Anisha Vora had been dating her boyfriend on and off for four years. They had been friends since the sixth grade, her parents loved him and she saw wedding bells in their future. But most importantly, she trusted him. What reasonable person wouldn’t?
Even after she discovered he had cheated on her and they ended their relationship, the two chose to remain friends. After all, they had been good friends for so long. Vora figured they would always be.
A few months after the breakup, Vora found out that her ex had been posting nude photos she’d shared with him online. Images of her first appeared on three websites, and as of today, she has been seen on 2, 137 sites.
“My first thought was that I felt so backstabbed, ” Vora says. “I think I felt more sad than angry. It was really hard for me to feel the emotion of anger for some reason. I was disconnected to it because this was someone who I thought I was going to stay good friends with. But at the end of the day, I think what hurt me the most was that we were still hanging out. During the time we were hanging out, he was posting pictures of me. How can you look someone in the eye and be friendly and do this behind their back?”
Vora immediately went to the police, who arrested her ex-boyfriend on a domestic violence charge that was later argued down to a misdemeanor harassment charge. After that incident, his misdemeanor harassment progressed case as he continued to post the pictures along with her full name, address, cellphone number and Facebook page.
“All my information was out there, ” Vora says. “People were showing up at my door. I had a really rough experience with it. He put me and my family in danger.”
This time, her ex-boyfriend went to jail for violating their restraining order and ended up serving three months in county jail. Vora’s was the first case in New Jersey where the invasion of privacy law was used to prosecute an instance of what has now been termed “revenge porn.”
Currently, there are 24 states that have criminal legislation addressing non-consensual porn, according to Carrie Goldberg, founding attorney of C.A. Goldberg, a New York law firm that focuses on Internet privacy and abuse. Fourteen states have pending legislation, and eight states currently have civil remedies that are dedicated laws for victims to sue offenders.
“The time it takes to get the legislation passed varies, ” says Goldberg, who started her firm 18 months ago. “In some states there are enthusiastic sponsors who get a push through within several months. In my personal experience, tech is another weapon being used against women without them knowing through texting, hacking into video cameras, and so on. The Internet is not the problem—it’s the people that use it.”
According to Goldberg, Illinois is leading the fight against revenge porn with the most progressive law developed to date. She says that there are seven items that make up the anatomy of an effective revenge porn law:
Motive doesn’t matter: Some laws require the offender to have intent to cause emotional distress to the victim. In reality, victims are harmed no matter the motive, which can be money, sexual gratification or entertainment.
Selfies are included: 83 percent of intimate images originate as selfies. Some laws only apply to photos taken by the offender.
Strong punishments: Illinois made revenge porn a Class 4 Felony, and punishable by one to three years in prison, fines of up $25, 000 and restitution to the victims.
Not just nudity: Some laws only apply when “sexual parts” are exposed, but the Illinois law recognizes that victims can be harmed by non-consensually distributed photos regardless of nudity.
Downstream distributors: Some laws can only punish the original perpetrator, but in Illinois, the law considers whether a reasonable person would know or understand they are distributing an image that was supposed to be private.
Honor the first amendment: Effective porn laws are narrowly tailored so as to not sweep up expressive content.
Doxxing: 59 percent of victims have had personal information posted with their nude photos. Often that material dominates the search engine and destroys their online presence.
Some revenge porn laws have taken longer to get through the legislative system because of societal and media tendencies to victim blame. When 400 Australian women learned in June that a U.S.-based porn site had hacked and published their nude photos, Australian broadcaster Channel 7 tweeted the following question:
The Tweet has since been removed, but the discussion around when the media will stop making women feel bad about their bodies is ongoing. Vora says it’s very easy for people to point their fingers and find someone to blame. But by doing that, they are removing the responsibility from her offender’s shoulders.
“They’re saying my ex-boyfriend did nothing wrong by exploiting me like that, ” she says. “He put me in danger, but [in their eyes] I’m the one that was wrong. If it was someone that I trusted, then we have an understanding that the picture he sent me or the picture I sent him was intimate and between him and I. We had an agreement. I was sharing it with him, not the whole world.”
Goldberg says that the tendency to victim-blaming has begun to evolve more recently thanks to some female celebrities who have themselves had their nude photographs shared without their consent. Images of dozens of celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna and Kirsten Dunst were apparently hacked from Apple iCloud accounts—which Jennifer Lawrence angrily called a “sex crime.”
“We’ve seen an evolution in just the past year, ” she says. “The conversation changed when celebrities became better known as victims. We had a couple statements from celebrities that were very strong and demanded that victims not be blamed.
“We’ve consistently conveyed the message that when there is a crime that relates to the consent, we can’t blame victims for what they wore, drank or who flirted they with or shared an image within the context of a relationship.”
Still, some question whether criminal punishment is the right way to handle revenge porn offenders. In 2013, journalist Sarah Jeong, who is also a trained lawyer, wrote an article for Wired arguing that criminalizing revenge porn simply “solves one problem while potentially generating many more.”
“Although we have in our minds the perfect-paradigm case of a sympathetic victim—a nice girl with a penchant for selfies—and an unsympathetic perpetrator—a spurned, vindictive ex-boyfriend with a blatant streak of misogyny—the web of liability becomes nebulous when we think about cases that fall outside this paradigm, ” she writes. “The point is that a new criminal statute paves another way to put a human life on hold and a human body in prison—and yes, a paparazzo still counts as human. There are unintended consequences to overbroad laws, and failing to take that into consideration when advocating for increased criminal liability is irresponsible.”
Jeong suggests other legal routes for victims to seek justice for their offenders such as “civil tort actions, DMCA takedowns, criminal statutes against extortion, and even a federal law that could give the FBI authority to go after the sites.”
Still, Goldberg maintains that criminal legislation is the best way to prevent revenge porn from spreading even further than it already has.
“Criminal laws deter people, ” Goldberg says. “They stop people from doing the bad thing in the first place. Copyright laws are important tools for victims, but offenders are not afraid of being sued. Especially if they don’t have any money or are not afraid of the victim. Sometimes the victims have recently left an abusive relationship, and the revenge porn is a result of that. The abusers would love to engage in a battle with them.”
She says that both civil and criminal law are necessary in taking down this online evil. While pursuing their offender in court, victims can also hire companies to monitor the images and get them removed. Vora says the company she hired, DMCA Defender, has been very successful in her fight to take back her online presence.
“They are doing a fabulous job, but I waited a long time to report it, ” she says, “so by then my pictures were too viral. It’s just something I’ll have to deal with. I’m just thankful to have someone to take it down because I don’t have to have a reminder of it every day.”
Powerful tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have come out against revenge porn, and created forms to help victims erase their unwanted Internet images. Both Vora and Goldberg also advise victims to keep every evidence of the harassment, especially screenshots. The website EndRevengePorn.org has a 24-hotline and other helpful information on how to deal with revenge porn.
“During this whole thing I had my friends and my family, and I loved them, but they didn’t know what I was going through first-hand. These people know, and we stick up for each other, ” Vora says.
“When it happened to me, I didn’t really know what to do, ” she says. “I’ve worked as a victim outreach coordinator here for two years now, and there are so many people who don’t know where to turn.”