Why Revenge Pornography Matters

Bikini ImageThis Sunday I’ll be at SXSW Interactive, There, I’ll be joined by my good friend Katie Sunstrom for a 5 PM presentation entitled “The Grim Reality of Revenge Porn & Defamation“.

The talk, as planned right now, is going to be a wide ranging legal discussion about the current realities of revenge pornography, or the posting of nude/sexual images of others without their permission. It will include discussions on copyright, defamation, privacy as well as recent cases and some of the new laws passed.

While I’m very excited about this presentation, and would certainly love to see many of you there, I have to acknowledge that this is a very difficult subject. Not only does adult content in any context put many ill at ease, but the very intimate violation of trust and the emotional toll it can take makes many others uneasy talking about the issue.

However, it’s these very factors that make it so important we discuss revenge pornograophy openly. Simply put, this isn’t a problem that’s going away and, as it grows, it will impact more and more lives. The problem is, the more we sweep it under the rug and try to ignore the problem or even blame the victims, the more the stigma and the harm it can do will grow.

In short, it’s time to treat revenge pornography like the serious issue it is, even if some people aren’t ready or willing to talk about it.

Why I Got Involved

By running Plagiarism Today and working as a copyright consultant, I routinely get questions from people who want me to help them. I try to sort these queries into people who are good candidates for becoming clients and people who are better off getting some additional info and helping themselves.

However, some time in 2011 I got an email from a young woman who said that photos she took of herself appears on a site I had not heard of before. She was embarrassed to tell anyone else about the problem but desperately wanted the photos removed. I investigated the site and quickly learned why. The site, in addition to hosting nude images of her, was including her full name, her Facebook profile and even her home address. This behavior, sometimes called Doxing, is popular on revenge porn websites as a means to add extra humiliation.

I agreed to help her for free (as I’ve done with all revenge porn cases) and managed to get the page removed through a simple DMCA notice. But that victory seemed rather hollow because, as I clicked around the site, it was clear she was far from the only one on that site and, after a few Google searches, it was obvious that this was not the only site.

Fortunatelym the climate for dedicated revenge porn sites has certainly gotten more hostile, with one owner being arrested and many other sites being shut down.

Still, even as I was looking into that initial case, I hit upon an even more serious revelation. While the number of true revenge pornography sites was still fairly small, now down to about three according to some experts, there are countless user-generated porn sites on the Internet that anyone, including jilted lovers and ex-spouses, can upload content to. Thus, these sites often become unwitting hosts to revenge pornography.

In short, while attacking the revenge porn sites is important, it doesn’t bring an end to the problem. Even if all of them are eliminated and no new ones come up, the problem will live on.

The Legal Issues of Revenge Porn

The legal issues of revenge porn began in the 1980s. Hustler Magazine, at that time, ran a section entitled “Beaver Hunt” that featured submitted photos from readers along with details about their hobbies and other personal details. However, not all of the women who appeared in it did so willingly. Some were submitted by former lovers and even by those who stole the photos.

Many of the women sued but their outcomes depended on the facts of their specific cases. Still, it set the stage for what was to come, namely the Internet and the rise of revenge pornography there.

On that front, revenge pornography is an interesting legal issue. It rests on a fault line of two freedoms that those on the Web, by in large, take very seriously:

  1. Free Speech: In the U.S., the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, including speech that is disagreeable and unpopular.
  2. Privacy: The Supreme Court has ruled that there is implied right to privacy against government intrusion and most states have privacy-related torts.

The proof of why this issue is so complex is former Congressman and former New York Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. His political career was ruined not once, but twice due to sexting scandals that saw intimate photos of him leaked to the media.

As we get into a land rush to pass legislation against revenge porn (most of it on the state level), the challenge becomes how to distinguish between what happened to Weiner from what is happening to thousands of people online. More importantly, how do you pass the laws in such a way that they do not violate the first amendment and ensure that they can withstand such challenges.

But even without new legislation revenge pornography raises a slew of legal issues that need to be addressed including (among others):

  1. Copyright: If the photos were taken by the victim, as is often the case, then the victim has a copyright interest in them and can often get them removed through takedown notices.
  2. Privacy: Depending on the state, the posting could be a violation of the victim’s privacy.
  3. Defamation: Depending on the facts of the case, the posting could be seen as defamatory. It also could be a false light issue, which is a privacy issue similar to defamation.

There are, of course, many other state and federal statutes that can come into play including issue of harassment, blackmail and so forth. But those are heavily situation-specific and state-specific as well.

Still, with the bevy of legal issues, it can be easy to forget about the human toll.

The Human Impact of Revenge Porn

As important as the legal issues are, the human toll is probably the reason most of the attention has been paid to the subject.

The victims of revenge pornography are in a very difficult position and have good reason to be concerned about their future. Where the images in “Beaver Hunt” were bound to the page (at least at the time), now revenge porn images are free to travel the world, free to be copied and free to be shared at will.

Worse still, many of those impacted have their names and other personal information attached to those images. This can make things very difficult for them as they to find new jobs, make new friends or generally be in a situation where someone might want to search for their name.

In short, being a victim of revenge pornography means that those images or videos will, likely, follow you for the rest of your life, exposing not only strangers, but people you know and care about, to an intimate part of your life you didn’t want them to know.

But even with that in mind, on much of the Web, there is not a great deal of sympathy for the victims, at least in many circles. Instead, there’s a tendency to blame them. Whether it’s cries of “You shouldn’t have taken the images” or “You shouldn’t have given your ex reason to hate you,” is irrelevant, using nude photos, sent in trust, is never an acceptable response.

After all, revenge porn isn’t about breaking someone’s heart, it’s about humiliating them and trying to ruin their lives and that should never be an acceptable weapon.

Bottom Line

When the revenge porn site AnonIB closed, it posted a message that read the following:

Apology to the girls who were posted on site against their will and especially those that had to donate to have their pictures removed. Its a warning to those that abuse others online. There are forces that work to track and expose them, and those forces WILL win in the end. There are plenty of girls and boys, women and men, who willingly want to be naked on the internet so post their pictures instead.

While I had nothing to do with the closure of the site, the notice makes two very important points.

First, there are people out there deeply opposed to revenge porn and they will do everything they can to fight it. This means fighting in the courts, fighting with words and fighting the very notions that make it possible for some to feel it is acceptable.

But the other point AnonIB raised is the issue of choice. I’ve done a fair amount of work with those in the adult content industry. Though it’s never been a focus of my business, I’ve never had an issue with it either. As long as the participants are wiling and of age, they’ve made a choice that was right for them and I wish to support them in those choices, including helping protect the works they create.

The victims of revenge porn, however, did not make such a choice. They did not consent and their choices were not respected. That’s not only a violation of the law, but a violation of trust and of common decency.

This is why we can’t sweep revenge porn under the rug, no matter how difficult or awkward it is to talk about. The answers won’t come easy no matter what, but they won’t come at all if we can’t at least approach the subject.

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