Revenge porn is back in the news after the first woman to be convicted of the offence has been spared a jail term. Stigma following the publication of explicit images online and on social media will continue to follow the offender as well as the victim and their friends, families, employers and colleagues.

The growing number of explicit images being shared online, specifically without the subject's consent, led to the introduction of a new law in April this year. This law makes it illegal to share or disclose a "private sexual photograph or film" without the consent of the person depicted and with the intent to cause them distress.

Photographs or videos may have been taken or recorded with consent, possibly during a relationship, but it is the transition from private to public which is a key determining factor, together with the intention to cause distress. In the present case, the prosecutor highlighted the effect on the victim as being, "invasive, humiliating and distressing" and which left the victim feeling "violated”.

As well as potential criminal prosecution, of which there have been around a dozen - all against men - there is the potential for civil action under Human Rights legislation, the common law rights to privacy and the Protection from Harassment Act, although claims are difficult to succeed in.

#Selfie culture

The taking and sharing of photographs has been exacerbated by social media and the vast improvements in smartphone and camera technology. This has impacted directly on a new generation of exhibitionists who have made use of social media and online platforms including Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube to boost their fame and followers. It is the culture towards sharing (and oversharing) that has blurred the lines between what is and is not acceptable, both morally and, now, legally.

The present law only takes into account private images which are shared without consent and where the sharing is intended to cause distress. It does not take into consideration the sharing of images anonymously or where the victim is unaware that their image has been shared. There are a growing number of dating apps and online services, including the now infamous Ashley Madison site, which encourage sharing of photos and anonymity. How these will be dealt with in future is yet to be seen, but the present position is likely to mean they are exempt from the 'revenge porn' laws.

Wider implications

If photos are shared online, as well as causing distress and embarrassment, there may be an additional impact on the victim's life. Publicity surrounding revenge porn cases has been significant, in both mainstream and tabloid journalism. Although this should slow down over time, the indelible footnote on an individual's life can have long-lasting and potentially damaging consequences.

Employers may not be able to take steps to prevent the distribution of intimate images of its employees, but if can take steps to educate and warn employees of the inherent risk in sharing images online, whether in public or private. A sensible and practical approach to social media use is essential in any organisation and must be carefully balanced against both risk and reward. This is just another example of what can go wrong.