comments_image Comments

Revenge Porn: How a Jilted Lover Can Destroy Your Life

What does it say about society that websites where angry men shame their ex-lovers are thriving?
 
 
Share

 

In the centuries-old tradition of human beings looking at images of other human beings naked, the internet is perhaps the biggest game-changer since the film camera.

Porn sites are some of the most-visited places on the web, and just about anything you could imagine (and lots of things you probably couldn't have come up with on your own) is a mere Google search away. While that's great news for folks who have, say, an unrequited zombie fetish or a deep desire to see old men swaddled in mohair diapers, the almost entirely unregulated buffet of internet pornography also has a whole host of downsides – one of the most odious being the popular genre of "revenge porn".

On revenge porn sites, users upload x-rated photos of women (often ex girlfriends or lovers) without the women's permission. Send a naughty photo to your boyfriend and when it turns out he's a pig, your image is all over the internet, often with your name, location and links to your social media accounts. The purpose of revenge porn isn't to allow regular guys the opportunity to see some naked girls-next-door; it's explicitly purposed to shame, humiliate and destroy the lives and reputations of young women.

Luckily, some of those women are refusing to be shamed into silence.More than two dozen of them have filed a lawsuit against one of the websites, Texxxan.com, as well as its host, GoDaddy.com. Some of the women have lost their jobs; all of them have been exposed and exploited, first by men they trusted and then by entities simply looking to make a buck off of misogyny.

Gender cyber harassment is nothing new (pdf), and revenge porn sites are part of a widespread, deeply sexist online culture everywhere from blog comment sections to YouTube videos to message boards. Anonymous sexualized harassment of women online has been around since AOL chatrooms, and it seems to be getting more mainstreamed, more organized and more efficient. The internet is not a nice place to be a woman – something I found out first-hand, and not just through the ongoing threats, harassment and stalking I've received as a feminist blogger.

When I was a law student at NYU, I found myself the subject of hundreds of threads and comments on a website called AutoAdmit. Reading post after anonymous post about how your classmates and future professional peers want to rape you is not a particularly pleasant experience; seeing those posts right next to details of what outfit you wore to school yesterday, how tall you are or what kinds of comments you made in class feels awfully threatening.

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.

My reaction was to shut down. I felt like I was in a fishbowl, so I just refused to look outside of the glass. I'm a very social person, but in three years of law school I made only two friends. I skipped a lot of my classes; when I did go, I kept my head down.

I tried to ignore the online postings, hoping they would go away. When they didn't, and I finally screwed up the courage to write about them, I received a barrage of harassing and threatening emails. One man, a graduate of Georgetown Law Center, claims to have gone to NYU and met with one of my professors to discuss what a "dumb cunt" (his words) I am. Even after I was out of law school and practicing, that same man sent more than a dozen emails to every single partner and attorney at my law firm in an effort to get me fired.

I graduated law school in 2008. Five years later, the process of writing about this still makes me tense up, triggering the same old anxiety, anger and fear. I still avoid going to large professional gatherings, and when I do go, my heart starts to beat a little faster if I catch someone looking at my name tag for what seems like a few seconds too long.

I'm a feminist writer who even before law school was used to receiving my share of online abuse. I get called all sorts of names on a daily basis and usually just roll through it. Yet I was still devastated by those postings.

And I was lucky. I wasn't naked. My job opportunities were surely limited, but I didn't get fired. But there are serious long-term consequences to internet harassment, both professional and personal. It's undoubtedly much worse when the harassment involves naked pictures, your face on a porn site and the permanent stigma of being a "slut".

It's easy to say, "Well if you don't want naked pictures on the internet, don't send men naked pictures" – or in my case, I suppose, just don't be female on the internet. But that simplistic view overlooks the way intimate relationships operate today, and, in fact, how they've always operated.

Within romantic relationships, people have always exchanged tangible things that would be highly embarrassing if publicly revealed, whether that's a sexy note, a suggestive article of clothing or raunchy photo. You're already engaging in an act that involves nudity, exchange of body fluids, the potential for reproduction, two human bodies intertwined skin-to-skin and, one hopes, some level of mutual trust. Once you've been face-to-genitals with someone, sending them a nude picture doesn't seem like it should be such a big deal.

Society sees it differently – at least when the nude photo is of a woman. There aren't popular revenge porn sites with pictures of naked men, because as a society we don't think it's inherently degrading or humiliating for men to have sex. Despite the fact that large numbers of women watch porn, there are apparently not large numbers of women who find sexual gratification in publicly shaming and demeaning men they've slept with.

And that is, fundamentally, what these revenge porn sites are about. They aren't about naked girls; there are plenty of those who are on the internet consensually. It's about hating women, taking enjoyment in seeing them violated, and harming them.

The owners to Texxxan.com practically said as much when, in defending their website, they posted a message saying, "Maybe [sic] the site provided an outlet for anger that prevented physical violence (this statement will be very controversial but is at least worth thinking about)." In other words, these are men who hate women to the degree that they'd be hitting them if they didn't have revenge porn as an outlet for their rage. They're angry because women have the nerve to exist in the universe as sexual beings.

Unfortunately, the law hasn't quite caught up with the internet. I hope these women win their lawsuit. But as Emily Bazelon details at Slate, they're fighting an uphill battle. Our current laws were written with an old media system in mind, and they need to be updated to protect free speech while also defending against defamation and gross invasions of personal privacy.

In the meantime, we can all do small things to marginalize the appeal of revenge porn. Not looking at the sites is an obvious first step; finding a host other than GoDaddy for your own site is another. Refusing to participate in the sexual shaming of women is also key – these sites would never survive without the pervasive view that sexually active women are dirty. Support the women who have the nerve to stand up to these privacy violations. Read, promote and raise up women's voices generally, online and off. And push legislators to modernize our laws.

Right now, the law and our culture are both on the side of those who shame and humiliate women for sport, instead of those of us who just want to go about our normal lives, whether that's going to law school or having sex with our boyfriends, without putting our careers, our reputations, our psychological well-being and our basic ability to trust the people we're closest with on the line. Here's hoping we win the long game.

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer in Manhattan who formerly served as the Gender and Reproductive Justice editor at AlterNet. More of her writing is available online at her blog, Feministe.

 
See more stories tagged with: