Revenge porn threats
Women

“My ex said he’d send my nudes to my colleagues”: the devastating impact of revenge porn threats

Revenge porn has been illegal in England and Wales for more than five years – but threatening to share intimate images or videos is not. As the domestic abuse bill returns to parliament, Stylist hears from one woman who knows first-hand why the law must change. 

Cara*, 32, was in the supermarket when her phone buzzed with a text from her ex-boyfriend. “How bad would it be if these were sent to your work colleagues?” he wrote. “What would they think of you?”

Cara’s heart seemed to stop. Attached to the message was a string of photos showing her in the nude. She hadn’t seen these images for years: they were relics from a relationship she’d had in her early 20s, long before she’d even met her ex. She had no idea how he’d got hold of them; she’d forgotten they existed.

By threatening to share the photos with Cara’s co-workers, her ex was escalating a campaign of intimidation that had been running for some time. He had been a volatile and controlling partner, and continued to text her regularly after their split. At first, she didn’t mind; she worried about him, and hoped they could remain friends.

But over time, the tone of his messages became darker and more unsettling. “It became more and more obvious it was about sex,” Cara says. On her 30th birthday, he’d sent her an email pressuring her for sex, naming a date he would pick her up from her house and detailing what he expected her to wear. He transferred money into her bank account, supposedly so that she could purchase his chosen outfit. “It was disgusting, horrifying,” Cara says.

revenge porn threats
Revenge porn threats: threats to share intimate images and videos are a form of abuse, say campaigners

When Cara reported the email to police, she says she found their response unhelpful. “They basically said: ‘What do you want us to do? He hasn’t done anything wrong,’” Cara recalls. “I said, ‘Well, he’s frightening me; he’s threatening to show up at my address.’”

The police advised her to ignore her ex’s messages and stay away from her home on the date in question. That was the last contact she had had with her former partner. And now he was dangling her private photos in front of her face, threatening to blow up her world.

Revenge porn – the sharing of private, sexual photos or videos of another person without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress – was criminalised in England and Wales in 2015, and in Northern Ireland in 2016. Those convicted of the offence face up to two years in prison and a fine. The maximum sentence is longer in Scotland, where anyone convicted of revenge porn could be jailed for up to five years.

But threatening to share someone’s intimate photos or videos is not currently a specific offence – which makes it harder to prosecute people who do so. Jessie Mark, a solicitor at Curzon Green who specialises in revenge porn, says that while victims of such threats can pursue civil remedies, criminal prosecutions tend to rely on the Malicious Communications Act 1988. 

“As you can probably imagine, that’s quite outdated,” she tells Stylist. “It doesn’t really cater to 21st century social media, and it’s particularly hard to prove when someone has made verbal threats. We’re hoping that new legislation will be more relevant to the realities we’re currently facing.”

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And change is needed urgently, because these threats are disturbingly common. One in seven women aged 18-34 in England and Wales has experienced threats to share their intimate images or videos, according to a recent survey commissioned by the domestic abuse charity Refuge, while around 20% of calls to the government-funded Revenge Porn Helpline over the past two years have been from people concerned about threats. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, the number of calls about this issue rose by 73%. 

Refuge’s research shows that more than one in 10 women who have been threatened in this way felt suicidal as a result, with one in seven feeling more at risk of physical violence. More than eight in 10 said it impacted their mental health and emotional wellbeing.

“The overwhelming majority of these women received the threat from a current or former partner and were experiencing other forms of abuse,” Ellie Butt, head of policy and public affairs at Refuge, tells Stylist. “This makes this a domestic abuse issue, and one which the government has a real opportunity to change.”

revenge porn threats
Revenge porn threats: campaigners say current laws do not reflect the realities of modern social media

Last summer, Refuge launched a campaign to make threatening to share intimate images and films a crime under the domestic abuse bill. The bill, which has been in the pipeline for several years now, is now close to completion: it returns to the House of Lords on 25 January. Baroness Nicky Morgan, the former women and equalities minister who helped develop the 2015 revenge porn legislation, has tabled an amendment to the bill which would criminalise threats to share intimate images and videos.

“Particularly in the context of an ongoing or previous relationship, [threats to share are] such a breach of trust,” Morgan tells Stylist. “I don’t want to say to people: ‘When you’re in the middle of a relationship, you need to think very hard about sharing photos or allowing your partner to take photographs of you, just in case something goes wrong.’”

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Morgan says there is broad support across the Lords and in government for criminalising these threats, particularly given the recent surge in revenge porn in England and Wales. There is some disagreement over whether it should be made an offence as part of the domestic abuse bill or under an ongoing Law Commission review into image-based abuse – but Morgan believes the Lords should grasp the problem now, rather than kicking the can down the road.

“It’s clearly a problem now,” she says. “It’s devastating a lot of people’s lives, particularly women. We have the opportunity to criminalise this now in this bill and we should take it.”

Any change in the law would be too late for Cara. After her ex first threatened to release the images, she told police she was being blackmailed. “They said it wasn’t blackmail because it wasn’t [about] money or property,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, he’s trying to treat me like his property.’”

Her ex was subsequently arrested and cautioned for malicious communications after turning up outside her house. But the police didn’t have the power to delete the images from his phone, and after he was given back his devices, he started to message Cara again.

“There was nothing I could do,” she says. “He had all the power, all the control, and the police had literally told me to just ignore him and he’d go away. It was terrifying thinking about what would happen if he released the images – who would see them, what would people think. I had to tell my boss what had happened to get his email address blocked at work. It was humiliating. You feel ashamed.”

Ultimately, her ex did post the images online, accompanied by so many of Cara’s personal details that she was forced to move house, quit her job, change her appearance and delete all her social media profiles. He was later jailed on stalking charges, and Cara learned he had stolen the images from her computer, where they’d been saved after she backed up an old mobile phone.

revenge porn threats
Revenge porn threats: Cara* was forced to move house due to her ex-partner's abuse

Cara was horrified when the photos were published, but emphasises that her life would have been turned upside down even if her ex had never followed through on his threats.

“It’s devastating when those images are shared, but it’s almost the same feeling when you’re threatened,” she says. “The aftermath is the same… It’s the constant fear.” She is now in a happy relationship with someone else.

“I’ve moved on and tried as best as I can with my life. But the threat to share never goes away. You know that that person has that over you for the rest of your life.”

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Cara believes her experience would have been very different if threatening to share intimate images had already been a criminal offence: “The police had his phone; they saw the threat from him. If this law change had already been in place, it would have been an easy conviction right from the start.”

Amending the domestic abuse bill would also “send a very clear message that [threats to share are] not OK,” Cara continues. “People would maybe start to think about what they’re doing. A bill like this gives victims the power to stand up, hold their abusers accountable and say, ‘This is a crime’.”

Refuge is asking its supporters to call on the government to explicitly outlaw threats to share sexual images or films in England and Wales. Add your name to the petition here

If you have been affected by threats to share intimate images or films, or have been a victim of revenge porn, you can access advice and support by calling the UK Revenge Porn Helpline on 0845 6000 459

* Name and some details have been changed to protect interviewee’s identity 

Images: Getty