Commentary Sexuality

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

Martha Kempner

Websites like YouGotPosted.com and MyEx.com have profited off of "revenge porn," a form of cyberbullying in which people post once-private pictures of their exes. Some say criminal laws, like the one just passed in California, are the best remedy, while others suggest putting down the camera in the first place.

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.

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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 Rewire, “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.

Culture & Conversation Media

What #CoverWithConsent Can Teach Reporters About Ending Rape Culture

Andy Kopsa

As reporters and members of the media, reaching out to possible victims of rape for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling.

Last year, a former communications staffer for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon found the details of her rape case made public in a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The piece, written by then-staffer Virginia Young, used the woman’s police report, filed after her assault and filled with errors and inconsistencies, in an attempt to smear a former politician.  

The paper named the subject, Brittany Burke, without her consent. It gave her no chance to talk off the record and ran her photo side-by-side with that of the politician in question. That was almost a year ago. And yet in March, the Post-Dispatch ran an editorial that doubled down on its actions. The paper’s editorial board renamed Burke, denying the Post-Dispatch‘s piece was an assault story but rather one about the “party atmosphere” in the state capitol. The editors have claimed naming Burke in the first place was vital to the public interest. It wasn’t.

I use Burke’s name because she gave me consent to use her name and to tell her side of this story—something the Post-Dispatch didn’t do.  

Burke’s outing inspired a wave of backlash and critique. Using her name and her assault report wasn’t just yellow journalism; it appeared to be a calculated and craven act to sell papers and drive clicks. Last month, partially inspired by Burke’s situation, the Missouri house held hearings on a bill that would require documents like police reports to redact the personal information of trauma victims prior to the document being released to the public. Missouri law currently restricts release of records if there is a danger posed to the subject by doing so. While concerns over restricting access to public records is valid—transparency in the world of journalism is paramount—it is clear that in certain cases, like those of rape and other traumas, further rules need to be established.  

The Post-Dispatch’s editorial was in response to this bill, which passed out of committee and is currently awaiting full floor debate; Burke testified in its favor. 

But Burke’s story stretches beyond Missouri—it can act as a lesson for reporters and members of the media in how to approach stories about victims of trauma.

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With that in mind, I stepped out of my reporter role briefly last year and launched an online petition demanding the Post-Dispatch issue an apology to Burke. Beyond the apology, the petition called on the paper to immediately implement transparent standards of dealing with potential victims of sexual assault and to adopt simple training that would create a trauma-informed newsroom. The petition was launched with the support of Women, Action, and the Media! (WAM!) under the hashtag #CoverWithConsent, referencing the broader need for reporters to obtain consent from possible victims before naming them, and to, whenever feasible and appropriate, contact them to get their sides of the story.

Newspapers aren’t legally bound to withhold the name of a possible rape victim, though it is common practice to do so. But it wasn’t just Burke’s name that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed. The story included details that suggested Burke was an unreliable witness to her own assault and that effectively put Burke’s personal and professional life in danger.

At the time of Burke’s assault, she had started her own public relations and communications company and many of her clients were in government-adjacent support fields, so she spent a lot of time in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The night of the incident, Burke went out for dinner and drinks with some friends. She ended up at a bar frequented by government officials, politicians, and lobbyists. She bought rounds of drinks. The next thing she remembers is showing up at a former fling’s apartment matted with blood and confused. Not able to recall what happened, she decided she needed to go to the hospital. “I feel like I had sex,” she says she told the nurse, along with the fact that she was a woman in politics and required discretion in the case.

She filed a police report. “I don’t know if I was raped,” she told the officer, meaning that she truly did not remember what happened to her that night. According to the report, the officer asked Burke, who was crying, that if the lab test from the hospital came back with a lead, what she would like to have happen to someone who assaulted her. Burke replied, the report said, “I want him to burn in hell.”

Young, now retired from the Post-Dispatch, based much of her story on the police report without giving Burke the opportunity to talk off the record about them or correct anything about the details. For example, police initially investigated Burke’s complaint under the outdated statute of “forcible rape.” Under current law, however, if a person is unable to consent to sex for any reason, that is rape in Missouri. Young did not note this inconsistency, simply writing that the case had been dropped.

Young also detailed Burke’s bar tab, careful to catalog what Burke drank and bought right down to the last “Jagerbomb.” But the real push of the story was that Burke had had an affair with a married, former speaker of the Missouri house. That was revealed in the police report: His apartment is where she ended up the morning after the assault. He was otherwise not connected with the incident.

