Ethics of Revenge Porn

Ethics of Revenge Porn

  • AuthorNoah Berlatsky
  • Published Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
  • Comments3

While she was attending Lamar University in Texas, Meeghan Falls sent countless nude photographs to her boyfriend.  Two months after their two-year relationship ended, Falls found out that her ex-boyfriend had posted many of the images, along with identifying information, on the Internet. “My stomach dropped,” Falls said. “I started shaking. I started crying immediately. I felt like the whole world had seen me naked.”

Falls was the target of “revenge porn” — the distribution of naked or sexual images of other people online without their consent, generally by ex-romantic partners. Revenge porn can be emotionally devastating to the victims, as Falls’ story shows. It can have serious other consequences as well. Teachers who have had nude pictures posted online have lost their jobs. Revenge porn can affect custody disputes. In some cases it can damage relationships with families or spouses. Kayla Laws, for example, sent a topless image to a friend considering plastic surgery. When her email was hacked, the picture was stolen and placed on a revenge porn site.  Soon after receiving harassing emails at work, someone sent the photo to her sister. She was afraid she would be fired from her job as a real estate agent.

Revenge porn is obviously cruel and unethical, whether the images in question are actually stolen or posted by an ex in a betrayal of trust. But addressing it legally is difficult. The main barrier is the First Amendment, which protects free speech even in extreme cases. In addition, in 1996 Congress passed the Federal Communications Decency Act, which protected websites from prosecution for user-submitted content. This means that YouTube or Facebook can’t be prosecuted if someone posts pornography to those sights. But it also means revenge porn sites aren’t responsible when a guy posts a nude image of his ex. 

There are some legal remedies. Victims of revenge porn can bring lawsuits, forcing websites to disclose the users who posted the images, and then sue those users. Such lawsuits can be difficult, since those who bring suit may have to make their names public, possibly resulting in further harassment and embarrassment. Nonetheless, some victims have publicly sued revenge porn site Texxxan.com and its host GoDaddy for violation of privacy, though it’s unclear whether they can win.

More hopefully, California recently became the first state to pass a law specifically targeting revenge porn by making it a misdemeanor for an individual to take and circulate sexual images online with the intent to harass or annoy.  Even this law, however, has serious limitations. Since it only outlaws images taken by others, it does not address “selfies,” images snapped by an individual her or himself and sent to a significant other. It also doesn’t address images placed on revenge porn sites for money or gain, rather than with an intention to harass.

Because revenge porn has so far proven difficult to regulate legally, it is important to think about non-legislative ways to address the problem. Educating people about the dangers of sending nude photos is a logical step. But how much effect such education will have is uncertain. A study at the University of Rhode Island found that 56 percent of college students have received sexually suggestive images, and more than two-thirds have sent sexually suggestive messages. In short, sexting and sending sexual selfies have become an established part of college life for many. Perhaps education could encourage people to be more careful when engaging in such practices, but eliminating the sharing of compromising pictures seems unlikely.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic approaches the issue from another perspective. Friedersdorf doesn’t address revenge porn sites in particular, but he talks about a number of related phenomena. Specifically, he points to an incident in Tennessee in which several high school boys pretended to be romantically interested in female classmates and convinced them to send naked pictures of themselves. The boys then threatened to distribute the photographs to parents and friends if the girls did not continue to send nude pictures. 

Friedersdorf argues that this kind of blackmail could be substantially reduced if we did not have such a stigma against nudity. That stigma, he argues, is both pervasive and nonsensical.  “In so many instances of nude photo blackmail, there’s no sex, just a grainy nude image. And nudity alone, without even a provocative pose, is enough for stigma and blackmail.” If nudity were as acceptable as it is in Continental Europe, Friedersdorf suggests, it would be much more difficult to shame and harass people simply by putting a nude picture online.

There’s obviously something to this. If people saw nude images as moderately embarrassing rather than catastrophically evil, revenge porn victims wouldn’t have to worry about losing their jobs. They might feel less emotional distress as well. Perhaps, in some cases, this change is already underway. Writer Nikki Yeager, for example, wrote a cheerful post about how she really didn’t care that her ex had placed a picture of her vagina on a revenge porn site. Admittedly, the image was not identifiable as hers — but, on the other hand, she did tell the whole Internet it was out there.  Her blasé reaction, more amused than traumatized, seems like something we might hope for more of in Friedersdorf’s imagined future of unstigmatized nudity.

Even in such a future, though, revenge porn would still be a problem. That’s because revenge porn isn’t really about nudity, or even necessarily about sex. Instead, as Jill Filopovic argues, “The purpose of revenge porn [is] to shame, humiliate and destroy the lives and reputations of young women.” Men, as Filopovic’s comment suggests, are rarely targeted. Filopovic describes her own experience in law school, when she was constantly harassed through a site called AutoAdmit. No one had naked pictures of Filopovic to post — so people just posted descriptions of her clothing or repeated what she said in class that day, juxtaposed with crude sexual commentary.  According to Filopovic:

It’s hard to explain the psychological impact these kind of anonymous posts have, when these people know your name, face and exactly where you are during the day. You can’t walk down the hall at school without wondering if that guy who just made eye contact with you is going to go home and write something disgusting about you on the internet, or if anything you say in class is going to be quoted on a message board as evidence that you are a stupid cow, or if any one of these anonymous commenters is going to take their sexually violent urges offline and onto your body.

