We need some honest conversations around revenge porn, says Ashley Davies.
One day, in an ordinary secondary school, phones start to buzz. Everyone checks their messages and there it is: a nude photo of one of their classmates, a girl they have all known since they were five years old. The whisper, then hiss, then aggressive shout of the word “slut” spreads throughout the classroom and we get an insight into what can happen when a teenage girl becomes the victim of so-called revenge porn.
I’m in a rehearsal in Edinburgh for the Lyceum Youth Theatre’s new production of Evan Placey’s devised play, Girls Like That, a compelling and timely story that vividly brings to life the realities and challenges of friendship, reputation, sexual politics and online bullying among teenagers.
It’s not just timely because young people, all digital natives, are experiencing and witnessing sexuality (both real and mimicked for profit and titillation) in a way that feels like a million years away from I went through at that age.
This month, the Revenge Porn Helpline, unbelievably the only one in the country and the only one outside of the United States, is at risk of closure because the UK Government is pulling its funding. (Technically, the Government Equalities Office, which is not a funding body, initially gave it a grant for a year as a test, and then another year’s worth of cash, but that runs out at the end of March.)
“It’s important to have an honest conversation, and to understand consent, and that ultimately comes down to politicians, community groups and parents having conversations about what young people are feeling.”
The helpline has three members of staff, two of whom are part-time, and receives on average 200 calls and emails a month from people needing support about sexual images of themselves being used without their consent.
About three-quarters of the people who come to the helpline for help are female, and most are in their 20s and 30s, but the age range is much more broad. Every case is unique but they all have one thing in common: it’s terrifying and humiliating for the victim.
Laura Higgins, who set up and runs the helpline, says: “One reason people come to us is because we have a fantastic relationship with the internet industry. We can help get things taken down, and that’s empowering for them.”
Since launching in January 2015, the helpline has been instrumental in having more than 1,000 images taken down from websites. It’s also worth noting that not all images that are taken down stay down – so the team’s efforts involve added layers of complication.
“We are technically the experts in this field so if we close it will be a real loss,” says Higgins. “We are a dedicated service and we understand the topic. It’s a safe place for people to come – we won’t judge or be shocked or surprised.”
Evan Placey was inspired to develop the play following the 2012 suicide of Amanda Todd, a 15 year-old Canadian girl who was blackmailed into showing somebody her breasts on a webcam. The image went viral and she was subjected to horrific bullying. Before taking her own life she posted a YouTube video describing her experiences.
“All the news reports focused on the man who coerced her into taking the photos,” says Placey. “What was missed was how she was torn apart at school, the reaction of her peers and the lack of action from her teachers. What happened to her was much bigger than the person who took the picture.”
Back in the rehearsal studio, I ask the actors – all bright and talented girls between the ages of 14 and 18 – if they had ever been asked for nude photos and at least 80 per cent put their hands up.
And while many of them have had school talks from the police about the legality of sharing these images, whether of themselves or somebody else, it’s clear that the main message being delivered through official lines is ‘just don’t do it’. That’s clearly not enough.
Placey echoes the views of thousands of youth workers when he says that discussing the legal aspects of this behaviour without a meaningful conversation simply criminalises people.
“We need to look at the wider social context,” he says. “We need to acknowledge young people as sexual beings and to acknowledge technology as an extension of that. It’s important to have an honest conversation, and to understand consent, and that ultimately comes down to politicians, community groups and parents having conversations about what young people are feeling.”
Of course, having this conversation is a massive challenge, particularly as most people of a certain generation struggle to get their heads around the extent to which technology can be a component in young people’s sexuality and relationships. Placey’s advice? “Finding ways of getting through to parents is important, whether that’s through art or storytelling or through other methods.”
Girls Like That has already been performed by several schools and youth theatre groups across the UK, with productions completed or in the pipeline in Germany, Greece, Canada, New Zealand, France, Italy and Australia. And talking to the girls as they prepare for their Edinburgh performance it’s clear how much they’re learning – not just about what can happen to intimate images, but the power of young women’s treatment of each other, individually and in groups.
Meanwhile, the Revenge Porn Helpline is looking for alternative ways of staying alive. Having exhausted government channels, Laura Higgins is applying for charitable grants, and is now hoping to set up a crowdfunding page.7019 Views
Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.