“Protection within legislation”: interview with Revenge Porn Activist Megan Sims

With revenge porn finally becoming illegal in Ireland, how safe will we really be?

In a world where most sexual encounters will be online for the foreseeable future, consent and revenge porn have become more topical than ever. With new HSE guidelines being vague at best and dangerous to sex workers at worst, Megan Sims has launched a petition on Change.org to make revenge porn a criminal offence in Ireland. Speaking to Trinity News over Zoom, Sims emphasises the overall goal of her petition, which was launched in July 2020: “Making sure that there is support for victims, that’s the end goal. To change perceptions around the reality of revenge porn. We have such bad issues surrounding slut-shaming in this country. We need to have protection within legislation.”  

“When women come to me, they feel hopeless. They feel like they will never be able to have a normal life, find a partner or get a job. They feel as if their lives are over because the slut-shaming within Ireland is so bad. How do you convince someone that their life isn’t over when they aren’t protected by law?”

When asked how large a problem revenge porn is in Ireland, Sims underlines the country’s rocky relationship with sexuality as a result of the Catholic Church’s control over Irish culture. “We have no proper consent education, many women in Ireland do not even realise that they have been abused or assaulted until many years later.” A lingering sense of Catholic guilt and a fear of being shamed by those they love the most can prevent victims from coming forward. Sims then details the lack of protection for revenge porn victims: “I deal with a lot of cases and the thing is, when women come to me, they feel hopeless. They feel like they will never be able to have a normal life, find a partner or get a job. They feel as if their lives are over because the slut-shaming within Ireland is so bad. How do you convince someone that their life isn’t over when they aren’t protected by law?” Sims then comments on how women are merely seen as “property”, belonging to a family, and not to their own selves. Being sexual online can bring potential shame to their brothers and fathers. “It’s like something out of the Bible,” Sims adds.

“Under this new legislation, the offence of harassment will include all forms of communication, including through online or digital communications, or about another person.”

The Minister of Justice, Helen McEntee, has promised to pass the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill by the end of the year. “It’s keeping the pressure on the government for the moment,” Sims comments. “It has to be looked into a bit further. though, in my opinion. I don’t know if there is ample protection for sex workers. It currently cites ‘shared with a reasonable respect for privacy’; but a judge or a lawyer could use OnlyFans or any form of online work against the victim.” Currently in Ireland, the only way to prosecute someone for distributing revenge porn is if the victim is underage. The bill was originally put forward by the Labour Party in 2017. Under this new legislation, the offence of harassment will include all forms of communication, including through online or digital communications, or about another person. However, under Sims’ petition, she claims it should go further that those who are guilty should “be added to the sex offenders register and face a criminal conviction which could see those convicted jailed for up to seven years.” Sims cites the sex offenders register as the main deterrent to these crimes.

“The Gardaí have been awful towards women I have brought in to talk to them. I have seen so many cases and women mishandled. There’s a lack of empathy, care and even training on how to help victims.”

While discussing her faith in the in the government to provide support to sex workers, Sims reveals that she does not have much hope. “If we’re talking about sex work in general, this country follows the Swedish model. It criminalises sex work in a way; it decriminalises the workers but has made the practice illegal. It has formed an underground trade with levels of abuse rising to astronomical levels. Women won’t report sex/human trafficking. Sex work is seen as the exploitation of women.” She then says she feels a similar sentiment towards the Gardaí, elaborating on her feelings on how they treat victims of sexual harassment and revenge porn: “The Gardaí have been awful towards women I have brought in to talk to them. I have seen so many cases and women mishandled. There’s a lack of empathy, care and even training on how to help victims.”

Although she tends to work with online cases and digital safety, throughout the interview, Sims continues to state her worries towards Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO focused on helping women who have been sexually exploited, their ties to the Magdalene laundries and the opening of accommodation for women who have been abused while in Direct Provision. “You can’t get social welfare, you can’t afford to eat, you’re in Direct Provision. The money has to come from somewhere and a lot of the time it is under the table, it’s illegal. We have to remove the systems that put women into these positions, not funding the charity that see sex work as whoring yourself out or giving money to the nuns who ran the Magdalene laundries.”

“It is completely irresponsible for the HSE to throw out a blanket statement and say ‘go have sex online’ without offering any education on it. Who picks up the pieces from all of this when there are no laws to protect victims of revenge porn?”

With over 15,000 signatures as well as media coverage from the Irish Examiner, RTE 2FM, Newstalk and TodayFM, Sims has turned her attention to the new HSE guidelines. “It is completely irresponsible for the HSE to throw out a blanket statement and say ‘go have sex online’ without offering any education on it. Who picks up the pieces from all of this when there are no laws to protect victims of revenge porn?” She emphasises the need to introduce proper digital safety and consent classes to the Relationships and Sexuality Education curriculum (RSE) for secondary schools. “People simply don’t understand consent. I get messages from my followers asking about the consent limits surrounding Only Fans, saying that if a person puts pictures of themself online then why wouldn’t they be okay with the pictures being shared? People don’t get this education yet the HSE expects the public to be safe and responsible online.” She comments on the need for consent education in college: “It’s a massive talking point yet there is so much room for improvement.”

When discussing OnlyFans and online sex work, she praises the emergence of OnlyFans as a career. “It takes a lot for women to be sexual online. When you look at how much OnlyFans has grown in Ireland, you start to realise that these are the women who are breaking down barriers.” However, she warns those who may see sites like OnlyFans as “an easy fix”, citing her own experience in 2016. At 19 years old, Sims was a victim of revenge porn. “My photos and videos were sent around the country, that’s what started all of this.” Her advice to those who wish to start an OnlyFans or begin sex working online focuses on invasions of privacy. Nonetheless, she does have hope that attitudes towards online sex work will become more progressive once the bill is passed at the end of the year. She mentions how a lot of women shame sex work because of internalised misogny: “As a teenager I was incredibly misogynistic. I would call other women sluts and whores, I’ll be the first person to put my hand up and admit to that. There’s often a competition between women for male attention and that’s where it stemmed from.”

Sims’ plans regarding the future of the petition centre around social media awareness and for the petition to be shared around even further. Her second goal is to set up a non-profit organization and helpline for those suffering from harassment, stalking and bullying through social media. “It is just as traumatising online as it is in person.” She also plans for there to be legal support as well as mental health services available to those who are victims of revenge porn. She draws on her own experiences when talking about the support she wants to be available in the future: “I was so traumatised by my pictures being shared, to the point where I couldn’t look at them. With the comments made about me, I could only see my body through those descriptions. There was no support available to me. I rang the Rape Crisis Centre and was told there was a year-long waiting list.” Summing up her goal in one simple sentence, Sims says:“I want to provide the support that I wish I had and more.”

You can sign Sims’s petition by clicking this link.

https://www.change.org/p/irish-justice-department-make-revenge-porn-a-criminal-offence-in-ireland?use_react=false

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Sex and Relationships Editor and Co-Podcast Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of History and Economics.