Why is it so hard to get justice in revenge porn cases?

The English Justice System continues to fail women in many aspects of the law, including relatively new areas such as revenge porn. Here’s the firsthand reality from victims and those with experience of law enforcement.

Thred Media
6 min readNov 17

Almost ten years ago, Charley reported her half-brother to the police upon discovering he was posting images of her and other women on a porn site.

Despite pleading guilty, her brother was only given a six-month suspended sentence, put forward for a sexual offenders’ rehabilitation programme, and banned from using social media after displaying remorse.

‘We were granted a restraining order for one or two years, but he never went to prison really or anything substantial which he should have had,’ says Charley.

Charley’s story, regretfully, is one among many where victims of revenge porn haven’t seen justice.

According to Refuge, from the start of January 2019 to the end of July 2022, 13,860 intimate image offences were recorded. However, only 4% of instances resulted in the alleged offender being charged or summonsed, while 22% faded away entirely due to ‘evidential difficulties’.

‘It is abundantly clear that intimate image abuse is not being treated as the serious, and life-shattering crime that it is, and more needs to be done to ensure women and girls are protected from this repugnant form of abuse,’ says Jess Eagelton, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Refuge.

When asked why her case ultimately failed, Charlie stated a belief that her half-sibling avoided justice because the images in question weren’t explicitly intimate.

Rather, it was the violent fantasies and tendencies her brother encouraged in the comments which caused distress and alarm. This included asking users how much they would pay to rape her, and selling ‘completely normal’ pictures of her within private WhatsApp groups.

‘I just think there was a whole range of things which should have been taken into accountability that wasn’t,’ says Charley. ‘Considering what was put on that website, the things he said, I just feel like it was very underwhelming for everyone involved of the outcome.’

Despite the sizable volume of incidents being reported to the police, charge and conviction rates remain worryingly low.

‘I mean, it’s [English Justice System] mildly effective,’ says feminist lawyer Dr. Ann Olivarius. ‘You have to have a police department that is actually going to prosecute, and the Metropolitan Police are more infected with the problem themselves of misogyny and inappropriate behaviour and have all sorts of allegations.’

When reporting her brother, Charley describes the process as being suspiciously ‘quick’ and ‘formal’ at the police station.

‘It was very blasé for something where my whole world seemed upside down,’ says Charley. ‘I felt uncomfortable.’ She was made to feel ‘ridiculous’ by officers who seemed disconnected from the situation.

‘I just felt like they just stared at me the whole time to just keep speaking, where I didn’t really know what I was doing,’ she says. ‘I do feel like maybe if they were slightly more empathetic towards me, then my statement would have been better.’

With the case initially brushed over and Charley’s offender cautioned, it would later be given the due diligence it deserved — after catching the attention of British journalist Victoria Derbyshire, who broached the topic on This Morning and shared the stories of several victims.

‘We often hear that reports of intimate image abuse are not being taken seriously by the police,’ explains Jess Eagelton.

‘Many survivors have reported that when they have, very bravely and courageously, gone to the police about intimate image abuse, they have been dismissed or even blamed for sharing images with perpetrators in the first place.’

‘There is a culture of misogyny,’ says Nusrit Mehtab, a former police officer who experienced it firsthand. ‘You just can’t underestimate that, it’s everywhere, particularly in policing.’

Nusrit spent 32 years in the Metropolitan Police working undercover operations and counterterrorism, but sadly felt she had to leave after facing racial, sexual, and religious discrimination.

‘They [police] would be detached because they don’t understand it, and if you don’t understand something, you can’t actually deal with it,’ she says. ‘I think there’s probably a lot of victim blaming.

‘People do make their own assumptions because police officers are human beings, and just because you have a woman at the other end doesn’t mean it makes her any more understanding.’

While conceding that getting a conviction is notoriously difficult, she says it’s not impossible provided evidence is forthcoming and police methods are seen through diligently. Though it should be a formality, the later too often is the decisive factor.

Once an image or video goes online, especially on certain adult websites, Nusrit explains it often ‘takes a life of its own’ and ends up in several places, making it difficult to take down the content and find who uploaded it in the first place.

This has been the case with Charley, whose images have been found on an American site which UK authorities have no jurisdiction over.

‘I think policing as a whole has got big problems, and they’re really going to have to get their house together to deal with this because I think revenge porn is on the increase,’ says Nusrit.

She described the police methodology as ‘clumsy’ and questioned the integrity of the Crown Prosecution Service once proceedings are escalated.

‘There needs to be a total rehaul of the system. The whole criminal justice system, when it comes to sexual offences, is just totally inadequate.’

During our discussion, Jess explained that another key issue is a lack of understanding in how to apply laws around intimate image abuse within police forces. While sharing such images without consent has been illegal since 2015, survivors are regularly turned away.

This is especially true of cases involving ‘threats to share’, with many reports that police have turned victims away as images were never shared and the impact of coercive control is not understood.

It’s hoped the Online Safety Act, just coming into effect, will make it easier to convict someone who shares intimate images without consent, whether they’re real or digitally altered.

While this is landmark legislation with great potential, ensuring that laws are applied in the right way is a whole other matter — especially within the police.

‘It is vital that police officers are given proper, consistent training on intimate image abuse so that they understand what the laws are around so-called “revenge porn” and can collect the evidence needed to ensure charges can be bought against perpetrators,’ says Jess.

She also notes that The Home Office and Ministry of Justice are yet to share any information on how the criminalisation of threats to share has been implemented, nor how it will be monitored.

It goes without saying, given the ever-evolving nature of nefarious online behaviour and abuse, that the formulising of preventative plans needs to take place — preferably informed by survivors and experts. Nusrit believes ‘they [sexual offences] need to go to a separate court.’

Ann, meanwhile, believes that the websites which host content should be liable for damages, as perpetrators are often unable. Arguably, it is also the best way to put these website admins on red alert and will hopefully prevent further instances.

In an ideal situation, there would be high conviction rates and an easy process to put abusers behind bars. But evidence shows that’s rarely the case, from a flawed legal system to a dismissive police force.

Nonetheless, improvements to the Online Safety Bill could be key for more survivors to get the justice they deserve and to protect others from suffering the same fate in the future. We can but live in hope.

Originally written by Anam Alam for Thred.

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