Image: BBC

Zara McDermott and the discourse on revenge porn

In Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn, McDermott bravely explores her own traumatic past, not only educating people at home but supporting and validating young women who have faced similar experiences. At fourteen, Zara’s attempt to “fit in” led her to become a victim of revenge porn. As a teenager, especially today with social media, there is pressure to meet certain expectations resulting in girls feeling insecure. Due to being excessively bullied, Zara saw an opportunity for acceptance when a boy asked for nude photos. Essentially Zara was emotionally manipulated; despite consenting to send photos, she did not consent to their distribution throughout her school. “It will make me like you more” the boy assured her.

What this documentary sheds great light on is how institutions like schools and universities need to do better for their young, impressionable, vulnerable students. Zara’s school failed her: “At fourteen years old your mind isn’t developed at all.” There is a call now for this documentary to be shown in schools as a means to remove stigma placed on victims. Students need to be made aware of the responsibility and accountability concerning their actions’ impact on other people’s lives. Zara being suspended facilitates the validity of victim-blaming, it deems it inconsequential to share explicit images without the consent of people involved, which stays with students into their adulthood where they still think this behaviour is not only acceptable but with near to no consequences: “This boy got off scot free,” she concedes.

it is clear the damage victim-blaming and normalisation of sharing non-consensual images in recent years has done to fracture not only conviction rates, but women’s confidence to speak up and find support in the system

There seems to only be a damaged reputation for the person in the photos/videos. The classification of revenge porn being a sexual offence in 2015 has done little to decrease cases and deter offenders. Women continue to feel that there is a lack of justice in the system resulting in them either dropping the case or feel it futile to report it in the first place; apparent as we watch Zara question the importance of her own case: “Was it wrong enough to put them and myself through a court case?” With conviction actually decreasing since new laws were introduced (2015-16 when law introduced being 14% to 2017-18 7%), it is clear the damage victim-blaming and normalisation of sharing non-consensual images in recent years has done to fracture not only conviction rates, but women’s confidence to speak up and find support in the system.

The documentary illustrates the need to shift rightfully the blame on to the perpetrator rather than the victim: “Does he think less of me?” McDermott wondered. We continue to emphasize the women and not the men despite these offences occurring without the consent or control of the former. Men are typically the ones in control in these circumstances, even when consensually taken initially, Zara explores the stories of women who at first had autonomy over their images and their distribution, but lost that and were unable to consent due to the actions of their abusive partners.

There is a fine line between sexy and scandal, and that line is CONSENT

Women like Zara are bashed when they do take control of their images, and questioned on what the difference is between sharing provocative bikini pics on Instagram and having nude images distributed. Seen as a “slut” so deserving of being publicly embarrassed, or “stuck up” and “obviously frigid” if you don’t send images – women can’t win. There is a fine line between sexy and scandal, and that line is CONSENT. There seems to be a narrative around women who take provocative images of themselves and send them to partners that they are naïve and deserving of their exposure. This stems from what I believe to be a social discomfort around women being body confident, sexual beings. Those who victim blame by saying: “Well, you took these images, what do you expect” fail to see the pressure, expectations, or want to feel attractive and please partners that women have.

With the case of university student Damilya Jossipalenya in particular, and how she was blackmailed and abused, this documentary is an indicator that women should be supported by their schools, workplaces and society better. The stigma and fear of embarrassment left Damilya feeling without any other option but to commit suicide in 2019: “How awful that she felt so ashamed to be a victim of a crime,” McDermott laments. What are we telling women by slut-shaming, victim-blaming and holding them accountable over the offender?  That those wanting to ruin lives will succeed. Having revenge porn be a crime was not enough and still isn’t enough to protect women like Damilya, with her perpetrator only receiving a 12-week suspended sentence. We are telling women that men’s consequences are temporary and that women are expected to carry this feeling of shame, distrust and uncertainty forever.

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