All-too-frequently, lawmakers fail to play catch-up with the technological advances surrounding them in society; by the time they can see the tangible implications of these advances and act on them, countless people have already been harmed. Equally frequently, the legal system (and society at large) disregards or downplays the plights of victims of relationship violence due to a morass of sexist attitudes and discriminatory procedures. ‘Revenge porn,’ or the nonconsensual distribution of nude photos or video, sits at the uncomfortable crossroads of these two gaps in the law.
Beyond Humiliation: Revenge Porn’s Real Impact
No one should ever have to go through the process of having highly personal images of oneself scattered for the world to see on the Internet – even worse, at the hands of someone the victim trusted enough to share this sort of media with in the first place. This alone constitutes a form of psychological torment that allows the revenge porn publisher a degree of power over his victim, even from hundreds of miles away and months or years after the relationship ends.
But truly malicious aggressors can do much more than that. This article shares the ordeal of Holly Jacobs, who not only had the awful experience of finding explicit photographs of herself online, but also the much worse experience of active harassment at the hands someone she believes to be her ex. He targeted every aspect of her life: hacking her Facebook profile with the photographs; affixing her name and contact information to the images he posted online; emailing them to her boss and co-worker; and tailoring the titles of the videos he posted so as to appear high on a search results page when her students Googled her qualifications as a teaching assistant. Jacobs attempted to move on with her life, changing her name and starting End Revenge Porn, a forum and advocacy hub for victims. But her attacker was still at it, posting photos with information about where she would be presenting her thesis at an American Psychological Association conference and encouraging viewers to attend her presentation and proposition her. Jacobs is now participating in a criminal suit against her ex, Ryan Seay, who is charged with stalking, harassment by use of personal identification information, and unlawful publication.
This may sound like a particularly bad example of cyber-aggression, and it is certainly true that many revenge-porn-posters are content to simply post nude photos of their exes, maybe with a name or contact information attached, and maybe with a little rant discussing how much of a ‘slut’ or a ‘bitch’ their ex is to justify how much she deserves it. As mentioned before, it’s not a stretch to say that this can still psychologically devastate a victim – especially when she has to worry every time she applies for a job that her potential employer will Google her name and reject her as a result of the images. And it’s also the unfortunate case that Jacobs’ experience is replicated, in parts or its entirety, in the stories of women all across the country.
The Road to Criminalization
Equally unfortunate is the fact that there exists limited legal recourse for victims to either salvage their online reputations or bring their aggressors to justice. Some revenge porn sites allow women to remove their photos – if they pay sizable fees – and third-party reputation management sites will charge as much or more simply to push the photos onto a later page of search results. The criminal justice system is woefully inadequate, given that police and prosecutors see the images as having been freely produced in the first place. And a variety of factors – the poor applicability of specific civil laws, the significant time and financial investments required, and the desire not to incur even more undesired attention upon oneself – conspire to make civil suits unlikely as well. Free speech advocates come down on the side of revenge porn distributors and site hosts. What all this means is that – just as victims of physical domestic violence lose faith in the justice system when they turn there first after an episode of violence – victims of revenge porn quickly learn that no one is willing to protect their interests as they see their lives torn apart around them.
I mentioned before that lawmakers are oftentimes slow to wise up to the full implications of the technology developing around them. That’s a charitable explanation for why only one state – New Jersey – has a statute explicitly prohibiting the distribution of nonconsensual pornography. Florida lawmakers introduced a potential statute criminalizing revenge porn, but it stalled in the legislature last May. California legislators are attempting to push through a similar bill right now, which faces criticism on the grounds of vagueness and the potential to undermine other legitimate exercises of free speech. But even if the California state senate and governor approve this legislation, that’s still only one state out of 49 that have yet to criminalize this kind of behavior. It’s worth noting that New Jersey only successfully passed its legislation after the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student who killed himself after his roommate covertly filmed and showed others his romantic encounter – and the California bill is up for discussion only after 15-year-old Audrie Potts hanged herself after three boys sexually assaulted her at a party and posted pictures of the incident online. Maybe eventually, it won’t take similarly horrific incidents to propel other states into taking action.
Victim Blaming: It’s Everywhere
There are, of course, solid legal obstacles to passing such legislation that must be considered before (hopefully) state legislatures decide that the rights of victims in this instance are more important. But it’s likely that a good part of the inadequate response to revenge porn is grounded in society’s tendency to trivialize the abuse of women in all its forms.
This problem pervades media coverage of revenge porn issues – this CBS Detroit article on the California bill refers to victims as “sexy exes” and concludes with a pithy “The bottom line: Cameras, bedrooms and exes don’t mix.” But it’s even more evident in the responses that victims receive when they seek support from their peers: things like “You should have known never to give a guy those sorts of pictures” or “I’ve sent guys this sort of photo before, but only ones I knew wouldn’t post them.” To some, victims are making a big deal out of nothing (and for them, The Revenge Porn Challenge offers you a tongue-in-cheek yet compelling response). And others, even if they recognize the significant impact revenge porn can have on someone’s life, congratulate themselves for being smart enough to avoid that kind of scenario while simultaneously deriding the victims for not being as savvy. These are exactly the type of responses one sees to less technologically-oriented intimate partner violence, and they are exactly the type of misinformed responses which make the victim feel even more vulnerable than before. There are differences between ‘conventional’ relationship abuse and ‘newer’ types of cyber harassment, but society’s treatment of victims and their plights is one of the most striking similarities.
There may be those who are still convinced that some of the blame must be incumbent upon the victim; I will admit that for a while, I bought into the ‘if you don’t want explicit pictures of yourself online, then don’t take those pictures’ camp. But we should remember that these kinds of situations aren’t always examples of perfect consent in the first place. The kind of guy who’s willing to violate his ex-partner’s trust by posting revenge porn might also be the kind of guy who has the upper hand in controlling his partner already, and thus may be able to convince her to take or send him explicit images even if she initially protests.
On top of that, though, any relationship must contain some degree of intimacy, and some implicit assumption of confidence. There is any number of aspects of a relationship someone might not want shared upon a breakup – snide remarks about a boss, friend, or family member, intimate sexual details, or even something as simple as the alarm code to a house. It’s not the victim’s fault if she gives a pair of keys to her boyfriend, he refuses to return them after they break up, and then he burgles her house – there was no reason for her to suspect at the time that giving him access to her residence was a risky move. Similarly, women shouldn’t be faulted for presuming that their partners are not the kinds of sleazebags who would upload their nude photos to a website in the event that they ended the relationship.
Let’s make something clear: any kind of move on the part of someone’s partner or ex-partner to humiliate them or make their life miserable, even from afar, is unacceptable. It’s an expression of a need for control over the victim that society ought to condemn. It doesn’t matter if the person initially consented to the taking of the images – publicly violating their trust takes their initial consent and warps it into something completely unrecognizable. Educating women about the need to not trust their partners with explicit images is only a band-aid solution to the problem, and one which completely misaddresses the issue at hand. What we need is actual legal action – always a challenge for advocates against intimate partner violence – that specifically and rigorously sanctions those who distribute explicit images without the consent of the person depicted. New Jersey’s taken a step in the right direction, but it’s time for California and the rest of the country to follow suit.