As reporters, it is our job to relay facts of a story that arm readers with information to come to their own conclusions. Compassion is not something typically associated with reporters, and in most cases we must be dispassionate to remain as unbiased as possible. But as a reporter who works with victims of trauma, the way I relay a person’s story is just as critical as making sure the facts are correct. In fact, the first often leads to the second.

After the story broke in the Post-Dispatch, I dug further into the story and filed my own account of what happened to Burke with the Riverfront Times, a regional independent weekly based in St. Louis. I did this in collaboration with Burke, meaning: I talked with her. I listened. She shared information with me on background that led me to seek further sources and lines of inquiry. Talking with Burke off the record led to a robust accounting of what happened to her that night. Listening to her and acknowledging trauma built trust. And trust led to Burke sharing the jarring findings from medical records that included a sexual assault nurse examiner finding suspected semen and vaginal abrasions “consistent with assault.” 

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) also took issue with the Post-Dispatch’s handling of the story. In an article that was published after the Riverfront Times piece, Deron Lee argued that if the Post-Dispatch had allowed Burke to speak off the record instead of asking for an on-the-record comment, it may have convinced the paper to not run the article as it was published. “Insisting that sources and subjects be on the record is a way to hold accountable people who wield power. Talking to someone who is a possible sexual-assault victim presents a different set of considerations,” Lee wrote.

Reaching out to Burke—or any possible victim of rape—for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling. Moreover, getting consent prior to telling an apparent victim’s story could go a long way in punching back at the pervasive rape culture perpetuated all too often by the media. For example, in response to backlash to the story, Christopher Ave, Young’s editor on the piece, erroneously said in an interview“Not only was there no evidence of a sexual assault, no one was alleging a sexual [assault], the woman was not alleging a sexual assault.”

Rather than allowing Burke to tell her own story, Ave, Young, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board were her judge and jury—deciding she had not been assaulted based on an incomplete police report, no background from the victim, and no mention of physical evidence.

This, said Soraya Chemaly, feminist media critic, author, and director of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, who coined the #CoverWithConsent hashtag, is an example of how the media puts rape victims on trial—something we seldom do with any other crime.

“Consent is such a vital issue,” said Chemaly in a phone interview. She pointed me to a recent study, released in December 2015 by the Women’s Media Center, which examined coverage of campus rape and sexualized violence at 12 major print outlets. Over the course of a year, it revealed that 55 percent of stories about sexual assault were covered by men and only 31 percent were covered by women. The gender divide goes deeper: Within those stories, 48 percent contained quotes from men while women made only 32 percent of quotes used.  

#CoverWithConsent is an effort to hold the establishment we are a part of accountable. The petition itself is less about getting an apology for Burke—she knows that will likely never happen. Rather, it is about how newsrooms should have reporters who are trained in dealing with possible victims of trauma, including sexual assault. Editorial standards should take victims’ needs into consideration, such as the option to speak on background. According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, for a reporter working with a survivor of sexual assault, it is essential to treat their experience with compassion and sensitivity, to tell a subject’s whole story, and “to take special care, if they are to avoid compounding their interviewees’ distress.”

“The #CoverWithConsent campaign holds media accountable for victim-blaming, shaming, and outing sexual assault survivors. The campaign condemns acts of insensitive and irresponsible journalism that results in shaming crime victims. It also illuminates the reality that this kind of unethical reporting perpetuates rape culture by re-victimizing survivors in the court of public opinion,” said Jamia Wilson, executive director of WAM!, in an interview.

The original story nearly destroyed Burke. Her livelihood as a consultant was over—some clients terminated contracts or didn’t renew contracts, she said, specifically because of the Post-Dispatch story. Her personal information and address was posted online, and she faced an onslaught of harassing tweets and Facebook messages. When I approached Burke about signing onto the petition officially, she said yes. Looking back, she told me, she had nothing left to lose.

With her anonymity gone, Burke was thrust into a role she never would have imagined: that of a women’s and victim’s right advocate. The last year has been incredibly difficult for her and she still struggles. She has been asked to speak at a local university about her experience as a woman in public relations and politics and about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story and its aftermath. She told me she never thought she would be speaking to college classes about the shaming of a rape victim, let alone that the victim would be her.  

But, she said, she doesn’t have a choice. “I have to make sure I do whatever I can to make sure this never happens to any woman again.”

