The Disturbing Rise of Revenge Porn

Breaking up in the online era is hard to do—especially when your ex has naked photos of you. Michelle Dean investigates the disturbing rise of revenge porn

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Last March, Lindsay (whose name has been changed) got a call from her boyfriend. Out of nowhere, a stranger had sent him a link to a website called MyEx.com, where he’d found nude pictures of Lindsay posted alongside her name, age and location, plus a link to her Facebook page. He was horrified and wanted to know how they got there.

Shocked, Lindsay, a 20-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., student, clicked the link and recognized the photos immediately. She’d taken them just over a year ago and sent them to a guy with whom she’d been corresponding online since 2012, a 30-something European man. The messages started after he sent her a friend request; they had an instant connection. He was articulate and interesting, like nobody she’d ever met before. They could talk about politics, religion and music. “The whole exchange seemed so innocent,” she said. “We talked pretty much every day for two years. So, you know, I felt like I knew him.” After about a year-and-a-half of messaging, she’d developed a crush, and sent him the naked selfies. “It was not the best idea in the world,” she says now.

In January of this year, they stopped communicating after Lindsay started seeing her boyfriend. When she got the call about the photos, she confronted her European friend. He denied that he’d posted the pictures, which had been on the site since December, and claimed he was confused. So was Lindsay. “We were never on bad terms,” she says. She still doesn’t know for sure how the photos were leaked.

Shortly after seeing them, her boyfriend broke up with her. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat,” she says. “I was afraid to tell anyone, especially my family.” She needed to get the pictures off the Internet fast. First, she went to her local police precinct in Brooklyn. Lindsay was of age when she took and sent the photos, so the police told her they couldn’t do anything. One officer suggested she just get over it. She went to another precinct and tried lying, saying she was 16 when the photos were taken, but they still didn’t help her. Then she filed a report with the FBI. They said they couldn’t promise her case would be investigated, and that they didn’t take care of this particular issue. Nobody seems to take care of this, thought Lindsay. She finally told her sister, who recommended she contact Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn-based lawyer who works on such cases. Goldberg wrote a letter to Myex.com, demanding that the photographs be removed. To Lindsay’s surprise, they were gone within a couple of days.

That was three months ago. Lindsay still feels uneasy. “This was probably the worst thing I’ve experienced in my life,” she says. She checks every day to see if the photographs have reemerged. She’s paranoid that copies remain out there. “I’d like to put it behind me,” she says, “but that’s kind of impossible.”

Revenge porn, the term for what happened to Lindsay, has a harsh tabloid ring to it. The more official terms preferred by legal academics and legislators—“non-consensual pornography” or even just “unlawful dissemination of private images”—are less scandalous and more precise about the key to this growing problem: a lack of consent.

The pictures themselves, after all, are relatively commonplace. Sexting and sending racy phone pics are no longer outré acts. Between 20 and 30 percent of American teens engage in sexting (no data is available for their Canadian counterparts). The numbers for adults are even higher—around 50 percent. When Hannah sent a topless snap to her boyfriend Adam on the TV show Girls, no one blinked.

The vast majority of these photos are taken in consensual situations for private use. But the Internet has made maintaining that privacy incredibly challenging. Now, to give someone a naked picture of yourself is to lose control of it completely—it can end up not only in your ex’s social networks, but in the networks of his friends and their friends, screen-capped and emailed, reposted in humiliating contexts.

Even worse, it could end up on one of the many websites devoted to revenge porn that have sprung up. Spurned lovers turn to sites like myex.com and WinByState.com, which host the image or video, the subject’s name and sometimes even their profession under a boldface title about what a bitch, whore or slut she is. Though men’s pictures do appear on these sites, women account for 90 percent of victims. Read the comments under any of the many recent news articles about revenge porn and you’ll find an ugly, misogynistic logic about the so-called slutty behaviour of the women involved.

