Natasha Wynarczyk | Contributing Writer | Monday, 5 June 2017

This is why the revenge porn hotline is more important than ever

This Is Why The Revenge Porn Hotline Is More Important Than Ever

The Debrief: Exclusive statistics obtained by The Debrief reveal just how many women are still being affected by revenge porn

When Cara*, 23, starting getting relentless and explicit text messages and voicemails on her phone, she originally thought it was her friends playing a prank on her. In fact, the reality was much, much worse.

‘One day, I got sick of it and answered one of the callers,’ she tells me. It was a man, who told Cara he’d got her number from her Tumblr blog. ‘I didn’t have a blog, and that’s when it dawned on me that this could be really bad. I told him I wasn’t interested in getting him into trouble, but asked for the URL.’

With a close friend by her side for support, Cara looked at the link – and was horrified by what she saw. ‘There were pages and pages of explicit pictures,’ she says. ‘Thankfully you couldn’t see my full face in any of them, so you wouldn’t know it was me. I knew right away though – some were photos I’d sent to my ex-boyfriend and others were ones he’d taken of me when we were still together. All the pictures were consensual at the time, but when we split up I’d asked him to delete them.’

Cara is one of thousands of women in this country who have been affected by revenge porn, which is defined as ‘revealing or sexually explicit images or videos of a person posted on the Internet, typically by a former sexual partner, without the consent of the subject and in order to cause them distress or embarrassment’. In April 2015, this became a crime in England and Wales, carrying a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment, and in Scotland in March 2016 legislation was passed to make it a crime there too. By September 2016 206 people had been prosecuted according to a report by the Crown Prosecution Service

Liz* is one woman who successfully helped her ex get prosecuted for revenge porn. ‘We had been together for a year, and I’d had a lot of problems with him. He was a complete control freak, hated me doing anything without him and once completely kicked off at me after I’d gone to the park with my child and some other mums I knew,’ she says. 

After this argument, she got a Whatsapp message from her ex. It contained a video he’d made of the pair having sex, horrifyingly without her consent. He’d also set it to his avatar on the instant messaging app, and was threatening to send the video to Liz’s parents. ‘He also told me he was currently in the pub with his friends, and that he was showing them all what a ‘slag’ I was,’ she says. ‘So I immediately took screenshots of all of it and went straight to the police. He was furious and called me a grass, but he was totally in the wrong.’ 

The case, says Liz, went to court ‘really quickly’, thanks in part to her substantial evidence against her ex. In February this year, her ex was jailed for 12 years for various offences against Liz and another former partner. He is serving eight weeks of his sentence for the revenge porn offence. ‘The police took his phone, but god knows where else he sent the video, it could be anywhere online pretty much. It’s been hell,’ she says. It’s believed there are an estimated 30 sites in the UK dedicated to revenge porn and the rise of social media means pictures or videos could end up on a myriad of different online outlets. Facebook has come under fire recently for the fact that in just one month they were forced to assess 54,000 complaints relating to revenge porn and sextortion – a form of blackmail in which explicit content is used in order to demand sexual favours from a victim.

According to figures obtained by the BBC last year, 61% of reported revenge porn cases result in no action being taken, with the police citing various reasons for this, for example a lack of evidence or the victim deciding to not press charges. This is true for Cara, who went to the police after confronting her ex-boyfriend and hearing him admit to creating the blog. ‘Although they took a statement, they told me there wasn’t much they could do, especially seeing as you couldn’t see my face in the pictures. To be honest, it was a real disappointment,’ she says. ‘At that point I just thought it would be better to leave it. I was embarrassed and wondered if I made a huge thing out of it people would say it was my fault for letting my ex take those pictures.’

If they don’t, or can’t, go to the police, revenge porn victims still need support, and a safe way to seek confidential, more informal advice. The Revenge Porn Helpline, which meets this key need, was set up in 2015 after Laura Higgins, Online Safety Operations Manager at the South West Grid for Learning Trust (SWGFL) became aware of the need for a specialist service to help revenge porn victims and was given a grant to launch the helpline from the government. According to the most recent stats obtained by The Debrief, the Revenge Porn Helpline has dealt with 903 cases between 1 June 2016 to 30 May this year alone, and worked with a total of 1,714 people since the helpline started – 72% of these being female – as well as 28 cases of sextortion. It’s only available to people over the age of 18, but Laura says they’ve had people from many age groups, including those in their 70s, calling them.