Along the same lines, Caitlin Seida recently wrote about how her picture was posted online without her consent. The image wasn’t nude or sexual; it just showed Seida in a Laura Croft costume for Halloween. Hundreds of strangers then took the opportunity to comment on her weight (she has a thyroid condition) and abuse her for, basically, not looking sexy enough in their opinion.

Revenge porn, then, isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it’s part of a general Internet milieu in which women, especially, are viewed, targeted, policed and “punished” for breaking up with someone, or for being too naked, or too sexual, or too outspoken, or too heavy or really for just being women.  The web has made it possible to crowdsource misogyny. Revenge porn in which women are identified has even made it possible to crowdsource stalking.

Since revenge porn is an outgrowth of misogyny, and since that misogyny takes a number of forms online, reducing the stigma of nudity seems unlikely to be helpful. For that matter, teaching women and girls not to send nude pictures of themselves to their boyfriends seems like it would have a limited effect. Again, Seida and Filopovic didn’t take or send nude pictures of themselves, but they were still targets of humiliation and harassment.

Instead, if there needs to be education, it seems like it should be focused on guys. Obviously not all men harass women, online or off, but a certain number do, and they need to be told to stop. Schools and parents should teach boys (and girls too) that harassment like this is unacceptable. And society needs to tell people it’s unacceptable too — which involves passing laws. The measure in California is a good start. Hopefully other states will pass more effective legislation soon.

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is a correspondent for the Atlantic. He is working on a book about the original Wonder Woman comics.

3 Responses to “Ethics of Revenge Porn”

  1. Nabeel Hasan says:

    I believe if someone posts another
    person’s naked photograph on the Internet, then they should be punished. It’s extremely unethical to post a person’s
    explicit image on the Internet without their consent and harmful to that person
    in multiple ways. I think it can ruin
    that person’s reputation and humiliate them in different ways. First of all, if a family member or employer
    see’s that individual’s image online it can jeopardize their job and be
    embarrassing. It also goes against the
    privacy of the victim because nothing pornographic should be posted on the
    Internet without their permission. The
    person responsible for posting these images clearly has no respect for other
    people, is immature and deserves to be penalized. It shocks me that it’s so difficult to punish
    the offender and I believe that stricter laws should be enforced. The offender needs to be ticketed with
    potential jail time, so that in the future less people post other’s nude
    images. Another problem is that people
    trust each other too quickly and start having a sexual relationship, which can
    lead to the exchanging of pornographic images.
    People need to be cautious of the images they send because in today’s society
    anything can spread through technology such as cell phones and the Internet.

  2. Vanessa Herkert says:

    I really enjoyed reading Noah Berlastky’s article about the unethical posting of nude or
    sexually explicit images online. Although this personally has not affected me,
    I recall in high school and in college boys sending around nude pictures they
    had received from girls. Girls were even sending around pictures boys had sent
    them, contradictory to the article that talks about how uncommon pictures of
    guys are circulated. I think this is an important topic, not only because it affects
    young adults but we also see how it affects professionals in politics and the
    sports industries. The most interesting point in Berlastky’s article was this
    idea that it is not the posting of nude pictures that is the main problem. It’s
    societies obsession with shame and humiliation in order to make you better than
    others. Although legal implications have been put in place to punish those that
    illegally post explicit pictures with out permission or maliciously, the real
    way to solve this ethical issue is to start from the core. It goes back to
    first off, don’t take or send pictures that you don’t want to be seen by
    others, and on the other end to not resolve to humiliation through the Internet
    as blackmail or to hurt someone.

  3. Darby Ellis says:

    People have been humiliated since time began through sexual
    acts. That’s not to say that it isn’t wrong. It is most definitely wrong, but
    unfortunately revenge porn isn’t exactly a new concept when talking about misogyny
    because countless women in the past have been exposed in the nude publically,
    raped when villages were plundered, and more.

    I do think that something needs to be done about it though. We consider ourselves a society
    that is supposed to above these types of things and yet we’re in the thick of
    it. I don’t think that education will solve anything. The problem isn’t the
    education of what can happen, it’s the negligence of people who think it won’t
    happen to them. The fundamentals of the problem have to stop directly at the
    source and this means that both women and men need to just stop taking pictures
    and videos of them during intimate moments if they don’t want the chance of
    possibly being exposed. People who want to post these will post them regardless
    of education because they are just evil people in general.

    Finally, something needs to be done legally against anyone
    who does post these images on a user submitted site. We can only control
    America though, so the government could require that all domains in America are
    required to turn over all poster’s information should these images be posted
    and a complaint is filed. Then the persecutor could be punished with extreme
    prejudice in a court of law.

    The issue will still be alive due to America not having jurisdiction
    outside of the USA, but at least it can be cracked down on in some way. The
    ethics of this revenge porn practice are very wrong, but as I said prior, you
    must start with the mind change of the people who consent to doing this in the
    first place and change the mindset of the USA about the body being an “icky”
    thing. Unfortunately, I have no answer for those that are videoed or have their
    pictures taken without their knowledge as that’s an entirely new can of worms
    that’s hard to prove whether they even knew or not in the first place. That’s
    hearsay territory.

    I hope someone figures something out soon or that others
    wise up as this is very sad that it’s happening and it’s ruining people’s
    lives.

Leave a Reply