Pulling the Plug on Revenge Porn

Revenge porn is one of the darker sides of our high-tech age. It’s the act of humiliating and extorting women, often former lovers (hence the “revenge” part) by stealing and posting their nude and/or sexually explicit photos and videos online. And it’s all over the news lately.

In the last week alone:

  • A judge ruled that New York Jets linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, charged with invasion of privacy for distributing naked photos of a woman, cannot enter a program that would allow for a conviction to be wiped from his record.
  • An Oklahoma man pleaded no contest to charges of extortion, attempted extortion and conspiracy that could net him six years in prison. He operated a website that encouraged visitors to post nude photos of “your ex-girlfriend, your current girlfriend, or any other girl that you might know.” He then charged the women to have the photos removed.
  • A New Hampshire man was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for posting sexually explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend.
  • Charlie Evens is facing criminal charges for hacking into women’s email accounts and stealing nude photos for Hunter Moore, the king of revenge porn and “the most hated man on the Internet.” Moore raked in upwards of $30,000 a month by posting the photos and information about the women in them on his website. Evens, who did it for the money, said “It was really sh*tty and really sick, and I felt horrible… It’s just scary how quickly I would drop my morals for so little.”
  • Lawmakers in Nevada, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina are the latest of dozens of states that either have criminalized revenge porn, or are in the process of doing so.
  • The phrase “revenge porn” itself even earned a spot as one of the latest additions to Dictionary.com’s lexicon.

This disturbed and hateful act has ruined the lives of many of its victims, who have lost jobs and families, money and reputations. The social and psychological cost is devastating. One woman now named Holly Jacobs, after having her world turned upside down for 3 ½ years, decided to fight back by creating a support and activism site called endrevengeporn.org.

What to do about revenge porn? While the growing criminalization of it sounds like a good start, legal remedies are problematic for a number of reasons; Wired.com even calls them “a bad idea.” And legal recourse is useful only after the damage has been done.

For those who have already been victimized by it, Holly Jacobs encourages them to reclaim their dignity and power by speaking out about their experiences. But for those who haven’t yet been targeted, the best possible advice for women to avoid ending up in flagrante delicto all over the internet permanently is: don’t film yourself having sex.

But wait, you say—isn’t that essentially blaming the victim? Isn’t that like telling women to avoid rape by not dressing provocatively? Why should the burden be on the woman to protect herself? Shouldn’t we instead be teaching men not to abuse their former lovers’ privacy by posting intimate videos and pictures of them online, just as we should be teaching men not to rape? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to film herself having sex free from any fear that it will someday be used against her?

Well, women do have that right, but in the real world, there is no guarantee that they can exercise that right consequence-free. There is no need to teach men that revenge porn is wrong (and increasingly illegal)—they already know it is, but some men will do it anyway, just as men know rape is wrong and illegal, but some men do it regardless. People should always do the right thing, but they don’t—particularly when consumed by anger, jealousy, and the pain of rejection.

The cold, hard fact is that recording yourself naked and/or having sex leaves you vulnerable to being exposed to the public, no matter what lengths you go to to protect your images. Just as no form of birth control can absolutely guarantee that you won’t become pregnant, nothing can guarantee that you won’t be hacked or robbed or fall prey to a jilted lover who decides to get even by humiliating you and even ruining your life—nothing except not giving anyone the ammunition to use against you in the first place.

In the western world, sexuality and technology feed on each other and give rise to new extremes of narcissism and voyeurism that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago, maybe even ten years ago. Porn has essentially gone mainstream thanks in large part to the internet. We share the intimate details of our lives on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. We sext our lovers, record our sex on smartphones, store our intimate photos on laptops—all of which are vulnerable to being plucked from the virtual ether and distributed among strangers worldwide.

If you don’t want to be victimized in a very public way, protect your privacy by partially unplugging from this brave new world. Don’t surrender to the current of a culture that is becoming increasingly sexualized and decreasingly private. Technology and intimacy don’t mix. It’s time to reset the boundaries between our sex lives and the technology that has crept into bed with us.

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  • Mark: With all due respect, Acculturated has already heard from one writer who was happy to point out the fault of citizens who would dare record sensitive content (http://acculturated.com/celebgate-and-the-end-of-privacy/). In response, I wrote the following article (http://acculturated.com/why-privacy-violations-should-outrage-us/) and would like to remind you of my previous point, which the “don’t expect privacy” crowd misses:

    “There are two problems with the cultural dialogue: one, the focus on
    the fact that the images in question are sexual in nature, leading to
    the conclusion that hacks are merely sexually charged crimes. In fact,
    the content of the leaks is immaterial. Privacy is not limited to
    sexuality. It shouldn’t matter whether a photo reveals Jennifer Lawrence
    (or insert your own sister/daughter’s name) in her birthday suit or at a
    birthday party wearing pigtails and braces in junior high: If the
    photos exist in the private domain and she didn’t authorize their
    distribution, they are private property and not for public consumption.

