Fighting a cyber-sexual war

By Rae Harris

At just 14 years-old, activist Juliett found herself a victim of a relatively new phenomenon called revenge porn.

“I sent nude photos of myself to a boy due to immense pressure, lack of sexual empowerment, and need for validation. He then exploited my photos in person and online,” said Leah Juliett.

Revenge porn is when pornographic or explicit images are non-consensually distributed online with the intent to shame and exploit its victims. This form of harassment seeks to humiliate the subject by posting sexually explicit images or videos of a person online without their knowledge or consent. In extreme cases, the images or videos may have been obtained through forms of hacking.  Revenge porn is typically used to blackmail or coerce its victim, or to seek revenge on the person for ending a sexual relationship. While anyone can be a victim of revenge porn, women are typically the most targeted.

The act is not only sexual abuse, but is a form domestic and psychological abuse.

“The harm is overwhelming–economically, socially, and psychologically,” said Danielle Citron, Professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey’s School of Law and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.

According to a 2014 study by Citron and Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, the act of revenge porn deeply undermines the trust of an intimate relationship because the nonconsensual publication of sexual images is a grave violation of someone’s privacy. This produces detrimental, emotional and dignitary harms on the victim, and can cause them to struggle emotionally and mentally for much of their lives.

The CCRI conducted a study that found that over 80% of revenge porn victims experience severe emotional distress and anxiety. The most tragic of instances have even ended in suicide, as was the case with Tyler Clementi in 2010 when his roommate at Rutgers University filmed him having sexual relations with another man. Consequently, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

Additionally, many victims of revenge porn have had their safety compromised. Some of the images posted may be coupled with information that identify the victim, such as their name and location. Some have gone as far as to provide home addresses, workplaces and social media accounts. According to Citron and Frank’s study, being a victim of revenge porn even increases the risk of physical assault on an individual.

“Victims lose their jobs and can’t get new ones. They suffer deep humiliation and fear that they will be confronted in person by people who have seen their nude photos online,” said Citron. “It can also be physically endangering– sometimes the photos are accompanied by impersonations suggesting a victim is interested in sex and strangers contact victims.”

Despite the growing prevalence of revenge porn, currently, only 34 states and Washington D.C. have laws against it. However, the laws range depending on the state. For example, in California revenge porn can be punished as a disorderly conduct misdemeanor, whereas in Kansas it is considered a breach of privacy, which is a felony. States such as New York, South Carolina, Rhode Island and Ohio still do not have legislation that make revenge porn illegal.

According to Citron and Frank’s study, the lack of legislation against revenge porn stems from a lack of understanding, and the fact that some of the public and lawmakers do not understand how serious the problem is.

“I think that our legal system has not caught up with the innovative technology introduced to our society,” said Juliett. “Our society does not yet view cyber crime to be as severe as physical violence.”

However, Citron feels that despite this, extraordinary legal progress is being made. “In 2014, only three states criminalized the nonconsensual publication of nude images without consent where the defendant knew the image was meant to be private,” she said. “Now, there are 34 states and D.C., as well as a proposed federal law.”

The good news is that individuals and groups are not staying silent about cybersexual abuse. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative is just one group who is fighting back. The nonprofit organization is focusing on combating cyber harassment.  According to the CCRI’s website, they provide victims with support, advocate for legislation to combat cyber abuses, collaborate with the tech industry to develop solutions, and educate the justice system, lawmakers, and the public about online abuse.

Another organization, Without My Consent is providing people with the tools they need to combat online harassment. The site provides in-depth support for individuals who have had sexually graphic images or videos of themselves spread on the Internet, and even provides the Something Can Be Done! Guide to help victims gain control of the situation both legally and emotionally.

Juliett, now 20 years old, is providing support to other victims of revenge porn. She has turned her trauma into activism by starting the March Against Revenge Porn, with the goal to raise awareness of cybersexual crimes.

“I hope that the march will start a dialogue within communities of young people about their cyber civil rights and promote changes in social stigma surrounding nudity and shame,” she said.

Juliett hopes that the march, which occurred on April 1, sparked some much-needed conversation.

“The trauma that has resulted from my victimization has inspired me to use my voice and speak out against cyber sexual assault to prevent victimization of other people,” she said. “By changing the way we speak about revenge porn, we are eliminating the cause of many victims to stay voiceless in the face of revenge porn.”

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