The Fight to Make Revenge Porn Perpetrators Pay

Ann Olivarius is representing YouTube star Chrissy Chambers in an unprecedented revenge porn action.

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Jun 8 2015, 4:20pm

Chrissy Chambers, who is pursuing action on revenge porn. Image: BriaAndChrissy/YouTube

Revenge porn—sharing explicit photos or videos of someone without their consent—seems so obviously wrong, yet even with the first laws that specifically deal with the act coming into place, it's a crime that remains difficult to prosecute.

"The challenges are that the law has not accompanied the technology," said Ann Olivarius, a lawyer with UK-US firm McAllister Olivarius, which has a history of fighting against sexual harassment and has pushed for new revenge porn laws both sides of the Atlantic.

"Our law has not equalled our morality," she added. "Or one could say maybe it has, but I hope not!"

I spoke to Olivarius this week after one of her clients, American YouTube celebrity Chrissy Chambers, went public with her own story of being victimized. Chambers intends to do something unprecedented in the UK: she's seeking both criminal charges and civil damages in relation to revenge porn.

Revenge porn is when someone, usually a bitter ex, posts an explicit photo or video of someone else online, without the subject's permission. Chambers claims that her British ex-boyfriend, who has not been named, posted footage of the two of them having sex online (she claims she did not know about the recording). She detailed her story in a video for the Guardian.

Olivarius thinks it's important that revenge porn victims should be able to ask for monetary damages as well as a criminal prosecution because of the damage these videos can cause—to take one example, the potential difficulty of getting a job if explicit content appears when someone Googles your name. That's a severe potential consequence for victims, but pales in comparison to other consequences of revenge porn: Olivarius told me the story of one girl who killed herself after explicit videos of her were shared.

She also suggested civil proceedings could be more of a deterrent. In Chambers's case, she said they want an apology, damages, and for the copyright to the videos to be transferred to Chambers.

"Until these people face serious consequences—personal consequences—they're not going to stop," she said. "Right now you can have a two-year jail sentence [the maximum sentence for revenge porn in the UK] but, you know, sex crimes in western society generally are not prosecuted."

Olivarius does not think criminal law around revenge porn, where it exists, is strong enough, and noted the difficulty victims can face in coming forward and making their case to police.

"I think you'll find a lot of women using the civil courts," she said, adding that her firm's phone "rings off the hook" with potential cases both in the US and K.

While the UK introduced amendments to criminal law to specifically cover revenge porn—changes that McAllister Olivarius lobbied for—they won't be put to the test in the case of Chrissy Chambers. The amendments are not retroactive, so do not cover the videos of Chambers that were uploaded before the amendments came into action.

In any case, Olivarius maintains that they don't go far enough.

She said that one challenge is the burden of proof and the requirement that the videos have been posted with the intent to malign, which means sites that republish material could be exempt. She also singled out platforms such as Google or Facebook, which she thinks should play a more active role in taking down revenge pornography.

She noted that social networks are effective at clamping down on child pornography—why can't they use the same technology against revenge porn?

"The protections for women seem to be fewer and fewer and the debasement greater and greater over time."

Olivarius has a history of championing women's rights. She was involved in a pioneering case concerning how sexual harassment was handled at universities that set an important legal precedent, and campaigned against "date rape" when the term was new.

I asked how she felt the situation for women had changed in general. She said she was optimistic about barriers that had been overcome and the increased opportunities for women, but also saw a more "dismal" side of things.

"I look at the world now, and what's happened is that the internet has come," she said. "The public humiliation of women is much more across borders now."

And the internet has also exacerbated the "pornification" of women in general. Giving an example of a particularly graphic pornographic scene, she noted it's impossible to extricate that kind of content from the problems of changing notions of consent, not to mention trafficking and coercion. At least when the term "date rape" was coined, she said, people knew it was wrong.

"The protections for women seem to be fewer and fewer and the debasement greater and greater over time," she said. "I think it's a much sadder world now than 30 years ago when it comes to women's advances."

XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.