When Bitter Breakups and Digital Photography Meet: What to Teach Our Kids About Revenge Porn


This month, California became the second state to pass a law that punishes people for posting sexually explicit pictures of someone else (most often an ex) as a way to make that person’s life miserable. This form of cyberbullying has been dubbed “revenge porn,” and in recent years a number of websites have popped up to profit off the dangerous combination of digital photography and bitter breakups. Victims of revenge porn not only find nude pictures of themselves posted online without their consent, the pictures are often accompanied by names, addresses, and insults—all of which can be seen by friends, relatives, employers, and total strangers.

Some say the only way to stop this damaging trend is to make posting revenge porn a crime, while others argue that the best way to prevent the situation is to put the camera down in the first place. How do we stop revenge porn without blaming the victim, and what should we say to our kids about this new threat to their privacy?

The stories that emerge during discussions of revenge porn are remarkably similar. Young women who had at one point texted or emailed nude pictures of themselves to an ex-boyfriend are shocked and horrified to find the pictures and other identifying information on websites such as YouGotPosted.com or MyEx.com. A college student told USA Today that a stranger messaged her on Facebook to tell her that pictures she had sent to her boyfriend of two-and-a-half years were now on that site. One victim told the New York Times that she had to give up her job at a restaurant and was stalked by a stranger after nude photos she had sent an ex appeared online. Holly Jacobs, the founder of EndRevengePorn.org, changed her name in an effort to disassociate from pictures and other information about her on a revenge porn site only to find a few months later that the site now had her new name.

These women had few legal options, as existing federal law protects websites that post materials from third parties. In most states, a victim’s only recourse would be a civil suit against the ex who posted the images, but these suits can be expensive and embarrassing, and they rarely end in a sizable payout. New Jersey has a law that would allow for criminal prosecution of the person who posted the materials, though it was not passed with revenge porn in mind. California’s new law, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last week, is the only law thus far passed specifically to address this issue. It allows for criminal prosecution, but only under a very narrow set of circumstances. Specifically, the law says that distributing private images with the intent to harass or annoy could be punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. However, the law only applies to pictures taken by someone else. Nude “selfies,” no matter how they end up online, are not covered by the law.

Many say that this makes the law toothless, at best, as most victims of revenge porn take their own pictures and then email or text them to a partner. Charlotte Law, a mother who became an advocate for revenge porn legislation when pictures of her 25-year-old daughter wound up online, says we really need federal legislation because laws like this are not enough. She told the New York Times, “[The California legislation] has been watered down again and again as it has weaved its way through Sacramento.”

Hunter Moore, an entrepreneur who started a revenge porn site from his parents’ basement and claims to have made $10,000 a month in advertising before shutting the site down in 2011, seems to agree that the California law won’t hurt business. Moore told tech magazine The Register, “This doesn’t stop anything. If you read the bill it is just for peeping toms, not for selfies, which is all revenge porn really is. These stupid old white people are even more stupid to think they can stop it … It will just make revenge porn bigger by driving traffic, because people are talking about it.”

The author of the law, state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) agrees that it does not go far enough and hopes to expand it in the future. He told the San Francisco Gate that he had to exclude “selfies” early on or the bill would have died, in part out of fears of crowding the already over-crowded prison system.

There may be another issue at work when it comes to self-shot photos—victim blaming. Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami who has drafted sample legislation criminalizing the posting of revenge porn, told the New York Times, “The moment the story is that she voluntarily gave this to her boyfriend, all the sympathy disappears.” Both Professor Franks and Holly Jacobs believe this is akin to commenting on what a rape victim wore on the night of her attack. Jacobs told USA Today, “It’s the same thing as someone telling someone who’s been physically raped that they shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt.”

While the women (and in some cases men) who have their personal lives shattered by revenge porn are victims in all sense of the word, there are lessons to be learned from their stories that don’t amount to blaming the victim. (To use identity theft as an analogy, we don’t blame victims of that crime, but we did all go buy paper-shredders once we had learned about it.) As Logan Levkoff, a sexuality educator who often works with high school students in New York City, told RH Reality Check, “I think that young people—and adults—should always use caution before taking naked pictures of themselves. This isn’t about blaming a victim, it’s about making smart decisions. And until we live in a world where all relationships are respectful, even when they end, and there is always consent, we need to make good decisions.”

As parents and educators, I think our responsibility is two-fold. First, we have to remind those growing up in this digital age of what should not but can happen to the pictures you decide to take. We need to teach young people to do a gut check before they hit send. One of the victims quoted in USA Today noted that she was uncomfortable sending the pictures to her then-boyfriend, but he pressured her, saying she’d do it if she really loved him, and if she didn’t send the picture it was proof that she didn’t trust him. “If you really loved me, you would” is still the oldest line in the book, even when it’s being applied to modern technology. No one should be pressured into sexual behavior of any kind, including sending nude pictures, and young people should learn to see such attempts at manipulation as a warning sign.

Even when both partners are completely willing participants, it’s still important to think through the potential outcomes before engaging in any behavior. In this case, that probably means thinking about the possible end of the relationship. Young people should understand that pictures can never be untaken or unsent. They should consider if they really want this person to have intimate pictures of them forever. Most exes don’t share the snapshots with the world, but it could still be uncomfortable to know that someone who is no longer part of your life can look at you naked any time. As awkward as it sounds, it may also help to think about how this person is with other exes—are they friends or do they spread nasty rumors about each other? My high school boyfriend used to curse out his ex all the time and call her horrible names. Even at the beginning of our relationship, when I was sure he’d never ever feel that way about me, this struck me as a bad sign of what could come.

And this brings me to the other thing that I think we have to do a better job teaching young people (and adults, of course): Respect for our friends and lovers should continue even after relationships end. The phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” originated in a play in 1697 (and was written by William Congreve, not Shakespeare, as I had always thought), but relationships don’t have to end with scorn or fury. Most relationships young people have will end, and we have to help them figure out healthy ways to break up with someone and survive being broken up with. We have to help them understand—through the sadness and anger—that they should continue to respect the person they once cared about and refrain from doing anything hurtful like spreading rumors, calling them names, or posting intimate information for the world to see. This may be hard to learn in our era of bitter celebrity divorces and Twitter fights, but it is an element of basic human decency that we should all try to afford those we once loved. Perhaps it is a simple application of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You may be so mad at a boyfriend that you’re willing to send a shot of him pantsless out to the whole school, but how would you feel if your next boyfriend sends a topless “selfie” of you to his football buddies?

Though just last week Hunter Moore showed no remorse in a YouTube video in which he said, “I’m sorry I was smart enough to monetize your mistake,” the Web mogul may soon wish he followed the golden rule more closely. In a 2011 interview with Anderson Cooper, Moore was asked if he felt bad about profiting of other people’s misery. He replied, “Why would I? I get to look at naked girls all day.” This drew the ire of many, including the hacker group Anonymous, which launched the campaign Operation Hunt Hunter and vowed, “We will hold him accountable for his actions.” In a more recent interview with Rolling Stone, Moore said he was going to return to revenge porn and would freely published women’s addresses along with their naked pictures. In response, Charlotte Law posted Moore’s home address on Twitter. Moore is also the subject of more than one law suit and an FBI investigation.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner