Call it what it is: Virtual Abuse

It was 1611 when Artemisia Gentileschi - the painter who created the work you see pictured above - was raped by her teacher. Artemisia reported him and faced a trial which, instead of being against her rapist, was in fact against her. To test her sincerity, she was subjected to physical torture and her body was exposed to the public in Rome during a series of gynecological examinations.

More than 400 years have passed and the situation has not improved as much as you may think, partly due to a widespread inability to manage technological progress. Let me give you some examples.

Just over a week ago in Italy, a story broke about a kindergarten teacher engaging in sexual intercourse in a video and 18 photos that her ex-partner decided to share with a soccer team’s Whatsapp group. Care to guess who was punished? That’s right, the teacher, a victim of non-consensual dissemination, was fired and publicly shamed by the head teacher and the mother of one of her pupils.

Casting our minds back to April of this year, an Italian newspaper first leaked the story of Telegram's Pandora's box: a chat in which over 43,000 subscribers exchanged erotic and sexual photos and videos every day without, unsurprisingly, the consent of the people appearing in them. At times, this material concerned minors. Other times, there was a real incitement of violence against women, rape and taking revenge against ex-partners.

For those who still do not understand the gravity of the situation and those who try to validate these actions, claiming that the events took place “only online”, it is worth remembering what happened in Sweden in 2017, when three men raped a woman and broadcasted the video of the attack. I could recount thousands of similar cases, given that 90% of the victims of non-consensual dissemination are, in fact, women. I would hope, however, that these instances are enough for you to understand the seriousness of this form of sexual violence - which it is - and, therefore, recognize the need to remedy the situation. Clearly, effective solutions cannot be adopted unless the real-life problems encountered are first identified. Let's take a closer look.

A terminology problem: let's change the language

In English-speaking terms, the label that has been given to this behaviour - the publication and dissemination via the Internet, of images, videos and erotic documents or which represent sexual acts, without the consent of the people in the videos - is "revenge porn". This is the first serious mistake.

George Lakoff, in his famous book, “Don't think about the elephant!”, explains the importance of frames, that is to say, the mental connections that are activated in our brain when we hear certain words. If we apply Lakoff's precious teaching to the term “revenge porn”, we immediately notice how this phraseology shifts the attention, once again, away from the victim. Not only that, but it also paints the perpetrator in much a kinder light than deserved. “Revenge” implies a response to a previous wrong suffered by the victim themself. "Porn" (pornography) refers to the consensual activity, carried out by professionals, for payment and with the express intention of sharing images and videos with the public.

This incorrect terminology distorts the entire issue. Calling this behaviour “revenge porn” implies the culprit is even remotely justified in their actions, because they are reacting to an affront suffered. It also suggests that the victim freely disposes of their own body by consenting to the sharing of images or videos that portray them in an intimate setting.

This is not acceptable and the first step to take to punish (immediately) and avoid (eventually) such behaviour is to call them by their technical name: non-consensual dissemination of sexually explicit content. Or, if you really want to use a slang term, "virtual abuse", because that's what it is. The woman is not free to dispose of her body as she sees fit and, let’s not forget, she is violated by the perpetrator in new ways that are in step with the times and with the development of technology.

A sociological problem: let's change the mentality

Unfortunately, we must acknowledge that, in the collective imagination, women and men do not have the same sexual freedom. And this is a prejudice that some men and some women share.

Let's go back to the case of the Italian teacher: a woman decides to resume a relationship with her partner and to keep the content private, but her partner, who has become an ex, spreads it to the public without her consent; for this reason, the woman, instead of being treated as a victim, is criticized, defamed and eventually loses her job. Let's take another example: a man, a mathematics teacher, decides to invest in his image and starts publishing his own images in flattering clothes on social networks; for this, the man is called "the sexiest professor in the world" and gets a new job.

It should be abundantly clear that there is a contradiction here. We need to change our approach and our mentality.

First of all, we must free ourselves from the unjust and archaic preconception that men are allowed everything, while women have limited sexual freedom, as well as a host of other limitations. We are all equal and if a person consciously and voluntarily decides to dispose of their body as they see fit, they must be free to do so, without receiving criticism or plaudits based on their sex.

