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Inside The Fight For A Federal Law Against Revenge Porn

Every state has a different revenge porn law — and that hurts victims most of all

In June, Bella Thorne “took [her] power back.”

For the actor, that meant revealing to her almost seven million Twitter followers — and, by extension, the Internet at large — that someone had hacked her phone and stolen her private photos. “I feel gross, I feel watched, I feel someone has taken something from me that I only wanted one special person to see,” she wrote in a note that explained how her hacker had been threatening to post the photos against her will, and had also allegedly sent her private photos of other celebrities in the process. So, she beat him at his own game and posted the photos herself. “It’s my decision now u don’t get to take yet another thing from me,” she added.

The immediate response was overwhelmingly supportive of Thorne, although some people attempted to shame her for taking the photos to begin with. She drowned out the haters by posting screenshots of supportive conversations with Dove Cameron, Zendaya, and Serayah, among other famous friends, and continued to post about the harassment on her Instagram Stories. Not once did she apologize for taking the photos, and she had no reason to: It’s the person who steals the images who needs to answer to their actions.

For many young people, “nudes” and other private photos are a common form of self-expression — so much so that the practice has been immortalized in a storyline on Netflix's Sex Education, and in a monologue delivered by Zendaya on HBO's Euphoria. Thanks to the rise of digital cameras, smartphones, texting, email, and apps like Snapchat, taking and sharing private photos has become increasingly normalized. Eighty-eight percent of respondents to a 2015 survey said they had sexted at least once; 96 percent of those people viewed sexting as a normal way to express themselves in a given relationship. Whether it’s healthy or destructive depends on the people involved, and experts warn to only send private photos to someone you trust implicitly.

Because therein lies danger: you can’t control whether the other person shares those photos without your consent, or if someone else obtains them through a method like hacking, or adding photos to a database or messageboard, as was the case when it was discovered in 2017 that Marines and other service members were swapping revenge porn photos. One study posits that nearly 10 million Americans have had their photos shared without their consent, though it’s hard to gauge a solid number given the shame that still proliferates the experience. And if your photos are turned into revenge porn, the legal options you can take to fight back are limited and can feel overwhelming.

Today, 46 states and Washington, D.C. have laws banning revenge porn, which is the result of maliciously sharing private photos that aren't your own, typically by a former sexual partner and without the consent of the person in the image. The scope of these laws varies significantly across state lines: Some states classify it as a misdemeanor, while others treat it as a felony, and jail time can range from 90 days to six years. The existing laws are being updated as technology advances, too; Virginia has banned revenge porn since 2014, and lawmakers recently expanded that law to include “deepfake” porn, or work that has been digitally altered to simulate nude or otherwise explicit images without the victim’s consent.

Of course, there are still a variety of reasons why someone would choose not to report an assault or other sex crime — up to and including the experience of subjecting yourself to the law enforcement process. And if a victim wanted to report a crime to the police, they’d have to navigate a complex web of jurisdictions — because the law would have been broken depending on where the attacker was when they posted the photos, not where the victim was at the time of discovery.

As Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer in New York City whose practice specializes in helping victims of sexual harassment and assault, tells MTV News, “Especially when the offender has posted [revenge porn photos] under the guise of anonymity, we’ll have local police say, ‘Well, we don’t know where he was when he posted them.’” While Internet anonymity can make it difficult to ascertain a perpetrator’s identity, researchers found that the majority of those who post revenge porn photos are men. In a 2016 Brookings report that studied 80 separate sextortion cases, every perpetrator was male. “There’s often a lot of back and forth from local precincts about which one has the actual jurisdiction to prosecute it,” she adds.

Public retaliation has also largely targeted the victims, and not the perpetrators, in a variety of ways that include the slut-shaming Thorne faced. (Crucially, people of all genders have reported being victims, though the APA noted in 2014 that male victims are more likely to report their violation to authorities than female victims.) “The majority of people suffer extreme emotional distress and it changes their relationships with family and friends,” Goldberg says. “They’re just constantly worried about the fact that anybody on the Internet can see their genitals, and it’s a horrible feeling.”

