I DON’T remember how I found her pictures, but I knew her immediately. The young woman’s images were being shared by a group of anonymous men on a Scottish forum, alongside solicitation for pictures of other well-known women. Her name was posted, nudes “requested”, and the bottom-feeders of the internet obliged. A series of pictures followed. Clothed pictures doctored with explicit writing across her face and body. Fake nudes with superimposed globs of semen covering her. This is a thing some men do for fun, for themselves and each other, apparently. There are extensive tutorials on YouTube and websites that do it for you. There are even online communities where they share their “work” and make requests for doctored, sexualised pictures of women they know. Though it happens entirely online, the degradation and violation are entirely real.

This is one of the many forms of intimate image abuse now illegal in Scotland. Most often people call it “revenge porn”, though this ignores the ever-expanding scope of image-based sexual abuse. In Scotland, it constitutes the sharing or threat of sharing intimate images or videos taken in a private context, in underwear, partially or fully nude. These crimes have been punishable since July 2017. It’s a positive that Scotland has criminalised this behaviour, yet in the first six months following the introduction of the new law, 61 per cent of the incidents reported have resulted in no detection. Criminals are hard to trace, and so action has yet to catch up with expectation. Policing with so few leads must be tough, but every effort must be made to do better for victims. These crimes limit them in many of the same ways offline sexual crimes do.

Reflexively, we often reach for “revenge porn” to describe crimes of this nature. This is a problem for a number of reasons. It ascribes a singular motive and it conflates the imagery with what we typically understand as pornography – consensually created sexualised imagery for the purposes of sexual arousal, made available in the public domain. This snappy moniker minimises the nature of the abuse of those victimised. It also intimates that said imagery was made for public consumption. Calling it “revenge porn” focuses on the “what” she did – creating or consenting to be the subject of sexual imagery – and what she “did” to incite a “revenge” response. Both words implicate the victim in her own abuse and discredit her in her position as someone who has been harmed.

This implication is in itself a problem. “What did she do? Why did she take those pictures?”. As well as taking the heat off the perpetrator, it homogenises the many disparate experiences of image abuse. Many don’t know their image is being used and shared. Clearly, as the case above shows, you don’t have to have ever taken a single nude, or have any relation to your abuser, to be a victim. A photo stolen from social media, scraped from LinkedIn or screengrabbed from a work website is all that’s needed to make a convincing explicit picture.

When we use a sensationalised phrase like “revenge porn” the harm caused by this behaviour is diffused. It becomes something louche, something smutty, something to gasp or giggle at. When sexual images of a woman surface, the attention is on the woman. This intersects with the cultural tendency to blame the victim, which works to exonerate the perpetrator and push aside discussion of his motives, his intent and the consequences of both. Similarly, it intersects with the heavily gendered nature of cyber-harassment. A recent study showed 90 per cent of victims were female. Cyber civil rights and law professor Danielle Citron posits this imbalance might be the result of the pressure and coercion women endure to share explicit pictures or have them taken.

Men who share and create these images know that women will be seen as “damaged goods”, and that sharing them curtails their professional, relational and social freedoms. That sharing of them is a shameful scarlet letter worn for all to see. As Citron says in Hate Crimes In Cyberspace: “Harassers know that women will be seen as sluts whereas men’s sexual activity will be taken as a point of pride.”

Let’s be real for a moment: this crime is not about irresponsible women. It’s not about “bad choices”, as so often become a caveat to our empathy with victims of sexual crimes.

Women have every right to take intimate images of themselves and to trust those in possession of them not to abuse that confidence. They have the right not to have them made public without consent.

Women have the right not to see their images taken from elsewhere and used as the source for sexualised imagery. They have the right not to bear the brunt of the shame and degradation inflicted by their release, or the psychic, social and material consequences of their existence – consequences like lost jobs, ruined relationships, tarnished reputations, or further abuse.

They have the right not to see their abuse minimised by conflation with pornography, their intentions blurred by it.

This is not normal, and it cannot become normal. If we accept it as “something that happens to women online” we obfuscate the cumulative impact on women and girls at large.

It’s much too early to make a definitive call on the success of Scotland’s intimate image abuse law, but the slow start shows there is a tremendous job of work to be done to keep women safe.

The internet still feels lawless at times. It’s the one place you can be invisible, and with that lack of accountability, you’re relatively free to seriously harm others. Lives increasingly lived online mean new crimes as civil rights lag behind digital freedom. In tandem with policing, public attitudes must change towards those whose images are abused.

We could start by not calling it porn, and naming it appropriately: as a sex crime.