The Rise of Revenge Porn

October 29, 2021

Let's flashback to 1995, when news of a sex tape of Pamela Anderson was leaked in the media.

This is probably our first memory of a celebrity "porn" scandal. As audiences, many folks savored the new gossip as the media went wild.

Fast forward to today and this has become a new normal. We have now seen multiple celebrities falling victim to the release of private nude images and pornographic videos.

But... now we have a new word for this form of abuse: revenge porn.

There are many examples of celebrity revenge porn, including the infamous rapper 50 Cent who has been accused of sharing explicit images of his friend's ex-girlfriend on his social media accounts in retaliation.

More recently, Rob Kardashian publicly humiliated his former girlfriend by sharing nude pictures of her on his own social media handle. This fact is made worse that his sister, Kim Kardashian, was a victim of revenge porn in her own right.

So... is this the new normal?


What is revenge porn?

Alright - so, let's be clear: we HATE the term revenge porn.

What about the term 'revenge porn', which is inherently problematic?. The word ‘revenge’ suggests that the victim has done something to call upon this behavior of the perpetrator.

This victim-shaming term hints to the fact that these actions are truly deserved and were almost an inevitable part of taking and sharing intimate photos (sometimes referred to as explicit photos or private sexual images). Additionally, the word porn suggests that the images are for entertainment purpose. Our term of choice is ‘nonconsensual image-based abuse’ or ‘cyber sexual assault’.

Some also call it "nonconsensual pornography" but, again, porn is a bad word for describing this form of abuse.

Please note: throughout this piece we go back and forth of calling this type of abuse different things, including revenge porn. Why? Because that's what people are searching online and we want to be a resource for them.

The definition of image-based abuse is the act of distributing intimate photos through various means without the individual's consent.

And it's a growing problem.

From the plethora of websites that host these types of images, it is obvious that society has become seemingly complacent with this type of nonconsensual pornography.

Porn websites have been culpable in the propagation of revenge porn. Recently, porn sites like PornHub changed their policies to only allow verified creators to upload videos, in part due to the revenge porn problem.

Beyond traditional image-based abuse, deepfake technology is now being used to morph pictures and videos of people into porn without their knowledge or consent. This means that anyone can fall victim to image-based abuse whether or not they actually took intimate photos.

This raises a million questions with respect to online security and new forms of digital crimes in this age of technology. Image-based abuse is a massive invasion of privacy and victims of revenge porn deserve justice and healing while perpetrators deserve to be held accountable for their harmful behavior.


The dissemination of revenge porn

The perpetrators of nonconsensual pornography can be anyone.

Generally speaking, they have an intention of harming their target. Most often, it's a former partner (not someone hacking into iCloud; although that does happen!).

Sometimes this act takes the form of ‘sextortion’, a combination of the words sex and extortion, where the perpetrator uses force and coerces the victim into sending explicit pictures or otherwise threatens to publish the pictures if their commands are not followed.

In a study conducted by Cyberbullying Research Centre in 2018, approximately 5% of students reported that they had been a victim of sextortion. This new form of cyberbullying has become common with Gen Z and even Millennials.

While we're on the topic of Gen Z and Millennials - we have to talk about sexting.

‘Sexting’ has become normalized since instant messaging, texting, and image sharing became more mainstream. When someone sexts, they are giving permission of the other individual to view their intimate photo — they are giving consent to that specific individual — not the rest of the world.

For example, explicit images can be taken when the victim in intoxicated, incapacitated or otherwise not in a state to give a valid and informed consent. If the informed consent is absent, then this becomes ‘non-consensual image-based abuse’ and, in this case, a form of sexual assault.

The history of image-based abuse

Surprisingly, the history of non-consensual image sharing dates back to the 19th century.

In 1888, one of the New York’s photographers, Le Grange Brown was accused of showing and selling photos of undraped women in local salons. He had cut and pasted images of women on naked bodies without their consent.

This was the first time that discussion around consent started taking place in the United States. Later in 1890, a comic opera star Marion Manola’s picture was used and turned into an erotic postcard.

The impacts to victims of revenge porn

The effects of such an abuse can be long lasting. In a study conducted by Florida International University in 2019, 1 in 12 adults reported at least one instance of nonconsensual pornography victimization in their life and women reported higher rates of victimization.

The repercussions of such abuse are the same as in-person sexual assault. A study conducted in 2017 has reported that survivors of revenge porn show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, depression, amongst other symptoms of poor mental health.

It has been shown that female victims of such types of assault use coping mechanisms such as drinking, self-medication, and isolation from their social circle.

And the social humiliation and ostracism from society layers on added trauma.

Revenge porn laws

Is revenge porn illegal? Can it be punished through the criminal justice system?

Well... it depends.

For example, Section 245.15 of the New York Penal Code states that the image sharing should be without consent in order for the act to classify as a crime under the Section. This means that even though the image was initially shared with the accused by the victim, there was a reasonable expectation that the image would not go public. It is not just consent, but informed consent that is a key ingredient here.

Recently, California updated their policies from one year after the content is posted to one year after the content is discovered — which enables victims of revenge porn more time to come forward if they so choose.  Nonconsensual pornography is considered an invasion of privacy under New Jersey law and can come with harsher punishments.

Overall, 48 states + Washington D.C. (aka the District of Columbia) has laws against nonconsensual image-based abuse.

The criminal code differs in each of these states and how it is prosecuted varies dramatically.

Help for victims of revenge porn

What steps can a victim of cyber sexual abuse take to fight back?

The first thing you should do is document the abuse. While we know looking at your own nude photos shared across digital platforms, in instant messaging apps, or in text messages to other people can be traumatizing and cause emotional distress, documenting the abuse is the only way you can seek any form of justice. The screenshots should contain names, dates, and the time you took the screenshot.

You may want to perform a reverse image search on Google to see if there are other websites the image has been posted that you may not know about.

Once you've documented the abuse, you can contact helplines to figure out what next steps

One hotline dedicated solely to helping image-based abuse victims is the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) crisis helpline - 844-878-CCRI (2274). They can guide you to how to remove the images, refer you to an attorney, help understand state laws, and decide whether going the criminal justice route is something you want to do.

For example, if the image is shared on a social media platform, then it is important that the image be reported to the social media site. Often times, they have a takedown process.

Know that you are not alone if you experience image-based abuse. This new form of digital abuse is on the rise and there are many advocates and experts fighting every day to hold perpetrators accountable.

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