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'Our Society's Deep Sexual Dysfunction': Why It's So Hard to Stop Revenge Porn

Mar 17 2017 6:45 PM
'Our Society's Deep Sexual Dysfunction': Why It's So Hard to Stop Revenge Porn

Photo by Harald Walker via Stocksy

Shortly after a revenge porn scandal rocked the Marines, reports surfaced that hackers had stolen and posted private images from female celebrities—exactly one year after a man was charged for the exact same thing. Why is it so hard to deter depraved humans from committing this sex crime?

In a Senate Armed Services hearing this week, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand delivered a scathing reprimand of Marine Commandant General Robert Neller, castigating the Marines' handling of the recent nude photo scandal in which 30,000 current and former Marines illicitly shared nude photos of female service members in a private Facebook group, along with disparaging, misogynistic comments and personal information about their targets.

Senator Gillibrand pointed out that this is not the first time reports of similar behavior have found their way up the ranks, and officers have failed to punish those responsible. "Who has been held accountable?" she demanded, her voice rising with anger. "Have you actually investigated, and found guilty, anybody?" The military, of course, had not; in the hearing, General Neller attributed the Marines' inability to control incidents like this to a broader cultural issue.

Watch now: Senator Gillibrand Is an Unstoppable Advocate

The scourge of "revenge porn," or the sharing of private photos of an individual without that individual's consent, is indeed an epidemic cultural problem, prevalent well beyond the confines of the military. Emphasizing this rather bleak fact, two days after the hearing, several news outlets reported on rumors that stolen images of several female celebrities were circulating on the "dark web." On websites like Reddit and 4chan, the leaks were dubbed "The Fappening Part Two," a reference to a series of hacking incidents in 2014 which compromised a slew of celebrities' iCloud accounts and allowed a group of men to leak nearly 500 private photos. Strikingly, the news of the so-called "part two" broke exactly one year after a Pennsylvania man was sentenced to nine months in jail for his role in the 2014 hacking.

In the last decade or so, "revenge porn" has rapidly rose in cultural prominence, disturbing celebrities and average people alike. As of last year, there were an estimated 2000 websites worldwide dedicated to distributing non-consensual pornography, and towards the end of last year, a Data & Society Research Institute survey reported that 10 million people in the US alone had been the victims of revenge porn, the vast majority of them women.

Legislation is slowly catching up to the epidemic; while revenge porn is not yet technically illegal under federal law, 35 states and Washington DC criminalize conduct of this kind. For the states not covered by specific statutes, there are still avenues of coverage: other criminal statutes or hacking laws could arguably apply, and some revenge porn victims have even used copyright notices to force social media sites to take down content. Last summer, Representative Jackie Speier introduced legislation entitled the Intimate Privacy Protection Act to criminalize distribution of "a private, visual depiction of a person's intimate parts or of a person engaging in sexually explicit conduct, with reckless disregard for the person's lack of consent to the distribution." The bill is currently pending, and it has received bipartisan support in the House.

But as the two high-profile cases of revenge porn this month clearly show, criminalizing revenge porn often isn't enough to stop it. Echoing General Neller's logic—though, arguably, not his attempt to seemingly downplay the military's responsibility—Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico stated in the hearing that revenge porn "isn't a digital problem, it isn't a social media problem, [and] it's not Facebook's problem." He continued, "It is a conduct problem, it is a criminal problem, and unfortunately it is a cultural problem."

It is a conduct problem, it is a criminal problem, and unfortunately it is a cultural problem.

There are several, interlocking obstacles that may prevent victims of revenge porn from having effective legal recourse. Once images are posted online, they proliferate quickly, sometimes anonymously, and copies often continue to be shared on the internet long after the original perpetrator is brought to justice. Shame and stigma also pose huge barriers to victims coming forward: As General Neller noted, only a handful of the victims of the Marines' scandal had reported the dissemination of their photos or subsequent harassment. It is clear that these women may have been ashamed, concerned that they might get in trouble for their role in initially taking the photos, or even afraid of further harassment. Many victims fear their images may be discovered by current or future partners, children, employers, or professional contacts. In a 2013 Cyber Civil Rights Institute study, 39 percent of victims "say that this has affected their professional advancement with regard to networking and putting their name out there," and more than half of victims felt like they were hiding something that they could not acknowledge to a potential employer. Drawing attention to the incident with legal action can inflame the perpetrator—or worse, incite retaliatory action. In addition, an average victim may not have the resources to hire an attorney, or may be unaware of what resources are available to her. As a result, she may be less likely to report the incident or to succeed in fighting back.

But while legislation and legal strategies address individual punishments and consequences of revenge porn, they do not address the cultural roots of this problem, as Senator Heinrich noted. Victim-blaming is widespread in the realm of sexual violence and harassment; ultimately, until that changes, it will be difficult to obtain the necessary cooperation from both victims and allies. Mary Anne Franks, the vice president and legislative and tech policy director of Cyber Civil Rights Institute, believes that this issue illuminates the fact that our culture is deeply conflicted about female sexuality: "The fact that 'revenge porn' exists at all, and that there is an entire industry dedicated to it and large numbers of people defending it, is a sign of our society's deep sexual dysfunction," she tells Broadly.

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She believes that using a person's expression of their sexuality as a form of punishment and exploitation needs to be unacceptable, and that "until those underlying social attitudes change, we cannot defeat nonconsensual pornography." The promulgation of legislation criminalizing this conduct, heightened awareness of these laws, and strong social media policies have made some headway thus far. However, Ms. Franks' comments cut at the core of every revenge porn case: Only a strong shift in cultural attitudes around sexuality will bolster the fight against revenge porn. Legally and culturally, you could say, the United States still has a ways to go.

If you are being harassed online or know someone who is, visit https://www.cybercivilrights.org/faqs-usvictims/ to find out what you can do, or call the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative Hotline at 1 (844) 878-2274.

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