The email looked like spam. It came from an anonymous address, and Ali*, 22, thought it surely meant nothing. But she clicked on it just to be sure. The email told her not to panic, but there were nude pictures of her on the internet. She frantically scrolled to see two links at the bottom of the email—one to a Tumblr page and one to a Flickr page. She clicked. Staring back at her on the sites: her own face, and the nude photos she’d sent her ex-boyfriend during their four-year relationship. The images she entrusted him to keep private were now uploaded publicly for more than 3 billion internet users to see. She panicked.
It takes four clicks on Facebook to upload a photo—less time than it might take someone to inhale and exhale. That’s how quick and easy it is to share an explicit image of a person without his or her consent, maliciously robbing them of their privacy and turning their nude images into a form of internet pornography.
You’ve probably heard of revenge porn before, a term often used to refer to a type of online abuse known as nonconsensual pornography. Sometimes the perpetrators are strangers. Hackers made headlines in 2014 when they stole intimate images of actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence, and leaked them online. Often, the abusers are significant others, trusted individuals who use sensitive images as a way to harass past or current partners. Such was the case with Mischa Barton, whose ex-boyfriend allegedly filmed them having sex without her knowledge, via a hidden camera, and then tried to sell the video. Many women, like Ali, take and share personal photos with their partners, only to have those pictures used against them later as a means to intimidate, threaten, and assert control. Though it may not seem like it at first blush, revenge porn is an increasingly common form of domestic violence—one that can have a serious impact on a victim’s mental health.
Domestic abuse can be physical, psychological, or emotional. It can also be digital.
“There’s a sense that this is bad, what people are doing, but it’s not related to domestic violence,” Mary Anne Franks, J.D., a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and the vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), tells SELF. “Domestic violence sounds like a serious thing, and sharing pictures doesn’t always sound serious to people. But these things can’t be separated—nonconsensual pornography is becoming one of the most common ways to try to control and intimidate a partner.”
“If we think of domestic violence as including not just physical acts but also psychological ones, you could say that the disclosure of these images—when done by a partner or ex-partner—is basically always some form of domestic violence,” Franks says.
Adam Dodge, legal director at Laura’s House domestic violence agency in Orange County, California, processes between 900 and 1,000 domestic violence restraining order cases each year. He tells SELF that his legal department started noticing a serious spike in cases involving nonconsensual pornography or the threat of nonconsensual pornography a few years ago. Now, it’s all too common.
“It’s become something that we expect to see in a lot of our cases,” Dodge says. “We expect it to be part of the narrative: ‘He beats me, he isolated me from my family and my friends, he won’t let me leave the house, he tells me I’m stupid, and he tells me if I ever leave him he’ll send my pictures to my family.’”
Offenders can spread photos in myriad ways, including anonymously uploading them to social media sites, sometimes creating “impostor profiles” in a victim’s name, or through nonconsensual pornography–specific sites. There are thousands of porn Web sites with sections dedicated to nonconsensual pornography. These sites often pair photos of a victim with real information about them, from their full name to their email address, phone number, home address, work address, and sometimes even their social security number. Ninety percent of the victims are women, according to a CCRI survey.
“On those Web sites, it’s just page after page of ex-girlfriends, and next to the picture there’s room for commentary from all the viewers of this Web site,” Carrie Goldberg, an attorney specializing in nonconsensual pornography cases, tells SELF. “They comment on the woman’s appearance, they create theories about her promiscuity, and they challenge one another to find out more and more personal information and details about her, kind of like a game.”
Franks and the CCRI prefer the term nonconsensual pornography to revenge porn. The reason: It isn’t always purely motivated by revenge. It’s not always about “getting back” at someone, but rather about gaining power over someone.
Ali and her ex first met in grade school. They grew up in the same town, and dated off and on in high school and college. He fit into her life seamlessly—her family loved him, their families liked each other. “Everything was perfect,” Ali says. During college, they attended two different schools roughly 40 minutes apart. So they did what many people do in today’s digital dating world: They sent each other graphic pictures.
“We started sending each other nude pictures, just kind of spicing up our relationship,” Ali tells SELF. “I obviously really trusted him—he’d been in my life for 10 years. We had such a good relationship and this foundation, and I thought we were going to get married once we both graduated from college. Nothing you could think of could be wrong.”
