Considering Revenge Porn with our Goggles On

Thanks to Grace Chanin for this essay, to start 2018 off with our goggles squarely ON.  (I’ll be back next week reflecting on the year that was and the year that will be)

Revenge porn is the nonconsensual distribution of sexual images, which can take many different forms. Scorned exes post intimate pictures of their former significant others on social media. Once trusted friends send revealing photos to anonymous webpages, where names and locations are often disclosed alongside. Hackers release nudes of female celebrities across the internet. All done to shame, humiliate, and torment those in the photos.  The effect is disturbing and profound.

Revenge porn ruins lives. It can destroy a person’s self-worth, relationships, career, and mental health. Victims whose contact information is posted face the danger of being stalked or threatened. Teenage girls have committed suicide after sexually explicit images of them were released without their permission. And according to a 2016 poll, one out of every twenty-five Americans has been a victim of revenge porn—and that number is even higher for young women (one out of every ten women between the ages of 15-29 has been a victim of revenge porn).

Despite these numbers, society in general tends to blame the victims, rather than the posters of the material. The message seems to be: “if you didn’t want your naked photos shared, you shouldn’t have taken them in the first place.” As if sharing an intimate photo with a trusted person is consenting to have your body plastered on anonymous webpages, sent to co-workers and friends, or exposed on social media.

Last fall, we learned to put on our “goggles” and scrutinize racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other hierarchies that reinforce injustice. The more we wear these goggles, the harder it is to take them off.

When I first heard about revenge porn, I thought it was just about humiliation. But after wearing my goggles, I see it is about so much more than that. It is about power. It is a way to control another person’s body. It is oppression. But in order to see that deeper power structure, you need to have your goggles on.

Although men are not immune from revenge porn, women and the LGBTQ community constitute the majority of victims. Revenge porn is produced and consumed primarily by men. When we put on our gender goggles, we see that this is just a new way to restrict a woman’s (and LGBTQ folks’) freedom and control over her body. It punishes women for engaging in activity that men engage in regularly with few consequences.

Sound familiar? This is just another form of slut shaming. It is another reminder that being sexual or provocative has consequences, but only for women, queer and trans people. It is a way for those (straight, white males) with power to keep it. This crime is a reflection of the patriarchal society we are living in.

It has been very difficult to prosecute those disseminating revenge porn—only recently has this behavior been recognized as criminal. Thirty-eight states now have revenge porn laws, and soon there may be federal legislation as well. In November, members of the senate introduced the Ending Nonconsensual Online User Graphic Harassment (ENOUGH) Act of 2017, which would establish federal criminal liability for perpetrators of revenge porn. Anyone who violates the law is subject to a fine and up to five years in prison. Even though an earlier version of the bill, the Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2016, never made it past the House of Representations, this new bill appears to have bi-partisan support.

If passed, this bill will be a huge win in the fight against revenge porn. However, even with legislation in place, victims face obstacles in obtaining justice. Advocates are subject to backlash. Getting images removed from the internet can be very challenging. And police are often reluctant to pursue such issues. Society needs to recognize revenge porn for what is it: a sex crime, perpetrated against those in already disadvantaged by society’s existing hierarchies.

Recently, I attended a seminar on revenge porn at the University of Minnesota. Leah Juliett, an “unapologetic non-binary queer performer, poet, and political activist,” shared her experience with revenge porn. It started with her spoken word poem. My eyes welled with tears as she shared her story. Even though my own story with revenge porn was different, the emotions we experienced were the same: afraid, ashamed, and violated.

It was inspiring to see someone who had been a victim of revenge porn speaking out. She did not sound like a victim. Her voice was strong. She spoke with confidence. She refused to let her perpetrator silence her. She is fighting to change the system that oppressed her.

In critical lawyering, we discussed narratives and the effect that they can have on society. We need to change the narrative of revenge porn. Revenge porn is not about provocative women. Revenge porn is about entitlement. Feeling so entitled to another person’s body that you think you have the right to share it without their permission. Revenge porn is exploitation.

Listening to Leah Juliett speak gave me hope. We do not have to accept revenge porn as the status quo. We need to stop shaming those that choose to take pictures of their own bodies. It is not wrong to take pictures of your body. It is not wrong to share pictures of yourself, even naked, with others. It is wrong to share another person’s private photos without their permission. The individuals that choose to perpetuate revenge porn are the ones that need to be judged, not the individuals in the photos