Roundups Sexuality

This Week in Sex: Condoms in Porn, Sex on Vacation, and What Millennials Are Doing in Bed

Martha Kempner

This week, a survey gives us insight into the sex lives of millennials, a study finds women engage in riskier sex on vacation, and advocates try another tactic for mandating condoms in porn.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Survey Says: Millennials Are Using Condoms, Lubes, and Toys, and They’re Having Orgasms

A new survey by condom manufacturer Ansell targeted over 5,000 men and women ages 18 to 34 and asked them 69 questions (yep, not 70, and probably not a coincidence) about sexuality and relationships.

It found that 43 percent of millennials are using lubricants and over a quarter are using vibrators. This could explain why so many of the women are climaxing—89 percent of women respondents said they typically have an orgasm during sex.

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And as for that sex, the most common position is doggy style, followed by missionary and cowgirl. Men reportedly said they prefer doggy style, while the women in the survey said they liked missionary better. The most common day for sex: a birthday.

The survey also found that the more academic degrees millennials have, the more likely they are to use condoms, though there is no way of knowing whether they are actually getting a formal sex education in schools. What the findings do show is that 65 percent of individuals with a professional degree reported using condoms, compared to 44 percent of respondents with a high school diploma. And, 58 percent of millennials currently enrolled at a university reported using condoms.

When they’re not actually having sex, respondents appear to be using their phones to talk about sex. Over half (57 percent) of millennials reported sexting, with 7 percent saying they sext daily and 11 percent saying they do it several times per week. And some of those sexts include art: 49 percent of millennials have sent naked pictures on their mobile phones, and 25 percent sent such pictures via Snapchat.

But don’t expect them to stop using their mobile phones—at least not the 37 percent of respondents who said they would rather give up sex than the Internet for a year.

Women Have Riskier Sex When on Vacation

Vacation sex is not a new concept, but researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Florida wanted to know if individuals engaged in riskier behavior while on holiday than they do at home.

They surveyed more than 850 women ages 18 to 50 online and asked about their own behavior as well as their perceptions about which tourist activities and destinations were most conducive to sexual risk-taking.

The results suggest that tourist experiences in tropical destinations or European countries are seen as the ultimate settings for sex with a steady or at least known sexual partner, and a group tour is best for casual sex with an acquaintance.

What is it about vacation that leads to sex? Well, there are many factors—lack of schedule and responsibility, a disconnect from everyday life, and anonymity were all brought up by respondents. One major facilitator of vacation sex: heavy drinking. Some women, however, just saw risk itself as part of the vacation experience.

Women were also asked to rank 23 sexual practices—such as going to a sex club, having unprotected sex with a stranger, or having sex in a restroom—in order of perceived risk. Not surprisingly, those women who reported having engaged in risky sex while a tourist perceived these activities as less risky than their peers did.

Though sex on the beach may not seem like a serious subject for academic study, the researchers point out that there are public health ramifications. As one of the researchers said in a press release: “The fact that women have tendencies to underestimate the risks involved in non-penetrative sexual activities, overestimate the protection of condoms, and attribute sexual risk-taking to alcohol consumption are factors that sexual health information campaigns might want to address.”

Measure Requiring Porn Actors to Wear Condoms May Be on the 2016 Ballot in California

Advocates announced last week that they have gathered enough signatures to put a measure requiring condoms in all adult films shot in California on the 2016 ballot.

As Rewire has been reporting, the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) has been working on various measures over the last few years to mandate condoms in porn films with mixed success. Attempts to get the LA City Council to agree to the mandate failed a number of times, but in 2012 voters in that city approved “Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act,” known as Measure B, despite producers’ threats that they would simply film elsewhere. Enforcement of the rule has been difficult, and last year AHF took its fight to the state legislature, where efforts to pass a new policy failed.

Now, AHF is turning once again to the voters with a statewide ballot initiative that would require all production companies to certify, under the penalty of perjury, that condoms were used in all acts of vaginal and anal sex. Violators would face fines of up to $70,000. Production companies would also have to post a sign on set notifying actors that condoms are required.

The adult film industry is opposed to any such requirements, arguing that it is capable of keeping its performers safe. Many others in the state oppose the measure as well because of the financial implications. Since Measure B passed in Los Angeles, the number of permits given to adult films has dropped by 90 percent. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, a non-partisan fiscal advisor, says that if passed, the ballot initiative will not only cost the state millions of dollars to enforce each year, the state will simultaneously lose tens of millions of dollars each year in tax revenue.

Still, AHF President Michael Weinstein believes that voters will go for the measure. He told the Los Angeles Times, “unlike most politicians, voters were not squeamish about this issue, seeing it as a means to protect the health and safety of performers working in the industry.”

The secretary of state confirmed last week that the initiative had received enough signatures—365,880—to be placed on the ballot. The signatures still have to be validated by state officials.

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