In 2011, Ali’s relationship soured—she discovered that he’d been cheating on her. Even with his infidelity, the two ended things amicably, agreeing to be friends. Three months later, that all changed. Ali received the anonymous email linking to her explicit photos, and the abuse began.
“He started posting nude pictures of me all over the internet,” Ali says. “It started on three Web sites and ended up on over 3,000 links. It just exploded and went viral on every Web site you can think of.”
Abusers have turned sexting—an almost ubiquitous act—into a new weapon in their arsenal.
Sending explicit photographs, or sexting, is common in modern relationships. A 2012 Match.com survey of 5,000 adults revealed that 57 percent of single men and 45 percent of single women have received an explicit photo, and 38 percent of single men and 35 percent of single women reported sending their own sext. Typically, the act of sharing these pictures is grounded in trust. Yet according to a 2013 study by security firm McAfee, one in ten ex-partners have threatened to share private photos of their ex online. And 60 percent of ex-partners who made those threats followed through.
In already abusive relationships, explicit images may be taken or shared under duress. Sometimes partners are pressured or tricked into taking intimate photos, which are then used for leverage. “If they’re having sex or she’s coming out of the shower, and [an abuser is] just standing there taking pictures of her just saying, ‘What? What are you going to do?’—that is just such a powerful expression of power and control and dominion over somebody,” Dodge says. “And now they’ve got this evidence and ammunition to use against them in the future.”
Nonconsensual pornography isn’t entirely new—it existed well before “likes” and “double taps.” Abusers used to control victims with explicit Polaroids or three-by-five-inch photos entrusted to them, threatening to physically show or mail the images to people outside the relationship. Today, the internet has just made explicit photos easier to share with an even larger ready-to-view audience. “It’s definitely a way that domestic violence has innovated with new technology,” Dodge says. “We’re just constantly trying to keep up.”
If a person has taken part in intimate photos—whether willingly, under duress, or without their knowledge—the mere threat of sharing the images can be devastating, Dodge says. He calls threats a “favored weapon” in domestic violence. An abuser may threaten to send the pictures to a victim’s family, children, and even employers if they don’t comply with their demands, which could include things like staying in the relationship or not reporting abuse to friends or the police. And the threat traps the victim, who often believes their loved ones and job would fall away if their photos got out. An abuser may keep sending the photos to a victim as a cruel reminder of the threat they face and the power the abuser holds over them.
“People stay and act against their own best interest and people on the outside are thinking, ‘Why doesn’t she or he just leave?’ ” Dodge says. “It’s this issue of power and control…the mere threat of it is shockingly effective.”
Even if a person does physically get out of an abusive relationship, the ongoing threats—or the future circulation of photos—can still trap a survivor mentally in the same cycle of power and control.
Once pictures are put online, the internet works in favor of an abuser.
Ali went straight to the police after discovering her photos online. Her ex was arrested, and she filed a temporary restraining order against him. The case went to court, and Ali won a permanent restraining order against her ex. He was charged with criminal harassment. His punishment: community service and anger management classes.
After the sentencing, Ali was ready to move forward with her life—but her ex wasn’t done yet. He kept posting photos of her on social media sites, creating fake accounts in her name and posing as her when talking to people online. He gave out her real address, phone number, social media accounts, and posing as Ali, he told strangers online to “meet up” with her in person, and that she had a “rape fantasy.” The abuse became worse as strangers started harassing Ali, sometimes even approaching her in person.
“I was getting emails, text messages, dick pics sent to my Facebook,” Ali says. “I had people showing up at my door—it was crazy. Someone left pictures of me on my doorstep saying they would come find me.”
Ali was able to unlock some of the fake social accounts her ex created, and she found seven different email addresses that he used when posing as her. In the email inboxes, she discovered thousands and thousands of emails sent from “her” to random men. She went to the police a second time, and her ex was arrested again. In 2014, he was charged with a third-degree felony for invasion of privacy and sentenced to six months in jail. He served three months before being released.
Even though her ex is no longer posting images of her, Ali still deals with the photos on a constant basis. Trying to erase a photo from the internet is like a game of whack-a-mole without an end. Revenge porn photos are often downloaded and reposted to new pages, spreading across thousands of platforms and links. At first, Ali tried to find all the images herself. Many social media sites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, offer tools for users to report images for removal. But quickly, Ali found herself spending hours and hours each day, searching for her nude photos and reporting images. Her friends tried to help and started telling her if they found her photos, but that made her feel even worse. “I just felt so awkward because these are people I spend every day with coming across this stuff,” she says.