Secondly, let us consider victims as such and treat them accordingly. A woman who is subjected to virtual abuse does not “deserve it” just because she has shot such a video. She is a victim. Let's understand this, support it, fight for the right for justice to be done and prevent - for future generation’s sake - certain mentalites from still being held.

Finally, men, abandon this macho idea that women and their images are objects that you can dispose of at will. Respect all women, not just your mother, your partner and your daughters. Change your approach, even you men who call yourself feminists: don't think about how you would react if the victim were your sister, but as if it were you. To paraphrase Paulo Coelho: Always put yourself in the shoes of others. If they feel tight, that person probably feels that way too.

A technological problem: let's educate ourselves on internet use

Technology is increasingly present in our lives and its presence in our relationships is also growing. Evidence of this can be found in one of the ways through which the guilty parties often get possession of the photos and videos: sexting. Sexting is the sharing of personal photos and videos of sexually explicit content through social networks, messenger apps or other technological means. In this case, the only way for someone to protect themselves is to be highly selective about the people with whom they decide to share their shots.

There are other ways, however, through which intimate videos and images can get into the wrong hands in a way which protects the perpetrator, such as hacking. At times, however, small measures are enough to prevent third parties from coming into possession of our material. For example, if we avoid saving the access passwords on our devices and the devices of others, nobody will have easy access to them. We must also pay attention to storage backups, because every time we take a photo with the mobile phone, it can also be saved elsewhere, such as on the server of the app we are using or in the cloud storage we have. In this case, access for third parties is still extremely possible. Basically, we need to keep up with the times and learn how to use and manage all of our devices safely.

A political problem: let's create a European law

If you are wondering what tools of protection a victim of non-consensual dissemination can use, the answer, unfortunately, is very few. In fact, there is no European Union legislation governing this matter. Therefore, it falls on the laws of the individual Member States, where they exist, to address these problems. In Europe there are few states that, to date, have adopted a law against the non-consensual dissemination of sexually explicit images. This conduct constitutes a crime in Spain, the first European state to adopt a law on the subject in 2015, France (2016), Italy (2019), and Belgium (2020). In Germany, on the other hand, victims can only obtain justice in civil courts, where they can receive compensation for damages thanks to a strict interpretation of copyright laws, but cannot find redress at the criminal level.

To understand each other better, let's take another example: imagine three women whose intimate images are spread without their consent in Italy, Germany and Poland. They will receive three different responses: in Italy the victim will be able to report the guilty person, who will go on trial and can be sentenced with up to 6 years in prison, as well as obtain a sum of money by way of compensation for the damage suffered; in Germany, they will only obtain compensation for damages; in Poland they will get nothing. This disparity needs to be acknowledged and addressed immediately. It is absolutely imperative that the European Union take measures at both the criminal and civil levels. Unfortunately, however, it is not as easy as it may seem.

In the criminal sector, we encounter our first major problem: the European Union does not have the competence to legislate in criminal matters. Therefore, with its own act, it could not establish that non-consensual dissemination constitutes a crime in all Member States, since this exclusive prerogative remains with the individual Member State. However, following the Treaty of Lisbon, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union attributes the power to issue directives with which to define the essential characteristics of crimes that are transnational and that concern specific matters, including cybercrime (Article 83), to the Parliament and the European Council. This means that, by leveraging this rule, the European Union could well issue a directive that punishes image-based abuse, thus forcing Member States to adopt laws on the matter.

In the civil field, the European legislator could deal with the matter immediately through the Digital Service Act that is about to be approved. However, three recent resolutions of the European Parliament on this point do not give much hope, given that the approach is to exclusively regulate certain sectors of the economy and the digital information.

This problem needs to be addressed immediately by the European Union. It is an issue that continues to leave a trail of victims without access to justice and it is one that can be regulated. The mentality and technological savviness of citizens, on the other hand, are unlikely to change overnight. This does not mean that we lay down and accept the status quo. These are issues which we can overcome, but the time to act is now. We must be pragmatic and stop this behaviour because only together will we defeat - let’s call it what it is - virtual abuse!