    “And two: Not unlike any terrorist agenda, it is likely that American
    freedom is being hijacked by digital pirates who seek nothing less than
    the complete subjugation of man (and particularly woman) to their own
    voyeuristic whims. But whether the goals are voyeuristic or terroristic,
    it’s relatively easy to employ a totalitarian agenda of command and
    control when individuals are willing to shrug off their fundamental
    human rights.”

    Thanks for reading.

    • Bigshaker

      Erin, I didn’t see those previous articles. But to answer your two points: 1) yes, of course privacy is not limited to sexuality, but I focused on sexual photos because I was writing about revenge porn. And 2) nowhere did I say that we shouldn’t have privacy rights or defend them vigorously. I said that there are some people who will not respect those rights. Some people break laws, and in the context of revenge porn, if you want absolute protection against being victimized by it, don’t give anyone the ammunition to use against you. You seem to have construed this as saying that people should just give up their right to privacy.

      • I agree with your premise that “unplugging” is a wonderful rule of thumb, generally speaking, and can work wonders for soothing the mind and keeping the bedroom sacrosanct. Certainly there’s merit in keeping cameras out of the bedroom for the purpose of developing minimally digital (read: toxic) relationships.

        However, your article feels (to me) focused on “don’t expect privacy,” which didn’t help Erin Andrews when she was filmed through a hole in her hotel room’s wall, nor the women I mentioned in my article, victims of an upskirt photographer who was given a pass, for instance.

        The breakdown occurs when we focus on things like “revenge porn” or other pornographic materials: But is it okay to publish fully clothed, but sexually suggestive photos? What if they are not exactly considered porn? Are they subject to the same laws being enacted? This is worth a longer discussion (I may write an article!) but the point is the same: Any time someone steals your image for personal gain (revenge or extortion, for instance), you are a victim of theft, and thievery of any kind should NOT be tied to the victim, in my opinion. It’s the same argument the previous writer used when pointing out that your car will likely not be stolen if you leave it locked. (On a personal note, I had a laptop stolen from the front seat of my car while the door was unlocked. Funny thing is, the thief didn’t even check the lock: They broke the window, not even bothering to check. In no circumstances should I have been blamed for the incident. The car and the laptop were clearly private property, even if the vehicle was parked in public.)

        With revenge porn or other sexually suggestive leaks, the matter of theft also becomes a matter of sexual assault when the subject of the content is explicit. In other words, leaking sexually explicit content amounts to bodily harm, in my opinion. The goal should be to create a legal system that treats such violations as though the violator had physically assaulted the victim, because they *virtually* did. That’s up to the lawmakers to work out, but encouraging the “don’t expect privacy” argument makes these legal wranglings more difficult.

        It’s one thing to encourage a digital detox; it’s another to do it sloppily in the middle of an extremely important cultural and legal debate. That’s my frank critique.

        Thanks for the exchange. You’ve spurred some thoughts!

        • Bigshaker

          The upskirt photos and Erin Andrews examples don’t constitute revenge porn, which was my focus. My article was already longer than the usual Acculturated piece, so I didn’t attempt to cover the entire larger cultural and legal debate about privacy rights – that’s not sloppy, that’s just not the focus of my piece.

          If someone violates your privacy, of COURSE you’re a victim. No argument there. But suggesting that you protect yourself is not blaming the victim, it’s common-sense. How does this make it more difficult for lawmakers to work out legal protections? In any case, the law can only come along after-the-fact, which is too late for the victim. The first and best line of defense against revenge porn is: don’t film your sexual intimacy.

          And you mention the phrase “don’t expect privacy” as if I’m suggesting that we don’t even bother. I’m all for legal and technological protections for our privacy. But again, some people don’t obey the law. Ignoring that is an unnecessary risk.

          • I can appreciate that you were focusing on the specific issue of revenge porn, which may not have been the core issue in the examples I cited. However, my point in calling your piece sloppy (and I honestly say it with all due respect) is that you are essentially rehashing the same phrase–“don’t expect privacy”–that’s become the rallying cry for dismissing so many sexually charged privacy violations in and outside of “revenge porn.” In other words, you are contributing to a very slippery slope. You might have thought you were only talking about revenge porn, but the same argument was used in DC when the upskirt photographer earned a pass.

            Lastly, for now, I want to reiterate my opinion (and I think we agree on this) that *not filming* personal sexual intimacy is a great idea for reasons of deepening intimacy by shutting out digital toxicity. Not for the reason of *not tempting* potential hacks or bitter exes. You may not realize how damaging it is, but even though you are trying not to “blame the victim,” you are effectively pardoning the perpetrator – again, the same line of thinking that led to the upskirt photographer’s exoneration in a court of law.

            What’s sloppy, to be clear, is that you attempt to separate revenge porn from all other sexually explicit privacy violations, and you can’t do that. Sexual assault is sexual assault is sexual assault, and it doesn’t matter whether the privacy violator knows the victim personally well enough to label the crime “revenge porn” or not. I understand you didn’t plan to address the totality of sexual assaults on the Internet, but you opened up a can of worms, because the slippery slope will take effect: Pardon “revenge porn” perpetrators, and you pardon them all.