This is what it is like to be the victim of revenge porn, and why we need to criminalise it

Criminalising nonconsensual porn is the strongest way for society to send the message that the violation of sexual privacy is unacceptable

In 2012, before I started the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) and its campaign, End Revenge Porn, victims of nonconsensual pornography had few options. When someone turned their most intimate moments into public entertainment, no one could help them. Not lawyers. Not the police. Not victim advocates. Not family or friends.

Police would tell them it wasn’t a crime. Nothing could be done about it. The only advice victims were given: hire a lawyer.

Victims rarely found lawyers to take their cases. If they did, they‘d often pay an average $2,000 retainer fee just to send a cease and desist letter. Meanwhile, within minutes, their private photos would spread to pornographic websites, social networking platforms, and to the email inboxes of their personal and professional contacts.

Often, perpetrators post personal information alongside the images: a victim’s name, social media profiles, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, and any other information they could get their hands on. Victims tell stories of being approached in the aisles of their local grocery store by strangers asking if they are porn stars, or of strangers showing up at their doorstep, saying they were responding to an invitation they found online.

Victims have tried using copyright laws to get the material down. If they had the strength and the time, they might spend months documenting and cleaning up their search results. This would force them to face the violation of their personal and sexual privacy on a daily basis. And the documentation is exhausting. Every time a victim has to take a screenshot of herself on a porn site, see the comments about her body, or read what strange men want to do to her, she feels violated. She feels threatened. She feels like it’s a nightmare that will never end.

Filing dozens of individual takedown notices with numerous websites might eventually pay off. Victims’ photos might come down – for a while. Within a few days, though, they’d be up again on hundreds of different websites. With no recourse, victims often gave up, left their jobs, transferred schools, moved, or even changed their names, like I did. Some considered suicide. Others followed through with it.

Victims are desperate for alternative solutions, because existing solutions—civil action, copyright, harassment or stalking laws—simply don’t work. Not only are they insufficient to help victims after the fact, they are clearly insufficient for preventing the conduct from occurring in the first place. If existing laws provided sufficient redress for victims, we wouldn’t still be hearing from victims every week. There wouldn’t still be hundreds of revenge porn sites. If existing laws offered either an effective deterrent or an adequate remedy, nonconsensual porn would not be a growing phenomenon.

Criminalizing nonconsensual porn is the strongest way for society to send the message that the violation of sexual privacy is unacceptable. It is the strongest way to send the message that victims are not to blame for what has happened to them. It is the strongest way to deter potential perpetrators from engaging in this conduct at all.

That is why CCRI advocates for comprehensive, carefully drafted criminal laws against this practice. We want strong laws that protect privacy and safeguard important social values. When the right to privacy is threatened, so are the other values of a free society, such as dignity, autonomy, and freedom of expression. So it’s great news that from next week posting these images will be a criminal offence in England and Wales.

Technology is becoming more integrated into all of our lives. Increasingly, we are constantly connected to the Internet and constantly surrounded by cameras and other recording devices. The opportunities to use private information to destroy a person’s career, educational opportunities, family life, or personal relationships are growing every day. We are all at risk. Strong legal protection against vicious invasions of privacy is something all of us need, whether we realize it yet or not.

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