Criminalizing Revenge Porn Isn’t the Fix We Need

When talking about revenge porn, most media wants to paint the picture of a particularly bad break-up with a person who, as it turns out, is not as morally sound as originally suspected. In the standard worst-case scenario, you learn that your jilted lover isn’t willing to be as respecting of your privacy now that they’re hurt, and your information and compromising photos are posted online for anyone to find. Unless you can convince the site owners to remove your information—and many will charge you for the privilege—your only option is to take legal recourse and hope for the best.

While it’s true that anything that happened within the private confines of the relationship can be used against you after a break-up (embarrassing stories, personal information, even photos taken during happier times), applying an overbroad definition for revenge porn doesn’t account for cases outside of the paradigm we’ve created. It’s an unfortunate situation that can wreck havoc on a person’s future, but criminalization and anti-revenge laws are not the solution to the problem.

In 2010, Hunter Moore launched the site IsAnyoneUp?, a place where people were encouraged to submit nude photos of other people along with their personal information and social profiles. It became a go-to place for jilted lovers to post lewd photos of exes out of spite, and as with most popular things on the Internet, it bred little hellspawn replicas all over the place. And thus, revenge porn was born.

I’ll concede that “born” may be too grandiose of a generalization as I’m fairly certain it existed well before Moore and will continue to exist long after any actions taken to prevent it; however, he did serve to bolster the modern revenge porn empire as we currently know it and acted as the detestable face behind all the misery. Throughout the site’s lifespan, he remained relatively unconcerned, throwing his hands up and renouncing responsibility by scapegoating the users. It was, after all, their photos they so willingly shared, not his, and website owners are protected from user-submitted content.

Although Moore’s site shut down in 2012 after he allegedly sold the domain to an anti-bullying group, he wasn’t quite done. Driven purely by money and attention, he announced the launch of a new website that would bring back the original content of IsAnyoneUp with a few changes: namely, the ability to add a victim’s address to their photo to ensure maximum damage to the victim. It eventually went live and was met with fierce backlash from Anonymous. The domain seems to have passed on to someone else since. Taking a quick peek at other revenge sites (which are unfortunately still easy to find), it’s still common practice to post general identifiers such as the target’s name and general location.

So far, two states have regulations to criminalize revenge porn: New Jersey and California. The laws define revenge porn as “identifiable nude pictures of someone else online without permission with the intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation” and the outcome for the poster is up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to enforce.

Criminalization does little to solve the problem and serves mostly as a way to “get back” at the person who posted the photos. The laws are broad and often poorly worded, and since the Internet is not a linear distribution of information, it’s doesn’t take mirror sites, links, and aggregate sites into consideration. Forcing the case to be a considered a criminal act versus a civil case can have serious consequences for those who may have posted the photos in a moment of anger while imposing the same standard punishment for someone who posted photos taken during an assault or as a result of hacking into someone’s device. In most cases, it’s not a black-and-white case that will benefit from blanket litigation.

Understandably, anyone who has had their lives affected by having intimate photos leaked would want to see their instigator suffer repercussions on par with their experiences, but such actions don’t actually do anything to remedy the negative effects the victim has suffered as a result. Sarah Jeong, a writer for Wired, explains, “…this moment of media attention on the stalking, harassment, and employment problems suffered by victims could have been used to legislate against exactly that.

“The problem of revenge porn is embedded within a larger context of violence against women and the stigmatization of the naked body, which means the issue can be tackled from many other directions. Why look to regulating the internet when restraining orders cannot be enforced, when domestic violence victims are hampered in initiating civil actions against abusers, when employers can fire their employees for being sexualized on the internet? Our efforts would be better spent seeking legislation to remedy the suffering that victims actually experience.”

Even without specific anti-revenge porn laws, it’s possible to fight against such sites using civil litigation or a DMCA takedown. There are resources available, even when victims are met with ambivalence from law officials. When other options fail or take agonizingly long to implement, criminalizing revenge porn might seem like a tempting idea, but it causes more problems than it solves.

 

Featured Image from Slutwalk Brisbane

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