Today, she pays a service $500 a year to report the images for her. “They tell me I’m one of the worst cases they’ve ever had, and my pictures will be up there for a while,” Ali says. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Ali owns the copyright to her nude photos because she took the photos herself. This means she can send a notice to sites to remove her images, and those sites, by law, must take action. It’s called a DMCA Takedown, and it’s one tool victims can employ to try to remove revenge porn. Still, it’s a difficult feat when images spread like a virus across the internet.
“I have clients whose revenge porn went so viral that it’s just part of their daily process,” Goldberg says. “Their alarm goes off, they get out of bed, they brush their teeth, and then they go sit down on the computer and type their name in Google and spend the first hour of their day—every day—just sending out takedown notices and Google removal requests.”
For nonconsensual pornography victims, knowing those pictures will never truly disappear can be an enduring mental struggle. “It becomes almost a permanent emotional scar,” William Newman, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at St. Louis University who’s studied the mental implications of nonconsensual pornography, tells SELF. He says victims know the photos are out there, but they don’t know who’s seen them. It can lead to anxiety. “You meet people in a new context and in the back of your mind you’re always wondering, ‘Did they see my pictures? That person seemed like they kind of smirked or looked at me funny,’” he says. “You become almost a little paranoid of anyone you meet.”
What’s more, the images can affect a victim’s livelihood and lifestyle. A person’s name is usually posted with revenge porn images, Goldberg says. “Imagine if you type your name into Google and the first five pages of Google results all lead to pornography sites or lead to pernicious Web sites that contain your naked pictures,” she says. “Just imagine trying to get a job or a date or even a roommate without being Googled. Our reputations really matter.”
The good news: Nonconsensual pornography is being criminalized across the U.S., offering victims legal support.
In 2012, when the CCRI first began its work, Franks says only three states had laws that stated nonconsensual pornography was a crime. “Basically, in the majority of the United States, you could do this and nothing would happen to you.” Today, 35 states and Washington, D.C., have laws criminalizing nonconsensual pornography. “It’s been a really rapid progression in terms of how many states are actually willing to say, ‘This is a crime, you can’t do this,’ ” says Franks.
Still, today in 15 states the law does little to help revenge porn victims. In states where revenge porn is explicitly criminalized, punishments vary. Franks says some states categorize the crime as a privacy issue, while others will say it’s a form of sexual assault. This can change if the crime is viewed as a felony, which could be punished with significant jail time, or as a misdemeanor, which treats the crime as more of a minor offense with a less severe punishment.
The CCRI and other organizations—including Facebook and Twitter—worked with California Rep. Jackie Speier to create a federal bill that would criminalize nonconsensual pornography across the nation. The bill is called the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, and Speier introduced it to Congress on July 14, 2016. It’s co-sponsored by both Democrat and Republican congresspeople. If passed, it would make it a crime to “distribute a private, visual depiction of a person’s intimate parts or of a person engaging in sexually explicit conduct” without a person’s consent. The federal law will punish offenders with a maximum five-year sentence. “That’s comparable to other forms of sexual abuse and stalking,” Franks says.
Franks says the CCRI is working on a separate federal bill that would criminalize threatening to release images. Currently, the threats themselves are often prosecutable under basic extortion or threat statutes. A full list of laws by state regarding nonconsensual pornography can be found on the CCRI’s site.
Goldberg notes that victims can also choose to sue an offender, but she says criminalizing revenge porn is a stronger way to stop abusers from engaging in the first place. “Most people who are offending in this way are not people who are afraid of being sued, and lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming and public for victims,” she says. “The benefit of criminal laws is that it puts the onus on the state and on our law enforcers to be the driving force in terms of stopping it.”
Sometimes, restraining orders can help protect a victim from an abuser threatening or disseminating revenge porn. It’s what actress Mischa Barton obtained to stop her ex-partner from selling or distributing her sex tape. And it’s an approach Julia*, 29, used to keep herself safe, too. After Julia broke up with her controlling and verbally abusive boyfriend in 2015, she tells SELF her ex threatened to blast the intimate photos and videos she shared with him on Facebook. He even taunted her with the images. “When we first broke up, he actually followed me to the airport, and he was wearing a shirt with my picture on it and it was a picture of me in my lingerie,” Julia says. “And then he did it again when I was at the gym.”
