Revenge porn video of Love Island star and upskirting controversy put fresh pressure on government to tighten law

UK

Pressure is mounting on the government to tighten the laws around revenge porn, which could result in the most serious culprits jailed for more than two years and put on the sex offenders register.

Senior Conservative MP Maria Miller is seeking to amend the new upskirting bill to cover the nonconsensual sharing of explicit images and videos online, and other image-based crimes that “make women’s lives hell”.

Revenge porn was made a criminal offence in 2015 and carries a sentence of up to two years in prison, but the former cabinet minister wants to make it a specific sexual offence that would offer anonymity to victims and longer sentences.

It comes as the issue hit the headlines when Zara McDermott, a former government adviser, and Laura Anderson, an air stewardess, reportedly had intimate images and videos shared online while appearing in Love Island, the popular reality TV show.

Ms Miller, who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, told The Independent that the law needed to change as many people regarded revenge porn as “stupid or vengeful” rather than sexually motivated.

She said: “The victim feels as if they have been raped. It is after all a sexual act without permission – and that is the definition of rape.

“Victims, when they speak to me, say they feel violated and, speaking to some of the police on this, the police themselves point out that it’s a sexual crime that is done without permission. That is a very serious form of crime.”

She condemned the revenge porn attacks on the Love Island women, saying: “Intimate image abuse can affect everyone and by making it a sex offence with the consequences that entails would help to demonstrate it isn’t acceptable and that victims, who are overwhelmingly women, aren’t to blame.”

American blogger Lena Chen, one of the first known victims of revenge porn, has spoken out about how stalking and abuse forced her to change her identity.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, she said: “I still felt like I was being followed, which is why I moved and changed my name, so the harassment would not follow me.

“It did not feel psychologically safe to be Lena. In America I could not exist as myself anymore.”

Ms Miller has already held talks with justice minister Lucy Frazer about amending the new upskirting bill, which was laid before parliament on Thursday.

The government intervened after Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope blocked a backbench bill to ban the practice of taking surreptitious pictures up women’s skirts – due to his longstanding objection to the private member’s bill system.

Theresa May also expressed her personal support for the bill, describing upskirting as a “hideous invasion of privacy”.

Ms Miller said: “There are a lot of image-based sex crimes that are starting to affect women’s lives that are falling outside the law.

“I completely agree with doing upskirting as a one-off, but perhaps if it is not possible to amend the bill to reflect the problems with revenge pornography, then I will also be seeking for the minister to undertake a thorough review of this areas so we can pull in these other areas of image-based abuse that are making women’s lives hell.”

Some police forces still appear to consider the victim is to blame for revenge pornography, Ms Miller said, adding: “Just in the same way as upskirting then gives the police a clearer piece of law to enforce, having revenge pornography as a sex crime will make it taken more seriously.”

One in three revenge porn cases has been withdrawn by the complainant since the law was brought in, according to figures obtained by the BBC, with some victims citing a lack of anonymity as a key factor in their decision not to seek justice.

Since it was made a criminal offence in 2015, victims have chosen not to support charges in 2,813 of 7,806 incidents.

Other areas that might be considered include “deepfake” pictures, where a victim’s head is superimposed onto pornographic images.

Labour has expressed its support for the move and called on the government to give victims the protection they deserve.

“The current law around revenge porn fails to protect victims and must be updated to ensure better access and outcomes in regards to justice,” shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler said.

“Many people take the first brave step of reporting incidents to the police but fear going to court.

“If victims had their identity protected by law, as is the case with sex offences, more offenders would be brought to justice.

“This is why revenge porn must be defined as a sexual offence and should be reclassified as ‘image-based sexual abuse’ to match the gravity of the offence.

Campaigners also backed the bid to offer anonymity to victims and urged ministers to act to show they take online abuse as seriously as abuse that is perpetrated offline.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “From our work with survivors, we know that image-based sexual abuse, commonly known as ‘revenge porn’, are currently not being supported enough during the criminal justice process.

“One major barrier to victims proceeding with a prosecution is that, unlike victims of sexual offences, victims of image-based sexual abuse are not offered anonymity when their case goes to trial.

“Image-based sexual abuse is traumatising and humiliating for survivors, and there is the very real threat that by speaking out in court this might result in the sexual images being shared more widely.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Upskirting is a hideous invasion of privacy, which is why the government introduced a bill to close a gap in the law and make it a specific offence.

“We are determined to see this become law as soon as possible to better protect victims and bring offenders to justice.

“But we also keep the law around other invasive crimes under review to make sure the punishment continues to reflect the severity of the offence.”

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