This is a post in our Behind the Screens series, which explores issues related to digital abuse. To read other posts in the series, click here.
“If you leave, I’ll ruin your life with these pictures…”
One of the more insidious forms of digital abuse is nonconsensual pornography, often referred to as “revenge porn.” This type of abuse intersects with sexual abuse, as it involves the digital distribution of nude or sexually explicit photos and/or videos of a person without their consent. It’s called “revenge” porn because the images or videos are often used as retaliation or as blackmail material by a current or former partner.
At The Hotline, we hear from many people who have experienced this form of abuse. Some victims have willingly shared images privately with their partners, only to have their partners break their trust and later threaten to distribute those images publicly. Others have had partners coerce or force them into creating sexually explicit materials in order to shame, control and manipulate them. Alternatively, some abusive partners take photographs or videos without the victims’ knowledge and then use the threat of sharing those materials online to maintain control over the victim. No matter what the situation, breaking the trust of a partner and manipulating or shaming them in this way is abusive behavior.
Like all forms of abuse, revenge porn is extremely traumatizing. Unfortunately, legislation has been slow to respond; not all states have enacted laws against revenge porn or recognize it as a crime, leaving victims with little to no legal recourse in some cases. End Revenge Porn, a campaign of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, provides a guide to current state laws as well as a list of additional resources for survivors.
You have the right to say “no” if you are not comfortable sending your partner sexually explicit images. No one is ever obligated to engage in sexual activity of any kind, with anyone. Note that in every state it is illegal to have or share sexual photos or videos of anyone who is under the age of 18. If your partner continues to request images or videos you are not comfortable taking or sending, here are some safety tips:
- Tell your partner your parents/guardian monitors your devices making it so you cannot take or send sexually explicit material.
- Change out your phone to one that does not have the capability of taking photos or recording video.
- Suggest other ways of connecting sexually that cannot be documented.
If your partner continues to pressure you or starts forcing you to send sexually explicit materials and you do not feel safe resisting or refusing, you may feel that the safest course of action is to send them. The following tips may help protect your safety and privacy as much as possible:
- Try to avoid showing any identifying features (face, tattoos, birthmarks, etc) in the pictures you send.
- Take pictures using a neutral, non-identifying background with dark lighting.
- Add a filter to the photo that will alter coloring making the image less identifiable.
- Google has created a form where revenge porn victims can request that their images be removed from search results. You can access the form here.
- Reach out to your support systems and make an emotional safety plan.
A Survivor’s Story
The following story was shared with us by a survivor of revenge porn. She has given us permission to reprint her story here. Her experience reflects the trauma and frustration that many people feel when they become victims of revenge porn. Please be aware, this story may be triggering for some readers.
“I was in high school when I met my ex. He was a decade older than me. We dated for a few years and eventually married after much opposition from my family and friends. He controlled every aspect of my young adult life and was often verbally, sexually, and physically abusive.
When I was 18 he asked that I send him a few naked pictures of myself. He told me if I did not send them, he would leave me for someone else who was more mature. I was in love with him, and at the time I didn’t understand that this type of behavior was abuse. After sending him the pictures, I immediately regretted it because it was not something I wanted to do.
I tried to leave the relationship several times, but my ex would threaten me and mention how he was going to ruin my life with the “pictures” if I left. I feared that he would follow through on his threats, which made leaving that much more difficult.
After our child was born I found the courage to leave him and file for divorce. I feared for our safety and our future during that time. I knew the emotional/verbal abuse would continue and that he would follow through on his threat to “ruin my life” with the pictures.
During our separation, I was granted an ex parte order of protection after continuous threats and harassment. After my divorce became final, the ex parte expired and I learned that my ex-husband had posted naked pictures of me on two separate porn websites. One of the websites was devoted entirely to revenge porn and listed my first and last name. The pictures I shared with him when I was 18 were posted along with several other pictures he took without my knowledge. The amount of pain I felt after finding pictures of myself naked on the internet made me physically sick.
I immediately contacted my attorney and local domestic violence agency in search of help. I received emotional support from multiple sources, but it became clear that I had no legitimate legal options due to the absence of a revenge porn law in my state. I was fortunate that the pictures were removed from the websites, but I realize that they could be reposted at any time.
It has been over a year and half since I found out the pictures were posted, but I have not been the same since. I go to therapy frequently to try to help with the anxiety and depression from the revenge porn and heal from the years of abuse.
My ex-husband has used revenge porn as an abuse tactic for years and he has made it clear that he has no intentions of stopping.
I desperately want to be free from “the pictures” and most importantly free from the control of my abusive ex-husband. In order for victims of revenge porn to regain their freedom from their abusers there must be legal consequences for this type of abuse.”
If your partner is pressuring you to send explicit pictures or video, or if they are threatening to distribute materials you have shared, you can call The Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 any time or chat via our website from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Central. Our advocates are here to provide support, safety planning tips, and can also connect you with local or legal resources depending on your situation.