Understanding the Rise of Nonconsensual Pornography

Close up of laptop and magazine on a blue quilt.Technology has many benefits, but unfortunately it has its downsides as well. Advances in technology, such as the internet, help people communicate and share information more easily. But the widespread use of technology also makes it easier to spread information (or misinformation) in negative, harmful ways.

One significant problem associated with recent technological advances is the rise of nonconsensual pornography. This phenomenon refers to pornographic images or video shared without the consent of the person or people involved, and it is drawing increasing concern.

What Is Nonconsensual Pornography?

Nonconsensual pornography is an umbrella term used to describe any explicit sexual images or video clips distributed without the knowledge or consent of the people in them.

There are several different types, including:

Revenge porn

Sexting is pretty common and perfectly acceptable when it occurs between consenting adults. But what happens when an ex (or current partner) shares photos and messages you sent them without your permission? Those photos become revenge porn.

Many people use the term “revenge porn” interchangeably with nonconsensual pornography, but “revenge porn” is slightly more specific. The key distinction between the two lies in the intent behind the act. Generally speaking, people who distribute revenge porn do so with a goal of humiliating or otherwise causing emotional pain. Other possible motivations might include financial gain, whether this occurs through blackmail or sale of the images.

Revenge porn can refer to:

  • Private images or videos stolen from your phone or computer
  • Photos and video recordings you didn’t consent to in the first place
  • Photos or sexts you took and sent to a partner when in a romantic relationship
  • Videos you made together with a partner with the understanding, spoken or implied, that they wouldn’t share the media with anyone else

When someone shows those images or videos to others without your permission, they are committing a crime.

Upskirting

Upskirting (and its counterpart, downblousing) is a type of voyeurism that involves photos or videos of someone’s undergarments. These images are usually taken in public places. The person being photographed may not realize what’s happening or who has taken the photo.

Deepfakes

A deepfake (portmanteau of deep learning + fake) refers to any altered media created with artificial intelligence (AI). First, the AI studies photographs and videos of a person from multiple angles as it learns to mimic their appearance. Once the AI is able to create a convincing replica, the programmer can animate that replica like a puppet to say things or engage in behaviors that the real person never did.

When it comes to pornography, deepfakes generally consist of sexually explicit videos manipulated to show someone who was not originally present at filming. For example, deepfake pornography may overlay a random person’s face onto video of a porn star, making the target appear to participate in sex acts that the real individual never engaged in.

It might seem as if these manipulations would be easy to detect, but technology has advanced to the point where it’s no longer so easy to tell the difference between real and deepfake media content. This technology has also become easier to access, so anyone who knows what they’re doing can create a deepfake with nothing more than a computer and internet access.

Motivations of Offenders

Why would anyone want to share nonconsensual pornography when the consensual variety is widely available across the internet—and often free to access? That’s a question that isn’t always easy to answer.

Not everyone realizes how much harm they cause by sharing pornography or creating deepfakes when the person in the image hasn’t given consent. Some distributors may not intend to directly hurt anyone.

This doesn’t excuse the behavior, of course, since most adults understand private images are meant to stay private. This does mean, however, there’s a need for increased awareness around exactly what nonconsensual pornography is as well as the harm it can cause. For example, someone might operate under the assumption that when a person takes and shares an intimate image, they don’t care who else sees the image. But sharing an image with one person doesn’t automatically translate to consent for anyone to view the image.

People can have various motives for choosing to share nonconsensual pornography, including:

  • Boredom: Some people who create deepfakes or aim to capture upskirt images may do so with the goal of entertaining or challenging themselves. In other words, they look at the activity as a game.
  • Revenge: Those who share revenge porn images or video content may include the name or contact information of the person shown in order to shame or humiliate them. Some people want to “get back” at an ex if they believe they were wronged. Others may simply choose to humiliate any woman due to misogynist beliefs.
  • Financial gain: Another possible motive of sharing nonconsensual pornography is financial gain. Distributors may sell images without the knowledge of the person involved. They also might attempt to blackmail an individual by threatening to publicize the images unless the target pays a certain amount.
  • Sexual gratification: There are people who prefer “candid” or amateur-style pornography. It’s perfectly possible to find consensual images of this style, but some people may not care whether the people involved have given consent or not. Some people also prefer pornography that involves people who haven’t given consent, so they might seek out nonconsensual pornography intentionally.