Some attackers also target victims at their work; Goldberg acknowledges that some of her clients have been fired as a backward result of their being violated. If someone is fired from their job because of a revenge-porn attack, she recommends they sue their former employer: “I feel it’s gender-based discrimination,” she explains. Her firm also regularly works with clients' employers so that victims feel supported throughout and after the ordeal.

Goldberg opened her practice after an ex targeted her; in the process of seeking justice, she realized how difficult it is for victims to navigate the various legal systems at play. But while some lawyers or legal support groups offer pro bono help to victims, and Goldberg notes that legal action “can be really transformative and healing if you do it right,” she also stresses that victims shouldn’t feel pressured to take any action they don’t feel comfortable with.

“Bella Thorne took a courageous step forward, and I think it’s bold and respectable for her to have done that,” she explains. “I don’t think that victims should feel they need to do that if their privacy is being threatened. It’s the right decision for some people, but it’s not going to be for everybody.”

While a federal law could help support victims, there isn’t really one on the books. Clearer-cut federal laws counter blackmail and extortion, and copyright ownership for selfies can often serve as grounds to have a photo removed from a website, but the federal law most frequently invoked for digital revenge porn is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The CDA was passed in 1996, years before the advent of social-media behemoths like Facebook and Twitter, and doesn’t do much to help victims of revenge porn — instead, this law protects the platforms, dictating that the social media sites aren’t at fault for any revenge porn posted on their platforms. So if you want to scrub a photo from the Internet forever, getting the apps to take action can often require a lawyer like Goldberg, and a lot of litigation.

In May, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier and New York Congressman John Katko introduced the SHIELD Act in the House of Representatives, which would make it illegal to "knowingly distribute private intimate visual depictions with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution;" California Senator and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris is planning on introducing companion legislation in the Senate. The bill is a continuation of the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, which Rep. Speier introduced in 2016 after she “became aware of unbelievably painful stories of women in particular who not only lost their privacy but had their daily lives impacted in terms of employment and relationships,” she tells MTV News; the session closed before the bill was voted on.

According to Speier, lawmakers have been “slow to regulate an area that has become rife with a great deal of violation,” though she doesn’t necessarily believe there is a correlation between a failure to act and the fact that revenge porn overwhelmingly affects women and other minority groups, like LGBTQ+ people. “I think it has more to do with the fact that we have a lot of Luddites in Congress,” she says. “But there’s growing recognition of the need for [legislation], and we need to take a step to act.”

Yet even the most comprehensive legislation is only one aspect of the fight against digital harassment. (The 2016 bill received pushback from the ACLU which claimed criminalizing such action regardless of intent could be a violation of free speech.) And Speier is heartened by the knowledge that many survivors, like Goldberg, view advocacy as “a way of paying it forward. Many of them have already been painfully impacted by the non-consensual distribution of their photos, and they don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” she adds. Actor Amber Heard joined Speier in introducing the SHIELD Act to Congress; she was violated in the same 2014 attack in which Lawrence was targeted.

“My stolen and manipulated photos are still online to this day, posted again and again with sexually explicit and humiliating and degrading headlines about my body, about myself,” Heard said in May, per the Washington Post. “I continue to be harassed, stalked, and humiliated by the theft of those images.”

In part because of those activists, as well as a number of cultural conversations — including the photos stolen from Jennifer Lawrence and hundreds of other Hollywood stars in 2014; a similar, more targeted attack made against Leslie Jones; and the fallout from the allegations against Harvey Weinstein that served as kindling for Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to reach global consciousness — we’ve seen an overwhelming societal shift towards both normalizing sexting and transferring the culpability for a crime to where it belongs.

“I think with regard to non-consensual porn, there’s been a sweep across the nation of refusal to tolerate the crime, and I definitely think that translates into more understanding towards victims,” Goldberg tells MTV News. “There’s just so much more rhetoric about being the target of someone else’s control, and sexual privacy violation, and so much more empathy and conversation about it.”