Higgins and her team also work with SPITE (Sharing and Publishing Images to Embarrass), a free legal advice service based at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL). There, barristers and solicitors train undergraduate law students up to draft letters to revenge porn perpetrators saying there could be legal ramifications and offer advice on injunctions or pressing charges. In the last 12 months, they’ve advised 75 people, and it runs all year round, even in university holidays.

‘We’ve had some really lovely feedback about SPITE from people who’ve had appointments with us,’ Frances Ridout, the Deputy Director of the Legal Advice Centre at QMUL, says. ‘Sometimes they [victims] just want someone to talk to and be reassured that they have done nothing wrong. People can get embarrassed knowing we’ve seen their pictures, so we make it as user-friendly as possible, offering Skype and well as face-to-face contact.’

‘In terms of the Revenge Porn Helpline, we are incredibly proud to have and value the working relationship we have with them, and reiterate that they are incredible resource that help a lot of people who feel sad and desperate at the time,’ she adds. 

This ‘incredible resource’, however, came under threat earlier this year. Due to heavy cuts across the board to many charitable organisations, the helpline looked as if it was going to lose its funding. Commenting in The Times, Samantha Pegg, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Law School, stressed the helpline’s importance. ‘The helpline has established relationships with internet service providers that expedite take downs, which bolsters a victim’s confidence that a trial will not result in further humiliation. Helpline staff are also proactive, tracking the dissemination of content on worldwide revenge pornography sites and requesting images of victims be removed,’ she argued.

‘To drive forward prosecutions victims need practical advice and assistance in removing these images — the very things the helpline has been providing. If funding is not renewed a valuable and experienced source of support will be lost, fewer victims will report incidents and the attrition rate will surely rise. 

When I told Cara about this, she was shocked. Though the helpline wasn’t available during her revenge porn incident, she has now been helped by another organisation, The Mix. ‘It [revenge porn] has become a more common thing and I think people don’t realise how serious it is,’ she says. ‘I think some people just think it’s kind of funny and don’t know that they can get into a whole load of legal trouble doing it, so having helplines in place to help people know the processes can only be a good thing. If I’d known a website could have helped me, I’d definitely have used it.’

Thankfully, The Debrief can reveal that according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) Request to the Government Equalities Office, the government relented and has recently made an initial agreement of £39,976 in grant funds to SWGFL for the purposes of operating the Revenge Porn Helpline. This means it can continue doing its incredible work. Higgins is also looking at starting up a crowdfunding page in the coming months to guarantee a further funding source. 

And SPITE are carrying on their amazing work and are also looking at preventative measures to ensure revenge porn doesn’t start in the first place. ‘What we do is we go to secondary schools in local boroughs like Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney and our students design a free bespoke workshop and educational events,’ Ridout says. In this academic year they’ve seen around 600 school children.

This is essential work. Revenge porn often goes hand in hand with ‘victim blaming’ – some people thinking that it’s your fault, and if you don’t send explicit pictures or videos to a sexual partner you won’t have the problem in the first place. Taking aside the fact that one of the interviewees in this piece was filmed without her consent and therefore that point is moot, sharing sexual imagery with one another can often be part of a loving, empowering, and healthy relationship. 

‘I just think it’s absolutely ridiculous that people think this way,’ Cara says. ‘I think sometimes people don’t want to seek help for this because they’re worried about being told it’s their fault. That’s not the point – the bad thing here is that somebody has betrayed your trust.’

Two years on, Cara and Liz still they bear the mental scars from what their ex-partners did to them. ‘It’s made me wary of getting with other men now,’ Cara admits. ‘Even if they seem nice to start with, because I never would have thought my ex would have done something like that to me. I’d been with him for a long time, and couldn’t believe he’d had that side to his personality. Now the threat of that is always at the back of my mind.’ 

‘I’m concentrating on getting myself better,’ Liz tells me. ‘I had help from victim support, and I’ve started having CBT. I was seeing somebody for a bit more recently, but it affected my behaviour towards him. In fact, he outright told me he felt I’d spent the whole time expecting him to turn out like my ex.’ 

It’s clear that revenge porn must still be taken seriously and that victims get all the support they need to press charges, help get material taken down and move on with their lives. As we live our lives more and more online this is an issue that will take even more prominence, and supportive resources must have the funding they need to do this – whatever the outcome of the General Election.

*names have been changed

You might also be interested in: 

The Revenge Porn Backlash Hits The UK 

Here's How Many Cases Of Revenge Porn Have Been Reported Since It Became Illegal 

Revenge Porn Hotline Gets Hundreds Of Calls After Documentary 

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