In the end, whatever someone’s motives, nonconsensual pornography is a crime that is likely to bring emotional harm to those affected.

Consequences of Nonconsensual Pornography

Nonconsensual pornography can have a heavy, long-term emotional impact on the people involved. According to 2018 research, women are more likely to experience victimization, while men are more likely to distribute nonconsensual pornography. However, men can be victimized as well.

Part of the emotional impact stems from victim blaming. For example, individuals who report revenge porn may be told, “You should have known the risks when you sent those photos.” But adults who choose to share intimate photos with consenting partners have done nothing wrong. The blame rests with the people who share the images without permission.

It’s essential to consider the underlying meaning of the terminology used. The term “revenge porn” in itself perpetuates blame—it suggests the person in the images did something to deserve “revenge” through victimization. Even if an individual “broke” their partner’s heart, they do not deserve to be targeted by revenge porn.

Another unfortunate but common outcome of nonconsensual pornography happens when the people victimized become bullied by others. This may be more likely among younger people, such as those still in high school. Bullying can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other emotional distress.

Even people who don’t experience bullying may still face mental health issues. Feelings of violation and betrayal are also common, and many people experience posttraumatic stress. Research suggests many tend to cope with distress by drinking or self-medicating, both of which can affect physical and emotional health.

Some victims may also face job loss or disciplinary action from their school if they can’t prove they didn’t consent to have their photograph taken and shared. This can compound the pain of the event by putting even more blame on the victim than the accuser.

Recovery for Victims and Survivors

Survivors can pursue legal action if they choose. Options typically include:

  • Orders of protection
  • Redress through school or workplace policies
  • Criminal charges
  • Asking specific social media platforms or websites hosting the nonconsensual pornography to remove publicly shared images

These actions can help prevent further sharing of the images. However, many people feel reluctant to pursue legal assistance after realizing someone has shared their explicit images. This reluctance occurs for any number of reasons. Some may not want to draw more attention to the images. Others may face threats of blackmail and the possibility of victim blaming or job loss, which can cause further emotional turmoil.

It also must be acknowledged that seeking legal support doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. In many places, nonconsensual pornography is only treated as a misdemeanor, so many offenders may not face many consequences for their actions.

Certain states only prohibit certain types of nonconsensual pornography. For example, some states have laws that prohibit filming or photography in private places such as restrooms or fitting rooms. However, these states lack restrictions around upskirt photos taken in parks or on public transportation. As awareness around nonconsensual pornography and its potential impact increases, these laws may change to expand opportunities to seek support.

Support from a therapist can be beneficial after any type of victimization, physical or emotional. Therapists can provide guidance and support for working through depression, posttraumatic stress, and other lingering distress. Begin your search for a compassionate therapist today at GoodTherapy.

References:

  1. Carey, M. E. (2018, April 21). Nonconsensual pornography: Prevention is key. University of Colorado Law Review. Retrieved from https://lawreview.colorado.edu/nonconsensual-pornography-prevention-is-key/#note-1
  2. Kearl, H. (2016, July 25). Yes, it’s legal to take pictures up a woman’s skirt without her consent. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/4422772/upskirt-photos-harassment/
  3. Know your rights: Nonconsensual pornography (“revenge porn”). (2018). LegalVoice. Retrieved from https://www.legalvoice.org/nonconsensual-pornography
  4. Ruvalcaba, Y., & Eaton, A. A. (2018, December 14). Nonconsensual pornography among U.S. adults: A sexual scripts framework on victimization, perpetration, and health correlates for women and men. Psychology of Violence, 10(1). Retrieved from https://www.cybercivilrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Psychology-of-Violence.pdf
  5. Scott, A. (2017, February 21). What is nonconsensual pornography? Retrieved from https://www.ncjfcj.org/TDVAM-Scott
  6. Shao, G. (2019, October 13). What ‘deepfakes’ are and how they may be dangerous. CNBC. Retreived from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/14/what-is-deepfake-and-how-it-might-be-dangerous.html
  7. Su, R., Porter, T., & Mark, M. (2019, October 30). Here’s a map showing which US states have passed laws against revenge porn — and those where it’s still legal. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/map-states-where-revenge-porn-banned-2019-10
  8. Uhl, C. A., Rhyner, K. J., Terrance, C. A., & Lugo, N. R. (2018). An examination of nonconsensual pornography websites. Feminism & Psychology, 28(1). Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0959353517720225

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