In the last year, the judicial system has leapt on the problem. In January, Israel was the first country to make it illegal. There, the injured parties are recognized as victims of sexual assault, and the perpetrators punishable by up to five years in prison. In the United States, the crime is classified as a misdemeanour. California, Idaho, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Maryland all passed laws within the last year, punishing the crime by fines of up to $10,000 and prison time of up to five years. At press time, 27 more states had similar legislation in the works. A federal bill may already have been introduced by the time you read this.

In Canada, Parliament is working on drafts of Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians From Online Crime Act. It seeks to make the non-consensual distribution of intimate images a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The bill followed a parliamentary report commissioned by the Harper government in the wake of the highly publicized April 2013 suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teen whose classmates allegedly sexually assaulted her and spread images of the crime online.

Dating has always been a minefield of trust. The whole process is about getting to know someone well enough that you can be sure they’ll overlook your flaws, keep your secrets, share your most intimate moments—and protect the increasing electronic ephemera that accompanies it all. But, as anyone who has ever dated knows, spotting a jerk isn’t always easy. You can be months or even years into a relationship before you step on a mine. But now, the citizens of jerkdom have a megaphone and a permanent archive in the form of the Internet.

 

“I didn’t go into the relationship saying, ‘ok, he’s going to betray me, so I’d better mind my Ps and Qs and not trust him with anything,’” says Annmarie Chiarini, a 43-year-old English professor in Maryland. In 2010, her ex-boyfriend tried to auction off a CD of her naked pictures on eBay, and then posted them on a site called xHamster.com. They’d known each other since high school and almost married in 1990, before going their separate ways; they reunited in 2009, but the relationship devolved and eventually they broke up again.

Chiarini has since become an advocate for victims. Although she has spoken to some who are as young as 13 and inexperienced with dating, many are in their 20s and 30s and have known their harassers a long time. Anisha Vora, a 24-year-old advocate from New Jersey, told me she had known her ex since the sixth grade and dated him for four years. She had sent him nude photos because they were in a long-distance relationship. Some people dismiss the victims of this particular betrayal as stupid, incautious or naive, but sometimes you just can’t see the untrustworthy coming.

Advocacy sites have now begun to appear, like endrevengeporn.org and armyofshe.com. They call for victims to share their stories, which range from empowered (“And now I fight to end revenge porn, with the thousands of other victims whose cowardly exes tried to humiliate them and ruin their lives”) to harrowing (“It doesn’t matter who you are, what walk of life you come from, how old you are, how confident you are, how strong you are, how smart you are … when you see yourself naked before the entire world for the first time you are none of those things. You are simply humiliated, terrified and helpless”). These sites, along with cyber civil-rights lawyers, have made some headway.

Last fall, for example, a California woman named Charlotte Laws wrote an essay for the website xoJane, identifying herself as the Erin Brockovich of revenge porn. In 2012, Laws’ daughter Kayla, then 24, had found a snapshot that exposed one of her breasts on IsAnyoneUp.com, a notoriously popular revenge porn site at the time, whose founder, Hunter Moore, had been dubbed “the most hated man on the Internet” by Rolling Stone. He was ostentatious and seemed to love courting attention, even after one of his victims tracked down his address, met him in his driveway and stabbed him in the shoulder in March 2011.

As she investigated her daughter’s case, Laws discovered that Kayla’s email had been hacked. She promptly began putting together a dossier on Moore. Her crack investigative work led to his indictment on U.S. federal charges of conspiracy and unauthorized access in January 2014. Hacking might seem like a strange charge to lay against the operator of a revenge porn site, but American prosecutors find their hands are tied by a federal law, meant to protect freedom of speech online, that lets website owners escape liability for content other people post on their sites.

In Canada, revenge porn falls just outside the framework of current laws. A victim has to fear for his or her personal safety in order for authorities to act on a harassment charge. And, as the working group issued by Parliament last June to investigate the problem put it bureaucratically in a report, “the result of this type of conduct is usually embarrassment or humiliation caused by the breach of privacy, but not necessarily a fear for one’s safety.”

