The anti-revenge porn advocates have put out an infographic with statistics that have found their way into articles on the subject and, ultimately, the discussion supporting its criminalization. Pounding these numbers has proven a very effective tool in the argument that this is a misogynistic plot by evil men to viciously harm women, and has bolstered the pervasive narrative justifying the need to create new crimes to protect women.
Scott Stroud, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Texas, has put these claims under scrutiny in a Journal of Mass Media Ethics article, The Dark Side of the Online Self: A Pragmatist Critique of the Growing Plague of Revenge Porn. By no means does Stroud diminish the ugliness of Revenge Porn websites or the harm they do, but he does parse the statistics to reveal that the narrative employed by advocates, and repeated by others who believed they were accurate, do not bear out.
There are two main reasons why a pragmatist inquiry would insist on a rich pluralism in understanding and critiquing revenge porn. First, many of these sites proffer in female and male victims, and some of the ﬁrst revenge porn postings were of male musicians (Dodero, 2012, April 4). One might argue that there appear to be more females posted than males, and that there are more sites dedicated to females only than mixed-sex sites.*
The “Cyber Civil Rights Initiative” bluntly indicates that 90% of the victims of revenge porn are women in an infographic on the initiative’s “End Revenge Porn” website (“Revenge Porn by the Numbers,” 2014). Yet a footnote indicates that this statistic is drawn from an opt-in survey held on the initiative’s website, and that this sample is potentially skewed in terms of being largely composed of female respondents. This infographic cites, uses (for other statistics), and links to another survey (n – 1,182) that employed a methodologically superior design (viz., a nationwide, stratiﬁed sample).
This latter survey offers an intriguingly different picture: its results indicate that men are slightly more prone to becoming victims of online revenge than women; results in February 2013 show that “36% of Americans still plan to send sexy or romantic photos to their partners via email, text and social media on Valentine’s Day. Signiﬁcantly more men plan to do so, compared to women (43% vs. 29%), even though men get threatened to have their photos exposed online more than women (12% vs. 8%) and often have the threats carried out more than women (63% vs. 50%)” (“Lovers Beware,” 2013). More empirical work must be done to sort out these conﬂicting empirical claims.
Making claims about this complex, understudied phenomena based on results from an opt-in sample of convenience of those who chose to visit an advocacy website and disregarding contradictory results from a better national stratiﬁed survey does not seem to be a decision made on commonly understood notions of what makes a study and sample a scientiﬁcally superior measure of some empirical phenomenon. The opt-in data may be emphasized because it perfectly ﬁts simple narratives that claim “the majority of victims are female; the majority of perpetrators are male” or that read revenge porn as “about” men punishing women (Citron & Franks, 2014). Reality is rarely that simple.
Pragmatism’s contribution is the insistence that simpliﬁcation of complex phenomena will cause us to miss other useful readings and avenues of redress. Such simpliﬁcation is often the result of a priori critical or ideological commitments to favored theories, explanations, or dominant intellectual approaches.
None of this alters the fact that Revenge Porn websites are horrible and do great harm. However, it reveals that the narrative about cause and effect promoted by anti-revenge porn advocates has relied on phony statistics to create a false impression consistent with their “ideological commitments to favored theories.”
In other words, they’ve fudged the numbers to turn this into a neo-feminist cause grounded in misogyny, when the best available statistics contradict this claim. It would appear, from Stroud’s article, that two critical points have been obliterated from the ideological narrative:
First, more men than women are victims of revenge porn.
Second, women are more likely than men to engage in revenge porn.
The discussion of how to address revenge porn, and the broader discussion about nonconsensual publication of nude images, will still continue, as it should. But perhaps it can now play out with a little bit of honesty, at least as to who is doing what and who is being harmed by it, rather than as a feminist fantasy that proves misogyny.
Sorry to burst all those teary-eyed bubbles, but the numbers that have been promoted and reproduced in emotional discussion after discussion have been phony. Let’s deal with it, but deal with it for real.
* Paragraph breaks added for readability.