Thank you very much.
This is my first time speaking to a parliamentary committee, and I'm very happy to be here. For the first time in my life going to speak slowly, I hope.
I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about cyberviolence against young women and girls. Given my limited time, my comments today will centre around one of my areas of expertise, which is the non-consensual redistribution of consensually created and shared sexual images. This is commonly referred to as revenge porn, non-consensual porn, or virtual rape, as some people call it, although none of these terms are accurate descriptors, in my opinion. Given that the language that we use to understand and shape our responses to cybersexual violence is important, I'm happy to speak to why I think these terms are not the most accurate in the question-and-answer period, if you'd like.
Many girls and young women whose sexual images and videos are non-consensually redistributed experience this as a violation of their sexual autonomy and their privacy. Possible consequences include psychological and emotional distress, negative impacts on interpersonal and romantic relationships, and concerns about the inability to secure employment or the potential loss of employment. In addition, we know that the threat of redistribution is being used to intimidate, extort, and harass individuals.
I'm going to leave questions of prevalence to others. I know somebody from MediaSmarts is going to be here, and I think Jane may speak to that in the second panel. Instead I'm going to provide you with a somewhat challenging and potentially alternative perspective on how to reconceptualize the problem and to do no harm in our attempts to address cybersexual violence.
Status of Women in Canada, in its brief called “Sexual Violence Against Women in Canada”, has already acknowledged that intersectionality—which is how the intersections between different aspects of a person's identity and social location can leave some people more vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence than others—ought to inform Status of Women of Canada's research and endeavours.
I, along with other researchers today, have highlighted already how girls and women who experience non-consensual redistribution suffer differently and disproportionately from most, although not all, boys whose images are non-consensually redistributed because of sexual double standards, which importantly are always already raced, classed, ableist, and heteronormative in nature.
I have critiqued child protection, law enforcement, and legislative efforts, which capitalize on sexual double standards in their own efforts by deploying “slut-shaming” when they encourage young women and girls to abstain from digitally representing themselves and their sexuality if they don't want to be victims of non-consensual redistribution.
Today I'd like to urge the committee members to maintain a focus on intersectionality as they move forward with the development of responses to cybersexual violence, and in particular I'd like to ask you to consider how the harms of non-consensual redistribution not only stem from discriminatory attitudes towards girls who break the boundaries of convention by displaying themselves as sexual beings, a.k.a. sluts, but also—and this is the challenging part—how these harms stem from the perception of these girls as porn stars.
I would like to ask us to bring whore-phobia and porn-phobia into our discussion of cybersexual violation.
By “whore-phobia” I'm referring to the stigma faced by sex workers—women in porn, those who are doing street and indoor sex work, and strippers. As some scholars at Carleton, at University of Ottawa, and sex activists have argued, whore-phobia includes conceptions of sex workers as dirty, immoral, hypersexualized vectors of disease.
By “porn-phobia” I'm referring to what I conceive of as moral panics about the so-called pornification of culture and the perspective that even consensually created and distributed porn is at best low-value speech and at worst inherently degrading, objectifying, and a violation of women's sexual autonomy.
I'm a porn studies scholar and cultural criminologist. My research on the legal regulation of public sexuality and sexual expression evidences how the category of “whore” acts as a marker for those who are deemed not worthy of victim status or who are hypervisible as victims in need of saving by the state against their wishes.
Whore-phobia and porn-phobia tacitly inform our understanding of and responses to the non-consensual redistribution of sexual images—that is, when young women and girls subjectively experience the violation of their trust and their privacy as a violation of their body, they do so in part because our prurient society nevertheless maintains discriminatory attitudes toward sex workers and the sex industry. We can see this in the historic and ongoing mistreatment of sex workers by police and the state, as well as in recent campaigns by sex workers aimed at humanizing sex workers, such as the “Prostitutes are people too” campaign, developed by the Halifax-based sex workers' group Stepping Stone.
When we, with the best of intentions, construct the non-consensual redistribution of a girl's sexual images as “the worst thing that can happen to her”, as detrimental to her relationships and career, and even as a life-threatening event, we are relying on whore-phobia and porn-phobia to do this. We are not only harming the girls whose images have been redistributed—because we are giving them the message that they should feel horrible about this redistribution—but we are also unintentionally doing harm to another highly marginalized group of “othered” girls and women, those in the sex industry.
Therefore, given your mandate to understand cybersexual violence's connection to systemic and pre-existing discriminatory relations such as sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, I am asking you to also consider how sex workers themselves are particularly at risk of violence, sexual or otherwise, when we construct public displays of one's sexuality in these extreme terms and come down on them as hard as we do in legal terms.
In terms of responses, while it is extremely important to educate young people about how their shifting sexual and communication norms intersect with and sometimes contravene legal categories such as assault, sexual assault, harassment, defamation, and the distribution of child porn, equal emphasis—as Shaheen also said—must be placed on educating law enforcement, crown prosecutors, judges, Parliament, ourselves, educators, parents, and teens about discriminatory attitudes toward quasi-public, non-monogamous, and non-normative sexuality and its representations.
As I have argued extensively in my research, charging teenagers who non-consensually redistribute their peers' sexual images with child pornography charges is a grossly disproportionate response to the offence and goes against the intentions of those who first drafted those laws. As an expert witness now for two constitutional challenges to the application of child porn laws in the non-distribution context, I can attest to the fact that these laws are being misused against racialized youth—in one case an indigenous girl and a racialized young man—who had no intention of distributing child pornography, nor even causing harm. The second distribution case was an individual boasting about the attractiveness of his girlfriend.
Moving forward, I would like to encourage committee members to consider how sex-positive feminism is an important theoretical frame to engage with in discussions of online sexual violence. Promoting women's pleasure and their right to cybersexual expression should be a critical part of education about responses to sexual violence, whether online or offline. Indeed Jane Doe, who sued the police for failing to warn women in downtown Toronto of a serial rapist, has argued that our educational responses to rape, offline and online, should include a sex education curriculum from a young age that includes discussions of “pleasure, communication, mutual appreciation and technique”, and these days, digital sexual expression is technique.
The federal government has already made positive steps in this direction with the introduction of updated sex education, including education about respect and consent. I am hopeful that we will continue to move forward with a critical lens on our discussions of cybersexual violence. I look forward to discussing this further in the question-and-answer period.