Julia sought help and successfully filed a restraining order against her ex. Similar to Barton’s case, Julia’s court order keeps her ex away from her physically, and it also protects her from revenge porn. Under California’s Domestic Violence and Prevention Act, domestic violence includes “psychological and emotional abuse” as well as “behaviors by the abuser that are designed to exert coercive control and power over the victim.” Revenge porn fits those criteria all too well. If Julia’s ex disseminates any intimate photos, he faces arrest.
Franks says filing a restraining order in these cases can offer mixed results. The best-case scenario: A judge will grant a restraining order and not only forbid physical contact, but also forbid an abuser from disclosing intimate pictures, instructing them to destroy the content. In these cases, it’s helpful to have evidence. If you become a victim of nonconsensual pornography, Goldberg says don’t try to negotiate with an abuser, and instead focus on capturing all the evidence.
“If there is revenge porn or the threat of revenge porn, they need to screenshot everything,” says Goldberg. “They need to not delete the threats—that’s going to be very important evidence later on. And they should tell somebody that they trust and reach out to the CCRI and a lawyer who can help them with the next stages.”
Unfortunately, similar to sexual assault cases, there’s a prevalence of victim-blaming when it comes to nonconsensual pornography. “There’s this really prevalent tendency among the general public to say, ‘Well, that’s your own fault for taking the pictures,’ ” Franks says. “And that’s something I think those of us who work on the issue are really surprised by, because it’s an incredibly common practice to send naked pictures to each other.”
Even worse, Franks says law enforcement and the courts don’t always treat victims of nonconsensual pornography with respect. “We’ve heard horrific stories about how police officers will take the photos and look at them and pass them around with each other, not in a professional way but very much in a voyeuristic way right in front of the victim,” she says. “We’ve had judges who say, ‘You should have never taken these photos.’ ”
Goldberg often works with young victims in her revenge porn cases—junior high and high school students—and she’s seen disrespect from school administrators toward victims too. “I see a lot of cases where people whose job it is to protect are the most scathing and judgmental,” she says. To her, it only makes sense that the younger generation would incorporate sexting into their relationships. “They’ve grown up with a cell phone literally in their hand,” Goldberg adds. “They’re so used to expressing themselves and capturing every moment electronically—it makes sense that they would be prone to expressing their sexuality through technology as well.”
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The prevalence of technology makes sexting normal, but it also increases the risk of photos ending up in the wrong hands. If you choose to sext, Franks says you should be mindful of where pictures are kept and what they show. “Nothing gets you back your sense of privacy after this happens, so we recommend keeping it off the internet,” she warns. “Don’t use any type of cloud service, try to keep it really limited…and never put your face in a photo or any identifying marks like a tattoo.”
The mental and emotional toll of revenge porn is high, but there is hope.
Ali worries about the revenge porn images when applying for jobs, and she worries one day her future kids will see them. To cope with the stress, she spent some time seeing a therapist. Her family and friends have also been supportive.
What’s helped her the most, though, has been supporting others in similar situations and working to prevent future nonconsensual pornography cases. She previously volunteered at the CCRI as the assistant director of victim services. The organization runs a 24/7 crisis help line, and Ali worked with Franks and her team to help victims of revenge porn as well as to educate the public about the issue. Now, she works generally as a victim advocate.
Ali says she understands why the threat of nonconsensual pornography might keep someone in an abusive relationship. The fear of the images reaching friends, family, or coworkers—it’s very real. And Ali’s felt its effects. But, having gone through the situation, she’s seen firsthand there’s life after nonconsensual pornography.
“Don’t stay in a relationship because you have this fear,” Ali says. “It’s not healthy, it’s not good for you, and if that person’s spiteful enough to go post these pictures because you break up, there are ways to get them down. Don’t panic—there are things you can do.”
*Names have been changed.
If you have been threatened with nonconsensual pornography or are a victim of nonconsensual pornography, visit the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative for information and help. Domestic violence affects more than 10 million people—and their loved ones—each year. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). An expert will answer your call and help you figure out what steps you can take.