People can and do try to sue their exes for this behaviour in North America. Some are successful. But as Danielle Keats Citron and Mary Anne Franks, two American law professors who are experts in cyberharassment, point out, most targets of revenge porn can’t afford to hire a lawyer and sue. And even if they could, chances are the harassing ex has no funds to recover anyway.

The next most obvious target to pursue is the host site, like MyEx.com, which is making money by providing a hub for revenge porn materials. But the “businesses” behind such sites are at best ephemeral. When Hunter Moore’s went down in 2012, it had only been live for about two years. UGotPosted.com, which popped up as a replacement for IsAnyoneUp.com, lasted about a year. It’s hard to sue a moving target.

The most feasible alternative, Citron and Franks have argued, is to create laws that will explicitly make revenge porn a criminal offence. But that proves more difficult than it might appear, because it means getting other people to believe that what happens to women in these cases is not just unfortunate, but explicitly criminal.

Critics of revenge porn legislation argue that criminalizing this conduct would conflict with the bedrock principles of freedom of speech and expression. Bill C-13, which is being debated in committee right now, is controversial because many believe it gives the police power to invade Canadians’ privacy in the name of investigating online crimes. Others, however, like Rehtaeh Parsons’ father, Glen Canning, feel the risk to privacy is an acceptable sacrifice to protect women. This past spring, he argued before a Commons committee on Bill C-13 that “it seems so out of place to complain about privacy while our children openly terrorize each other to death for likes on Facebook.”

David Fraser, an Internet, technology and privacy lawyer at McInnes Cooper in Halifax, believes in criminalizing revenge porn, but he says the bill needs to be framed properly so it doesn’t capture innocent online activity, like people who repost photos without knowing they were originally distributed with malicious intent. He also doesn’t want to see relatively blameless entities like Facebook, Instagram or Flickr caught in the net. The debate on how to execute the law continues.

Even with solid legislation on the books, advocates will still have work to do. There are other hearts and minds to change: namely, those of the police. Lindsay isn’t the only one who’s had trouble getting them to act on incidents. Victims often find themselves faced with unsympathetic law enforcement officers. “Underenforcement of cyberstalking and cyberharassment laws is a serious problem, largely due to social attitudes and a lack of training,” Citron said in an email. “Training would be helpful to combat attitudes such as ‘Just turn off your computer,’ ‘Ignore it,’ ‘It’s no big deal.’”

Vora did manage to get the New Jersey police to bring her ex in for questioning after he posted her nude pictures. “A part of me felt bad. Some people make mistakes, and why should I take his future from him? So I let him off easy with a charge of harassment, which was a misdemeanour in this case,” she says. But even before her ex was sentenced to community service and anger management counselling, he’d reposted her photos online. Vora had to beg the cops to keep the case open, and she managed to subpoena the IP addresses associated with the reposted pictures. “When three IP addresses came back—his parents’ house, his girlfriend’s house and his sister’s house in California—we were able to link them to him, causing a second arrest.” Vora’s ex was charged with third-degree felony invasion of privacy and given six months in jail. The process, even though it had an ostensibly positive result, was still devastating for Vora. Alongside her pictures, her ex had posted her full name, address and phone number. Men who’d seen her photos found her both online and in person. “He made links pretending to be me and spoke to men explicitly describing different sexual favours ‘I’ would do for them,” she says. “It left me mortified. I was afraid to leave my house, go to school and even go to work. I never knew when somebody would be waiting for me.”

She, like Chiarini, found that advocacy work offered the most solace. Vora works with EndRevengePorn.org; Chiarini has testified twice before legislative committees in Maryland to get a law passed there. Activism gives them back a sense of agency that revenge porn robbed. “Telling my story and talking to other victims is so rewarding,” Vora told me. In a better world, she wouldn’t have such a story to tell. It’s not that revenge porn created cruelty in relationships; abusive ex-boyfriends predated the Internet. But the web accelerated and exacerbated the means by which an ex can become inescapable. The blowback from a breakup isn’t limited to him and a small group of taunting friends; you can’t simply leave them behind by moving away. The memories, preserved on the Internet, become forever.

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