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The Internet just got a little bit more woman-friendly

Revenge porn is one of the most vicious forms of online assault. But Google is making it a lot harder to spread sexual images of an ex without their consent.

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Revenge porn takes images that once represented trust and affection and twists them to humiliate. Photo, You Me/Flickr.

Revenge porn takes images that once represented trust and affection and twists them in order to humiliate. Photo, You Me/Flickr.

Breakups are tough, but most of us get to wallow and weep in private with a couple close friends and a pitcher of margaritas. (At least that’s worked for me.) Not so for the women who are the victims of revenge porn. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to sharing sexual images of an ex online without consent. This violation is not only mortifying, but can have serious consequences for a woman’s career and reputation — consider, for instance, what it means to have your nude photos looked at by an employer or your child’s teacher.

Last week, Google joined a small but mighty group of tech companies attempting to stop the practice. RedditTwitter and Facebook banned nonconsensual pornographic images from their sites earlier this year. Now Google has announced that victims of revenge porn will be able to request that those images be excluded if someone searches their name.

This doesn’t solve the problem of revenge porn — Google can’t remove the images from websites, just make them more difficult to find — but it’s an encouraging step. More importantly, it’s an acknowledgement of how perilous online life can be for women. While the wild rule-free world of the Internet has allowed for an amazing ability to connect and communicate, it has also opened up deep veins of sexist, racist and homophobic crap. And if you are someone who has never been on the receiving end of any of it then, as comedian John Oliver so wonderfully put it, “Congratulations on your white penis.”

Any woman who has ever ventured out in public in order to, say, get to her job, pick up her kids, meet a friend for a coffee, pay a parking ticket or grab some tampons, is familiar with being intercepted en route by some random man. Maybe he hollers at her to “Smile, honey!” or maybe he comments on her “Nice tits!” These real-world encounters, which range from annoying to scary, are commonplace, but they are nothing compared to the volume and degree of aggression that women face in the virtual world.

Those who dare speak out on issues like sexism or racism — or even just hold an opinion on an issue that some dude thinks a woman is unqualified to speak about (sports, rock music, politics, technology, well, pretty much everything) — are belittled and ridiculed, and even taunted with talk of rape and murder. Journalist Amanda Hess had a man tweet at her: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.” After a series of violent threats were levelled at feminists in the video-game industry, some had to cancel public appearances and flee from their own homes. Writer Lindy West was stalked online by a man who assumed the identity of her dead father. Attempts to shut down this behaviour are frequently negated or met with concerns about freedom of speech, as if being cyberbullied was just the cost of being a woman in the digital age.

All of these forms of online assault are traumatic, but revenge porn is perhaps the most viciously personal, in that it takes images that represented trust and affection and twists them to humiliate a woman for having a sex life. Too often when women complain about being harmed in this way, the response has been to blame them. You may recall last year when a number of female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Gabrielle Union, had their private photos hacked and then released online, many said it was their own fault. This tweet from comedian Ricky Gervais was pretty typical: “Celebrities make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of you from the computer by not putting nude pics of yourself on your computer.”

Whatever images of yourself that you choose to take for private use are just that: private. In an essay for Cosmopolitan, Union shot back at those who would shame her and any other woman who had her personal life exposed in this way. “I can’t help but be reminded that since the dawn of time, women and children, specifically women of colour, have been victimized, and the power over their own bodies taken from them,” she said. “I thought, this is a targeted attack, a hate crime against women.”

More columns by Rachel Giese:
Soccer’s big, bad, super-sexist problem with women
Stephen Harper is failing Indigenous Canadians
The fabulous unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner

This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.