‘Revenge porn’ is about betrayal, not pornography

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This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Sharing explicit pictures or videos with an intimate partner is not always a harmful practice, but it can be devastating if those images get into the wrong hands — like those of Kevin Bollaert.

In the first criminal prosecution using a new California law targeting “revenge porn,” San Diego-based Bollaert, 28, was convicted Monday on six counts of extortion and 21 counts of identity theft for operating two websites. One of Bollaert’s now defunct sites posted nude and sexually explicit pictures of woman, often taken by a former intimate partner, with names, age and other information about the victims. Another reportedly enabled victims to pay to have their pictures removed from the first site.

Cowardly act

“Just because you’re sitting behind a computer, committing what is essentially a cowardly and criminal act, you will not be shielded from the law or jail,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said. “The result of this conduct was to make people feel shame and embarrassment in the context of their family, their community, and their workplace,” she added.

“Revenge porn” is a term for pictures posted or shared, often by a former intimate partner, to embarrass or shame the victim. It’s sometimes referred to as “sextortion,” especially if the perpetrator demands money, sex or for the victim to remain in an abusive relationship.


Sexting gone wrong

Some revenge porn involves images or video taken by a partner, or using concealed cameras with one or perhaps both parties unaware, but in many cases the images are self-produced: Sexting gone wrong.

Often the pictures were consensually taken by or shared with the partner during a time when the victim trusted the partner not to misuse those images. It’s increasingly common for partners to share intimate photos — often via their smartphones — as a form of flirting or showing affection. There’s been a fair amount of research on sexting both for adults and teens and most sexting incidents do not result in anything bad happening; some have even argued that it’s a form of “safe sex,” because there is no chance of pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease.

But, by definition, revenge porn is not consensual. Even if the victim consented to the video or images being produced, that doesn’t mean they’re consenting to them being shared.

Cindy Southworth, from the National Network to End Domestic Violence said that the revenge porn term “belittles and doesn’t really capture the true crux of the issue.”

She said that the “problem is photos being shared without consent. It’s not pornography, it’s a crime.”

Breaking of trust

Of course, most people who allow others to take or possess intimate pictures of them do so out of trust. You’re in a relationship or trying to start one and you have every reason to believe that the other person will enjoy the images but not share them with others. And, in the vast majority of cases for both teens and adults, that’s exactly what happens.

But, as many people have sadly discovered, relationships can fall apart. Although most people who break up are decent enough not to publicly violate the trust of their former partner, our world has its share of creeps and criminals, which is why we have revenge porn.

Distributing these images, said SSP Blue CEO Hemanshu Nigam, “can be destructive in all sorts of ways. It can affect your work environment, your kids and your community.”

Nigam, who is a former federal prosecutor for computer crime, called revenge porn “a form of digital rape.”

Added consequences for minors

In the case of minors, there is the added risk of legal consequences even if nothing malicious takes place because it’s illegal to produce, possess or distribute sexually explicit images of minors — even if the minor is the one taking the picture.

Of course, child pornography laws were designed to protect kids, not prosecute them for bad judgment, but there have been cases of youth being placed on sex offender lists for consensual sexting. Fortunately those cases are getting increasingly rare as prosecutors and law enforcement realize that there are better ways to deal with teen sexting.

There is also the possibility of an image getting into the wrong hands by accident or as a result of a hack. There are cases, for example, when someone gets their hands on another person’s phone, only to see and perhaps share images that were never meant for them. And — as Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and other celebrities learned — there is also the possibility of someone breaking into an account to access and then share photos and video.

As Nigam pointed out, “It’s not just a celebrity problem. It can affect anyone who winds up in a bad relationship.”

So, the only way to be 100 percent sure that a photo won’t be circulated is to not take it or at least not share it. And if you do share it, make sure it’s someone who you can trust and hope that person never violates your trust. If images of you are distributed against your will, save the evidence and contact an attorney or law enforcement to explore civil or criminal actions.

For links to tips on how to prevent and deal with revenge porn, visit connectsafely.org/revenge.

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