Saskatchewan

Revenge porn and sext crimes: Canada sees more than 5,000 police cases as law marks 5 years

Police forces across Canada are on track to handle more than 5,000 cases involving the non-consensual distribution of intimate images under legislation enacted five years ago. It's often referred to as "revenge porn," and experts say young people usually share pictures in response to peer pressure.

About 20% of cases reported to police result in criminal charges

In both 2017 and 2018, police forces in Canada handled about 1,500 reports of non-consensual distribution of intimate images. (CBC News)

Police forces in Canada are on track to handle more than 5,000 complaints of people allegedly sharing intimate images or videos without consent since it became a crime to do so five years ago.

The federal government criminalized the unauthorized distribution of nude pics and videos in December 2014, in the wake of the high-profile deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd.

The girls took their own lives after being subjected to cruel cyber-bullying and harassment with the widespread distribution of their intimate images, and in the case of Parsons, an explicit photo of an alleged gang rape.

Police data recorded by Statistics Canada shows there were 340 cases reported to police in 2015, and by 2017 and 2018, that jumped to about 1,500 cases per year.

CBC News confirmed with several police forces that they are handling even more cases in 2019, with the five-year total on track to easily surpass 5,000 cases.

"I think it's going to increase over the next few years," Saskatchewan RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Rob King said. "Increase with the knowledge that the law is there, increase with the ability of technology to obtain these photos."

It's often referred to as "revenge porn" since perpetrators are frequently scorned lovers intent on exacting revenge.

However, researchers say that young people who share sexts without consent, usually in person or by text, are more motivated by peer pressure and gender stereotypes that falsely justify the punishment of women and girls.

'It's gross'

At the University of Regina campus, female students said they're tired of being blamed for the criminal actions of others.

"It's not fair. It's not a great time to be a girl," Serena Thompson, 27, said. "Because it mostly just happens to women, and if it's not happening to men, then people don't take it seriously."

Thompson said she has friends who sent nude pics to boyfriends, only to have the boyfriends use the images to blackmail or coerce them into sexual acts or sharing more images.

"It's gross," she said.

An explicit photo of Rehtaeh Parsons, 15, vomiting out a window during an alleged sexual assault, was shared without mercy by her peers. (Leah Parsons)

Veronica Ramshaw, a student, believes a lot of teenagers who re-share images do so thoughtlessly, not maliciously. But that's still no excuse, she added.

"Like, 'oh this girl sent me her picture, I'm going to share it with my friends, haha.' They don't realize just how much of a violation that is," Ramshaw said.

20% of cases result in criminal charges

In the law's first four years, 851 cases — about 20 per cent of police files — resulted in criminal charges.

In November, a Saskatchewan man was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for posting the intimate images of four ex-lovers to online porn sites. In one caption, he wrote "karma is a bitch."

Other cases taken to police were resolved outside of court, remain under investigation, lacked evidence, were proven unfounded or, frequently, the victim chose not to proceed.

Every province in Canada saw an increase in cases between 2015 and 2018:

The executive director of the University of Regina's Women's Centre, Jill Arnott, isn't surprised that some victims shy away from court.

"You're already trying to deal with the fall out, and the trauma, and the embarrassment and the shame. Often I think the criminal justice route is just too much, it's too much to bear," she said.

Cpl. King said cases that involve teenage boys and what he calls "locker talk" can sometimes be resolved outside court with the deletion of images. But only if that satisfies the victim.

About 20 per cent of cases reported to police involve people under 18, according to government data.

Victim-blaming is a distraction

Matthew Johnson is the director of education at MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based digital literacy organization that surveyed young people about sexting.

He oversaw a recent survey that revealed young people have a "moral blindspot" when it comes to showing their friends a sext, or distributing it by text or online.

Young boys who hold traditional gender stereotypes are five times more likely to share images without consent, he said. Those boys believe that girls who shared nude pics had violated traditional feminine norms.

"It's seen as overly aggressive, and overly sexual, so by [girls] violating their gender roles they're seen as no longer deserving consent."

Johnson wants to shift the conversation away from victim-blaming, and all the questions about why a girl shares a nude image in the first place, and instead focus on teaching rules of respect and obtaining consent. He believes that would be most effective in stopping the crime, since the survey also revealed that young people are not dissuaded by the law or the risk of being charged with a crime.

Jill Arnott, executive director of the University of Regina Women's Centre, says victims of any sex crime - including the distribution of their intimate image without consent - are bombarded with inappropriate slut-shaming questions. (Brian Rodgers/CBC)

Arnott said the growing number of reported cases is encouraging, to some degree.

"There's obviously been a bit of a breaking open so that people feel like they can say, and report, 'This happened to me' and expect, in some measure, that authorities will believe them," Arnott said.

She also said the prospect of convictions is higher with revenge porn and sext crimes than some sexual assaults.

"There's evidence. Right? When you have images, there's proof there. That gives you something to work with. And in a sexual assault case, you don't always have [material evidence]."

Cpl. King said it's been challenging for general duty officers to learn how to investigate the electronic footprint of these crimes and deal with internet service providers, but that police forces generally have experts available to help.

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a Master's in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC