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Professor Clare McGlynn, from Durham Law School, and Teaching Fellow and PhD Researcher, Alishya Dhir, from our Department of Sociology, encourage viewers to think twice before watching Pam and Tommy as they address the recurring trauma of intimate image abuse.

Millions have watched the new series Pam and Tommy, retelling the mid-1990s story of celebrities Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee and their leaked “sex tape”. People involved in the show – including the showrunner and actors – claim that they are making a “feminist statement” and suggest that the portrayal of events favours Pamela Anderson. Lily James, who plays Anderson, said she hopes the show will “make people look at their own culpability in perpetuating this unhealthy viral internet behavior”.

However, the show contributes to this “unhealthy” behaviour by turning Anderson’s experience of a private sexual video being widely distributed and viewed without her consent into entertainment. Many have searched for -– and found -– the original video, watching it on mainstream porn sites, encouraging others on internet forums to watch and sharing links to wherever else it can be found.

The reality is that Anderson was not involved with the series, and has not spoken publicly about what she thinks of it. When we peel back the “good intentions” the series is using as promotion, we are left with a show that exploits and profits from an incredibly traumatic experience in someone’s life.

Unfortunately, Anderson’s experiences are familiar. While rarer in the mid-1990s, distributing sexual images and videos without consent -– known as image-based sexual abuse – is now alarmingly commonplace. During the pandemic, reports to the Revenge Porn Helpline have doubled.

Rather than society becoming more aware of the harm of intimate image abuse, the reaction to this new series suggests we are becoming desensitised. We accept as entertainment the retelling of a story that inevitably leads to the resurfacing of the original video.

Recurring harm

The distribution and viewing of private sexual videos without consent can be devastating for survivors. The breach of trust and sense of violation is acute. Some describe it as a “social rupture” which divides their lives into before and after the abuse. One described it as “torture for the soul”.

The harms are constant and relentless, with each viewing of the image or video experienced as a new assault and abuse. Actor Jennifer Lawrence, whose private images were hacked and went viral in 2014, said just last year that “my trauma will exist forever”. Paris Hilton, whose private video was non-consensually shared, revealed she has been left with PTSD and the abuse is “something that will hurt me for the rest of my life”.

With this in mind, it’s right to question the ethics of making a series like Pam and Tommy. The series recreates the video, so the producers themselves must have watched the original in making the show. And in the aftermath – users on internet forums have encouraged others to watch it and posted links about how to find it. Many have also made degrading comments about Anderson herself. All of this is an eerie echo of the original incident.

The creators of the series must have been aware this would happen, and they possibly knew it would mean an increased audience. This series facilitates the continuation of image-based sexual abuse by actively dredging up a traumatic experience. In doing so, it contributes to the constancy of harms that victims experience.

Fixing the problem

As well as challenging shows like Pam and Tommy, more can be done to reduce the prevalence and harms of experiences like Anderson’s. While many internet platforms claim to have policies against non-consensual material, it is nevertheless freely and easily accessible. The availability of this material normalises and legitimises image-based sexual abuse. It is also a primary concern of those who face brick walls when trying to get the material removed.

Legislation, like the UK’s online safety bill, should hold social media and internet companies accountable for their role in perpetuating these harms. Porn companies should be required to identify users uploading material, moderate content to remove non-consensual material and swiftly respond to take-down requests. Platforms must also secure the consent of all those in uploaded videos, and it should be a criminal offence to upload material without consent.

While such steps would help to reduce the amount of non-consensual imagery online, we are fighting a losing battle if television and film producers are, in practice, trivialising these abuses. We can only hope that the actors and creators of Pam and Tommy will reflect on how they have exploited Pamela Anderson for profit, in just the same way that she was exploited when the video was originally stolen.

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