Understanding Non-Consensual Photo Sharing

Here’s the thing: when abuse, humiliation, and harassment happen online, they are still abuse, humiliation, and harassment. Suggesting that “online harassment” or abuse is any less “real” than the kind that happens offline is just not accurate.

It’s time to take a closer look at conversations about non-consensual photo or video sharing, with this in mind. We often see the expression “revenge porn” used to describe this form of violence. This is a misleading and unhelpful term, implying the victim did something to deserve “revenge.” That leads to victim-blaming and -shaming, often with gendered criticisms directed at women for their sexual behavior.

Taking and sharing intimate photos and videos can be part of a healthy relationship or intimate experience. What’s important is that people feel safe, respected, and not pressured to share photos or videos. Moreover, our understanding of CONSENT needs to be expanded to include all the nuances created by the ease of taking and sharing photos.

Here’s a breakdown of several types of non-consensual photo and video sharing that you can use to take the conversation further in your campus community. Remember: these practices can be one-offs, or they could be part of a tradition or something that is seen as normal. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept them. If you’re inspired to take action, check out #LetsPictureConsent, a campaign about non-consensual photo sharing from Breakthrough and UCLA’s Bruin Consent Coalition. Want to bring that project to your campus? We’re here to help.

Taking intimate photos or videos without consent

This can mean secretly recording people without their knowledge or consent, such as the use of hidden cameras in places where people expect privacy like fitting rooms, public restrooms, or dorms. It can also include recording consensual sexual activity without the permission of all the people present. Remember: if someone consents to having sex with you in your bedroom, it doesn’t give you permission to record it.

Taking intimate photos and videos in situations where someone is incapacitated and cannot give consent, perhaps due to alcohol or drugs, or because they are below the age of consent, is also NOT okay. And, in some cases, those photos or videos could be used as evidence of sexual assault.

Sharing intimate photos or videos taken with consent–and the reasonable expectation of privacy–and sharing them without consent

These are the cases where we hear the most victim-blaming. If you’ve ever heard–or, let’s be honest, said– “She shouldn’t have taken that picture in the first place, what did she think would happen?!”–then you know what we mean.

There is nothing wrong with taking and sharing intimate photos or videos of yourself. There is nothing wrong with exploring your sexuality. If you share a photo or video with someone you trust with the expectation of privacy, then that person betraying your trust is not your fault.

If someone shares a photo with you, they are not consenting to sharing that photo with your best friend, your sports team, your friend at another school, or the people in your group chat.

Whether or not your intention is to cause harm, you are now sharing this photo or video without the person’s consent. That, my friend, is a no-no. Sexual scoring, the practice of sharing photos or videos as trophies or “proof” of some form of sexual activity, is a prime example here.

Sharing photos or videos with the intention of humiliating, degrading, or harassing someone

Often, conversations around non-consensual sharing in college life suggest that it’s a harmless “boys will be boys” sort of thing. But we know that a) it’s not just men who do this, and b) it can be a deliberate act of violence and dominance. Non-consensual sharing–especially what is referred to as “revenge porn”–is committed  by a current or former intimate partner who specifically intends to cause harm to their victim.

In some cases, photos or videos are uploaded to websites or forums, with or without personal information attached to it. Other times a victim can be blackmailed, or the perpetrator may threaten to send the photos or videos to their employers or families. In either situation, this is an extreme violation of a person’s consent and should be treated as a serious act of violence.

Using coercive behaviour to obtain intimate photos or videos

Coercion does not equal consent. That means if someone sends new photos or videos in response to threats of violence, or of revealing prior videos or photos, they didn’t do so consensually. This happens in situations where the perpetrator already has “incriminating” material of the victim, and uses coercion and threats to demand more. It can also happen under threats of outing someone who might not be ready or able to publicly embrace their sexuality.

Taking and sharing photos or videos of sexual assault

Unfortunately, the act of taking and sharing a photo or video of a sexual assault is all too common, especially in high school and college settings. Think: the Steubenville rape case. These horrifying occurrences not only re-traumatize many survivors, but can also normalize and minimize sexual assault. The shaming and bullying of survivors of sexual assault is an extremely problematic practice.

Unsolicited photo and video sharing as harassment

Yes, you guessed it, this includes the dreaded Unsolicited Dick Pic™–or any graphic photo of any body part belonging to someone of any gender– shared without prompting– or continually shared once you’ve been told to, you know, maybe not. Bombarding someone with photos that make them uncomfortable, particularly after they have made it clear that you are making them uncomfortable, is a form of harassment. This might seem like a harmless joke, and is often met with requests that women in particular “get over it,” but this behavior prevents people from enjoying equal access to online platforms and makes women in particular want to spend less time in spaces where they have every right to feel comfortable.

It’s time for us to recognize all these practices of non-consensual photo sharing as a problem. If we recognize the violence involved, it also allows us to transform the way we approach conversations around consensual photo-sharing in healthy relationships. We can create more space for people to come forward and seek help and justice when their consent is violated. And we can also create more space for positive and enjoyable uses of intimate photos. The two go hand in hand: by recognizing violence, we can create a better world for all of us to enjoy our sexuality and self-expression.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of non-consensual photo sharing, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s crisis hotline is a useful resource.

If you’d like to share your own experiences of nonconsensual pornography you can do so at THE G WORD: Transforming gender norms, one story at a time: https://us.breakthrough.tv/thegword/

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