Legislation fights back against “revenge porn”
Imagine waking up one morning to hundreds of messages from strangers on your Facebook, or Googling your name one day and finding links to naked pictures of yourself. For many people this sounds like a nightmare—but for some, it’s reality.
This phenomenon is called revenge porn. It occurs when revealing or pornographic photos of an individual are posted on the Internet without their permission, often (but not always) by an ex. Although men are sometimes victims of revenge porn, women are most commonly the targets.
It all started with the launch of the website Is Anyone Up in 2010. Founded by Hunter Moore, often nicknamed the “most hated man on the Internet,” the site accepted anonymous submissions of pornographic photos and videos, depicting people, mainly women, who had not intended for the revealing materials to be made public. It wasn’t long before controversy erupted, and the site was shut down, allegedly by Moore himself, on April 9, 2012.
Is Anyone Up paved the way for many similar sites, one of which found Hollie Toups, of Nederland, Texas, a victim. In the summer of 2012, Toups received a phone call from her friend while at work. The friend told Toups she’d heard that nude photographs of her were posted on a website called Texxxan.com. While it was up and running, the site accepted submissions of nude photographs of women, none of whom had given permission for their photos to be posted. The pictures were often accompanied by personal information, including the victims’ full names, email addresses, and even their home addresses.
“I said, ‘That is impossible. I’ve never sent my pictures anywhere like that’,” Toups said. However, when she left work and headed home to check it out for herself, she found that her intimate pictures were indeed on the site. Toups, like many other revenge porn victims, was horrified and devastated after the discovery.
“Initially, I just wanted to crawl in my bed and never leave my house,” she said. “I was humiliated, I was depressed, I felt like every single thing I had worked for in my entire life had been torn to pieces. I know it sounds dramatic, but I really felt like my life was over.”
The repercussions of being victimized by a revenge post are severe. “With situations like this, these girls are seen in public, and there are no boundaries for people who have seen their photos,” Toups said.
Mary Ann Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, has aided the drafting of multiple anti-revenge porn bills.
“What we’ve heard from women so far is that sometimes they are physically stalked, they’re threatened, they’re approached by people in the street, at the store, at their job, propositioning them, threatening them, engaging with them in all sorts of ways that these women find hostile or threatening,” Franks said.
For many victims, these consequences are long-term and never seem to truly go away. “There may be times when the images have been out for so long that it isn’t a constant stream of abuse anymore, but the long-standing effects of that sense of being watched all the time and that everyone around you knows the most intimate things about you and your life is something that they never get rid of,” she said.
Oftentimes, photos are submitted to these websites by jaded ex-lovers. Some sites even specifically encourage this, like the current front-runner of revenge porn, MyEx.com. In some cases, it’s not so cut-and-dried. Toups originally suspected her ex-boyfriend of posting the photos, but soon realized that some of the pictures posted had never been sent to him – that they had never been sent to anybody. At this point, she realized it could have been anyone.
“You become instantly paranoid. It’s almost like every single person that’s ever walked through your life becomes a suspect. You don’t even know where to start,” Toups said.
After her ordeal, Toups decided something needed to be done. She connected with other Texas women who had also been victimized by Texxxan, and together, they formed the organization Army of She. The women filed a class-action lawsuit against the site and its host, GoDaddy, leading to its eventual shutdown.
“We wanted them to not have to think. We wanted to be able to do the thinking for them,” Toups said of the organization. The Army of She’s website not only gives victims resources, like contact information for lawyers and advocates, but it also gives them a place where they can share their experiences and make their voices heard.
Army of She is not alone in the fight. In 2004, New Jersey passed an invasion of privacy law that offers some protection for revenge porn victims. On October 1st, California signed an anti-revenge porn bill into law. And throughout the month of October, three New York legislators announced plans to push legislation that would criminalize revenge porn. Along with Senator Phil Boyle and Senator Joseph Griffo, Democratic Assemblyman Edward Braunstein is getting involved in the effort. His office enlisted the help of Franks in drafting the statute.
“We’ve been reading news reports about how particularly young women are having a hard time, whether it’s with their employment or having future dating opportunities, when there’s a picture of them floating around on the Internet,” Braunstein said. His office decided to look into the issue after California passed a bill over the summer to criminalize revenge porn. “We look to other states at times for ways that we can protect New Yorkers,” Braunstein said. “We knew that this was a problem that was not just unique to California, and we decided to take it up in New York.”
Braunstein’s bill criminalizes the “non-consensual disclosure of sexually explicit images that were shared with an expectation of privacy.” However, unlike the California bill, which has been criticized for being too lenient, this bill will make the posting of these images a Class A misdemeanor. Violators could serve up to a year in prison and face a possible fine of up to $30,000.
While this legislation was inspired by the bill in California, Braunstein feels that this bill covers the areas that they missed – most notably, “selfies.”
“We feel our bill is a little bit stronger, because it includes self-taken photographs,” he said. The statute also clearly identifies the type of material that is illegal. “It defines sexually explicit conduct, making sure that we’re not talking about pictures of people in bikinis or something like that. It’s clear that these are pictures or videos, not cartoons or drawings,” Franks said.
Of course, attempting to bring forward a bill of this nature is no easy feat.
“Anytime you’re trying to legislate in this area you have to be very careful not to violate the first amendment rights. We feel that the language that we’ve used has achieved that goal,” Braunstein said.
New York is not the only state taking action. Just last month, both Wisconsin and Maryland announced plans to push similar legislation. While the hyperconnected realities of the digital age make it difficult to ensure that personal communication truly remains private, these potential new laws are a step in the right direction. Before long, victims of revenge porn may finally begin to see justice.
Kathryn Paquet is junior TV-R major. Email her at kpaquet1[at]ithaca.edu.