Photo: CC, Claude Boucher.
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Without your consent, suddenly their eyes are on your body. Their eyes are in your room without you knowing it, watching you undress. They might be making sexually explicit comments about parts of your body they were never supposed to see. And you can’t see them, or hear any of their words. But you can feel the effects everywhere you go.

Sounds a lot like sexual assault—what Canada defines as sexual contact or behaviour that occurs without explicit consent from the recipient. But it’s not.

This is the reality of revenge porn, the act of posting sexually explicit images or videos of a person online, without the consent of the subject. This hateful activity made headlines in late February, when a University of Moncton student filed a complaint with the police when a mass email, containing sexually explicit photos of the student, was sent to other students and staff at the university without her consent.

Now, there are a few things you should know about revenge porn and its interactions with our legal system.

First of all, the act of posting sexually explicit photos of another person without their consent only became legally actionable under the Criminal Code in early 2015, when the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act came into effect.

In Canada, we’ve had limited exposure to the consequences of the Act, with the only related conviction to date having resulted in the accused being sentenced to 90 days of house arrest to be served on weekends. Meanwhile, the maximum sentence for the charge is a five-year prison term.

Sexual assault, on the other hand, carries a harsher penalty of a maximum 10-year sentence. But why exactly do we treat a virtual invasion of sexual autonomy as inferior to a physical one?

The phenomenon of our laws becoming quickly dated by the rise of technology and the Internet is anything but new. For example, in June 2016 privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien advised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada’s privacy laws fall short in addressing safety concerns borne from modern technology. In another attempt to keep up with the rapid changes in automation supply chain technology, business mogul Bill Gates suggested a tax be legislated for companies using robotic technology.

It’s clear that in many areas of life, people are pushing for changes to our laws in response to the impact technology has on our everyday lives. So why aren’t we updating the severity of laws around revenge porn to match sexual assault?

According to section 265, subsection 1, of Canada’s Criminal Code, a person commits assault when “without the consent of another person, he applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly,” or “attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person, if he has, or causes that other person to believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose.”

When someone chooses to put sexually explicit photos of their partner online, that is a blatant showing of force applied without the other person’s consent. There is undeniable reason to believe that the person is displaying an ability to effect harm. Harm that’s strong enough to stigmatize a victim, ruin their relations with others, and render them unemployable.

In worst-case scenarios, the accumulation of these effects drive people to suicide, as we saw with the Amanda Todd case in 2012. Todd is among over 50 percent of revenge porn victims who report that their photo was accompanied by identifying information, such as their full name.

And yet, we choose a lesser punishment for this horrible and vindictive crime. Not only have we settled for a lesser punishment in court, but, as Todd’s family learned, these types of cybercrimes might not even be addressed after complaints made in excess to police services.

Unfortunately, this attitude is far from surprising, as there’s no shortage of commentary around prominent nude photo leaks and revenge porn that seeks to blame the victim, rather than look at the root cause—we are still prone to shaming women and their sexuality. There’s a reason that 90 per cent of revenge porn survivors are women.

Whether it’s classifying revenge porn as sexual assault, or initiating an overhaul in how our police services deal with sexual cybercrimes, it’s clear that something has to change. No matter your background, gender, or lifestyle, sex is natural—it’s not a mechanism of guilt to leverage against someone. But when it is treated as such, there must be heftier consequences.