Leah Juliett

My Body Is Not Sorry

At age 14, I was a victim of revenge porn. Now I’m fighting back.

I am 14 years old and my naked body has just been exposed on the internet. My nipples are teenage boys’ screen savers; my image is in the palms of their hands. I think about the mistakes that continue to haunt me.

I have been naked in a crowded room. The shallows of my collarbones are known by many. I exist in the gray space where a Facebook photo ends and my actual vagina begins. My body lives online. My breasts, my clavicle, my inner thighs feel bruised from the constant trading of hands.

When I was 14, I straddled my legs above the bathroom sink and took four pictures of my naked body for a boy who had convinced me that he deserved to see me. I loved my body. I was proud of my full, droopy breasts and the white, wire-thin stretch marks on my inner thighs. But the soul inside of that stretched skin was suffocating inside a closet. I’d convinced myself that sharing my body with a stranger — even in this impersonal, voyeuristic fashion — was my gateway to heteronormativity.

Don’t believe gunmen who tell you they will not shoot. The temptation to pull the trigger is too powerful. I took pictures of myself and I gave him the pictures, so the ammunition was mine; my name was written all over the bullets. But while I may have loaded the gun, the recipient of these photos pulled the trigger. What followed was not my fault.

Soon after I took the pictures, I realized that my nakedness was all that boy had wanted and I distanced myself from him. Then I came out as gay.

I believe it was my proclamation that angered him, though I never found out for sure. Perhaps he felt embarrassed by my choice to abandon heterosexuality entirely. But no matter why, he felt “wronged.” To retaliate, he sent naked pictures of me around our school via text. He then took those images of me, naked and exposed, and published them on an online message board. My name and town were featured beside the photos. Many saw the pictures; some commented. In school, my peers ogled me.

After he posted the pictures online, I ruptured. I had never felt so shattered, so hollow. My body had been strung from the top of a flagpole in the center of our conservative town for everyone to see and judge.

My whole life, I have wanted to be a politician, a senator, or a political analyst. As an avid theater performer, I constantly put myself onstage in front of large audiences. I competed in scholarship pageants in which I was often judged for my speaking ability and overall character. I became a leader of my school’s LGBTQIA community. All of these goals, these roles, required my voice to be loud and vulnerable at all times.

Leah Juliett

Once my naked pictures were exposed, I immediately surrendered my ambitions. I thought I would never be successful because of my shameful mistake. I felt I could never have a voice again because any sense of vulnerability would resurrect the pictures in an attempt to castrate my public image. I immediately quit pageantry, halted my leadership positions, and silenced my voice. I remained silent about what was happening in my personal life, refusing to tell my parents or trusted adults in my community anything. I fell into a deep sinkhole of depression, suicidal ideations, and very private despair. I did what I could to blend into a society from which I had once desperately wanted to stand out.

For most of my life, I have dealt with obsessive-compulsive disorder. My obsessions have often manifested in fear and anxiety which in turn cause me to perform tasks repetitively until the fear subsides. When my naked pictures were released, my obsessions took on new forms, such as tapping, praying, and number-counting. If I did not fulfill these rituals, my OCD convinced me that my parents and loved ones would find out about the pictures. I felt controlled from every angle of my life. I felt like a stranger in my body and often dissociated from it. I suffered for several years in silence as my image remained online.

Two and a half years later, in college, I woke up and saw that that boy’s face was plastered across my computer screen. Countless headlines told me that he had been accused of committing sexual assault. I was immediately flooded with guilt, convinced that if I’d come forward earlier, I could have prevented him from hurting other women. Perhaps if I had exposed his strain of toxic masculinity two years before, he would not have felt that he could continue these sexual crimes. While revenge porn and sexual assault are certainly not the same, they both revolve around forcible ownership of a body that is not yours to take. It was both my tremendous fear of him mixed with my own shame that prevented me from coming forward.

I couldn’t go back in time and exchange the fear, shame, and regret I felt for empowerment. So I decided to use the only weapon of retaliation I knew I could use at the time: a pen. I wrote a poem detailing what had happened to me. I began performing it in poetry competitions across Connecticut. I traveled to the Brave New Voices Slam Poetry Competition in Washington, D.C., and performed the poem at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and performed it again outside of the White House while holding a sign proudly reading “End Revenge Porn.”

I felt compelled to turn my experience into one that could generate positive social change. I had a great deal of experience as an LGBTQIA activist, and decided to expand my activism to include cyber civil rights and revenge pornography. Through extensive research, I learned that revenge porn affects people of all ages, gender identities, sexual orientations, classes, and races. I also learned that revenge porn is only a crime (to be specific, a criminal misdemeanor) in 34 states in the United States, plus D.C.

For many, the stress of this experience leads to suicide, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among many other mental health issues. And yet, in no small part because revenge porn isn’t acknowledged as an issue of mental health or even one widely considered worthy of legal recourse, victims of revenge porn often do not feel like victims at all. In fact, they’re often made to feel that they’re at fault for sharing their pictures in the first place. Because revenge porn is still a highly stigmatized and taboo issue, many are unwilling to come forward due to shame. This is what kept me from coming forward for so long.

But once I realized that I was not at fault, everything changed. I became an unstoppable force after I decided to amplify my voice. I began to publish essays about my experiences, speak at events, and was even interviewed on “BBC: World Have Your Say.” In 2016, I started my own organization, The March Against Revenge Porn, which is a social movement, social media campaign, and march coming to New York City on April 1, 2017. The plan is to march across the Brooklyn Bridge and rally in front of City Hall Plaza. I aim to create a community for victims and allies of revenge porn, develop a platform for their voices, fight to criminalize revenge pornography at a national level, and educate young people about their cyber civil rights.

Leah Juliett

When I first shattered after those photos were posted, I saw no future for myself beyond suicide. I saw no career, no potential for success. But now the same experience that caused me this pain has also given me a new reason to live. I will use my voice to amplify my own story until things change for the countless people who have had similar experiences. This is a large and often unpublicized problem that we must begin to talk about. I am unafraid to be one of the loudest voices.

I now know that I can speak out against any injustice. My body is the site of a revolution. My body is a masterful weapon. My body is not sorry.

Leah Juliett

If you’ve been victimized by revenge porn, it is not your fault and you can overcome the situation. For more information, please visit marchagainstrevengeporn.org.

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