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Technology has made the nonconsensual leaking of others’ explicit media into an epidemic, but the tech industry has some tricks up its sleeve.

Image via E!Online

The most recent explosion of celebrity drama focused around Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna’s tumultuous relationship. The pair recently separated, but publicly seemed to be making a solid effort at peacefully co-parenting their child. However, on July 5, Kardashian began a manic, vitriol-filled tirade against Chyna on Instagram, where he posted sexually explicit photos that she had previously sent to him.

When Instagram shut him down, he ran to Twitter and Facebook to do the same. Regardless of the truth of Kardashian’s claims of her infidelity or that she used him for money, it is both morally repugnant and criminal to post explicit photos of a person without them giving consent, a practice also known as revenge porn. While it is still unknown if Chyna will pursue charges against Kardashian, this incident opened up the discussion around the serious issue of revenge porn.

Revenge porn is when photos or videos of a sexual nature are shared without the explicit consent of the person in them, usually by an angry ex-lover or spouse. Researchers Debarati Halder and Jaishankar Karuppannan define it more specifically as “an act whereby the perpetrator satisfies his anger and frustration for a broken relationship through publicizing a false, sexually provocative portrayal of his/her victim by misusing the information that he may have known naturally and that he may have stored in his personal computer, or may have been conveyed to his electronic device by the victim him/herself, or may have been stored in the device with the consent of the victim him/herself, and which may essentially have been done to publicly defame the victim.”

Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian (Image via E!Online)

Revenge porn falls under the umbrella of the larger category of nonconsensual image sharing, which denotes any nonconsensual form of sharing sexual photos or images by anyone, not just a past or current partner, whether it’s to coerce, humiliate or blackmail them. Examples of this include the 2014 iCloud leak of dozens of celebrities’ intimate photos and an incident where a man named Luis Mijangos hacked women’s computers for sexual content and switched on their cameras, then using the photos and footage to blackmail them into making pornographic videos for him. Revenge porn sites such as IsAnyoneUp feature nude photos sent in by angry exes, as well as personal information about the victims such as their names and addresses.

The pervasiveness of revenge porn only makes it more terrifying. A recent study shows that on average, 4 percent of Americans have been victims of revenge porn or threats of it, and the number rises to 10 percent for women under thirty, and 7 percent for gay, lesbian or bi-sexual people. A McAfee study found that 10 percent of ex-partners threatened to release explicit photos or videos and 60 percent of them followed through. Article after article after article details the struggle of both women and men dealing with the aftermath of having their photos nonconsensually posted online. Revenge porn is particularly cruel because it is infinitely hard to combat. Laws against it are only a few years old and often not thorough enough, cases where the victims win are few and many victims are too ashamed or broke to pursue legal action. Even if the original source deletes them, it’s possible that outside parties have saved them.

In thirty-six of the States in the U.S., and in many countries around the world, nonconsensual image sharing is an actual crime. In the U.S., it ranges from a misdemeanor to a felony. The idea of revenge porn at its core is sickening. What kind of person do you have to be to think that this criminal betrayal of trust is the best way to cope with your issues? However, in the more public revenge porn scandals, few people seem to be asking this question. Instead, internet trolls leap in, frothing at the mouth about how the woman “deserved” this.

Commenters and think pieces alike have posed the question “Well, if you don’t want everyone to see these photos, why would you send them?” Well, is it possible that this isn’t the fault of the person who shared them privately and instead the fault of the criminal who made them public? The point is that if photos were given in confidence, they absolutely should remain as such. Sending intimate photos to a partner is no crime, but sharing them is.

What about the hundreds of other cases of nonconsensual porn where women were spied on or had materials stolen that were then published—do they also “deserve” it? Revenge porn attorney Carrie Goldberg elaborates on the topic in a “New Yorker” piece: “She mentioned the case of Erin Andrews, the former ESPN reporter, who was filmed, without her knowledge, by a man staying in an adjoining hotel room. ‘Are you just supposed to never take your clothes off?’ she said. ‘You can’t get naked, you can’t take a shower?’ She spoke of upskirting—the voyeuristic practice of taking unauthorized pictures beneath a woman’s dress. ‘Are you never supposed to go out in public in a skirt?’”

While the public effort to combat nonconsensual image sharing is increasing, revenge porn is still one of the trickiest crimes to deal with. Sometimes, laws only prohibit the “nonconsensual recording and distribution of sexually explicit images of another person. However, those laws do not protect those who either consented to be recorded or recorded images themselves but, in either case, did not consent to the distribution of those images,” says Cynthia J. Najdownski and Meagen M. Hildegrand of the Monitor of Psychology. There is little consistency across differing state laws against revenge porn; some critics say these laws endanger free speech.

Furthermore, states often treat motive differently, some only criminalizing revenge porn if there is intent to harass. And most damagingly perhaps, even if the victim is able to remove photos from the original site, they often don’t have a way to get rid of the photos or videos that have spread to other websites. Often, even if photos or videos are removed from the original source, the damage has already been done. Women can lose their jobs, face scorn from their community, receive harassment and threats from people who have seen the photos and deal with depression and PTSD.

However, the tech industry has, surprisingly, stepped up. Google removed revenge porn from its search results and pornography streaming site Pornhub removed nonconsensual image content. Usually, in order to have an image removed, you must file a notice of copyright infringement, but given the popularity of revenge porn, some companies now have forms that allow victims to ask for the images or videos to be deleted without proving copyright first. Search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo took measures so that revenge porn can no longer be accessed under a search of a person’s name.

These efforts must be applauded, especially the most recent ones in the public sphere such as Attorney General Kamala Harris creating a task force against nonconsensual image sharing and Representative Jackie Speier reintroducing a bill that makes nonconsensual pornography, regardless of the intent to “harass” a victim or not, a federal crime. However, there is unfortunately no single, easy solution to the growing problem of revenge porn.

And our misogynistic ideas only complicate the matter. Many men (and women) see nonconsensual pornography as a viable way to seek revenge. We, as the public, dither over the intent of the perpetrator and focus on yelling at the victim about how much they “deserved” it. But whether it’s the attitudes and beliefs of the public or the gap-ridden and incomplete legislation, as we argue, thousands and thousands more of these images and videos are spreading like wildfire.

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