had been the victim of online image-based abuse, with instances even reported by people over 70 years old.

Ninety-five per cent of the victims were women.

While men were also affected, it was often as a joke or traditional means of extortion. While for women it was largely linked to abusive ex-partners.

Netsafe “fully supported” the bill, but made several suggestions around making it more “victim-focused” and putting the onus on people sharing to gain and prove consent, and for sharing platforms to also be responsible.

The Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective also submitted in support of the amendment.

Representative Cherida Fraser said they’d had many reports of secret videos being taken and images posted online.

In one situation a brothel owner had posted photos taken in a private business capacity on his own social media account. Another had images appear online four years after she’d changed jobs. A partner saw it and it created some issues.

“This bill would give them more robust protection,” Fraser said.

They’d also like the amendment to consider consent as being something that could be withdrawn at any time.

This would also help protect sex workers if they moved on to other forms of business and no longer wanted sexually explicit images and recordings online.

This factor was particularly concerning given the increase in sex work moving online under Covid-19 through subscription services, she said.

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