Why Calls To The Revenge Porn Helpline Have Doubled Since Coronavirus

Photographed by Anna Jay
While Britain has been in lockdown, with work and social life on pause for so many of us, from domestic violence to revenge porn, abuse against women has actually increased across the board. 
"He has control over me and if I don’t listen to what he says he will send them to my family."
"I really don’t know what else to do and I am incredibly scared of these being shown on social media."
"I’m humiliated and embarrassed and I just don’t know what to do."
"I feel really exploited and hurt by this."
"I'm constantly paranoid in case others see it… I feel like it's going to take over my life!"
These are just a few of the messages that the Revenge Porn Helpline has received in recent weeks. Since lockdown, Kate Worthington, a practitioner at the helpline, tells Refinery29 that they’ve seen "an unprecedented rise in cases, with case numbers almost doubling since this time last year." 
She and her team have looked at more than 200 cases in the four weeks from 23rd March, when lockdown began, and more last week than in any week since they opened in 2015. 
"The victims and survivors we are helping are often locked down alone, vulnerable to exploitation, and many are locked down with perpetrators, shut off from help and support," Kate adds. 

Victims and survivors are shut off from help and support because of lockdown.

Revenge porn (or intimate image abuse as it’s also known) as well as the threat of it has been a criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales since 2015, when it came into existence as a consequence of section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act.
Intimate image abuse is described as "the sharing of private, sexual materials, either photos or videos, of another person without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress." The offence covers photos or videos showing people engaged in sexual activity which would not usually be done in public, or with their genitals, buttocks or breasts exposed or covered only with underwear. It includes sharing material with others as well as online. 
In England and Wales, the maximum punishment for revenge porn is two years in prison. In Scotland, it's five years.
Given that intimate image abuse, like domestic abuse, is a form of controlling behaviour, intended to shame, intimidate and exert power over another person, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reports have spiked during lockdown when perpetrators are likely to have more time on their hands. 
Kate explains that one of the victims she has helped broke up with her partner just before lockdown. When we were all confined to our homes, this woman’s ex started threatening to share his ex-partner’s intimate images online with her family, friends and workplace in order to expose and humiliate her. 
"This woman," Kate says, "got in touch with the helpline and was very concerned and distressed. She was worried about her job security when she returns to work after the coronavirus crisis. And because of lockdown, she cannot meet with friends and family to speak to them about what has happened and feels too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone on the phone." 

Case numbers have risen consistently on the helpline since it started but lockdown has seen an exponential increase, which confirms to us our belief that the cases we see are the tip of the iceberg.

Sophie Mortimer, REVENGE PORN helpline
Fortunately, in this case Kate and the team at the Revenge Porn Helpline were able to provide the victim with essential support and reassurance. 
"We referred her to the Facebook NCII pilot (an initiative which has been set up to prevent the sharing of intimate images without consent) to hash the images and prevent these from being shared on Facebook and Instagram, and helped her to report this abuse with the police. Since the first contact we have had, she has been able to seek more emotional support from other organisations and has felt more comfortable to speak with friends and family." 
At an already uncertain and isolating time, being on the receiving end of revenge porn is compounding feelings of anxiety for those affected by it. 
"Case numbers have risen consistently on the helpline since it started but lockdown has seen an exponential increase, which confirms to us our belief that the cases we see are the tip of the iceberg," reflects Sophie Mortimer, the helpline’s manager. "It is very concerning that the stresses of lockdown are adding to people’s vulnerability and simultaneously making reaching out for support and advice more difficult."
The coronavirus crisis has brought the problems we face with gender-based violence in Britain into sharp relief. The Domestic Abuse Bill is finally making its way through parliament, delivering much-needed protections for victims and survivors. 
With reports of revenge porn surging, Dr Aislinn O’Connell, a lecturer in law at Royal Holloway University’s Department of Law and Criminology, thinks it is as good a time as any to look at the existing legislation. 
Last year, Aislinn authored a report in which she said the law still needed strengthening if we are ever really going to crack down on the nonconsensual posting of intimate images online. 
In that report, which was published after the Ministry of Justice announced that the law covering the making and sharing of nonconsensual intimate images would be reviewed "to ensure protections keep pace with emerging technology", she also said that methods by which victims and survivors can get justice and redress are too "expensive, obscure and impractical".
Today she tells Refinery29 that "as things stand the law is a piecemeal collection of remedies which don't apply to all situations of image-based sexual abuse and leave women – because victims are mostly women – of nonconsensual image sharing in a situation where they struggle to find the support to process what is almost always quite a traumatic event and move on with their lives going forward." 
Aislinn would like to see better legislation which compels website operators to act fast to action takedown requests, better education and better training across the board for police officers. 
"Sadly," Aislinn concludes, "I’m not surprised that reports of intimate image abuse are spiking. This is part of the same sphere of behaviours as domestic abuse. So we’re talking about the same behaviours which tend to arise in domestic abuse and sexual abuse cases in general. The kind of power dynamics involved are exacerbated by being trapped in close quarters – we’re seeing this globally."
The Revenge Porn Helpline continues to offer support throughout this difficult period via email, Messenger and its anonymous Whisper tool. The helpline is open from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday and supports all victims (18+) in the UK.

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