Digital Sex Crime, Inside the Fight Against Revenge Porn

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For years Kara Jefts lived with a dreadful secret. Jefts do not reveal her last name when she met a guy for the first, until their four or five dates she wouldn’t tell her last name. When she starts a new job, she would immediately friendship the IT expert who could help her block hostile emails. She would force an awkward conversation about her romantic history while talking with her boss. Her secret was so dreadful because it wasn’t a secret at all. For the past half decade years, nude images of Jefts were only one email, Facebook post, or Google search away.

Jefts is a thoughtful academic in her mid-30s, an archivist and art historian at a Chicago university who never intended for pictures of her naked body to flow on the internet. But in 2011, soon after Jefts broked her long-distance relationship with a boyfriend who lived in Italy, explicit screenshots from their Skype conversations began to appear in the world of online. They were sent via email to her family and friends, posted on Facebook with violent threats against her, and even came out on websites devoted to exposing people’s sexually transmitted diseases, with false allegations about her sexual history.

Jefts has experienced a digital sex crime that has victimized thousands of lives but still mostly eludes law enforcement: nonconsensual porn, more commonly known as revenge porn. The distinction is one of motive, not effect: revenge porn is often practiced to harass the victim, while any picture that is circulated without the agreement of the subject is nonconsensual porn. Both can cause public degradation, social isolation, and professional humiliation for the victims.

Enabled by the technological and cultural disorder that put a camera in every pocket and created a global audience for every social media post, nonconsensual porn has become increasingly ordinary. Practically every day we hear new reports of a new case: A 19-year-old woman in Texas blackmailed into having sex with three other teens after a former partner threatened to disclose an explicit video of her. A 20-something in Pennsylvania had strange men coming to her door after an ex-boyfriend posted her images and address with a message that reads “come to hook up.” An Illinois school superintendent in her 50s was fired from her job after her ex-husband allegedly sent an explicit video of her to the school board.

Some of these private photos and videos are uploaded to porn sites, where “revenge” is its own genre. More often, however, they’re also posted on social media, where all the victim’s friends can view them. According to documents obtained by The Guardian, which led the site to disable more than 14,000 accounts, in January 2017, Facebook received 51,000 plus reports of revenge porn. A 2016 survey of 3,000 internet users by the journal Data and Society found that roughly 1 in 25 Americans have either had someone post a picture without authorization or threaten to do so– for women under 30, that figure rose to 1 in 10. And a June Facebook survey by the anti-revenge porn advocacy group Cyber Civil Rights Initiative found that 1 in 20 social media users have posted a sexually graphic image without permission.

In some cases, the perpetrators themselves hacks the social media accounts and targets famous women, searching for compromising photos to expose. Last year, Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones was hacked and her nude pictures were disclosed in many online portals. In 2014, nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities were hacked and uploaded in one of the biggest nonconsensual porn cases to date.

Advocates are trying to safeguard people from digital sex crime or revenge porn, in part by pushing a Congressional bill that would make nonconsensual porn a federal crime. But there are barriers at every corner, from the technological challenges of fully eliminating anything from the internet to the attitude of law enforcement to the very real concerns over legislation that could limit free speech. In the meantime, victims live in terror of becoming a 21st-century version of Hester Prynne. “I have to admit at this point that it’s going to continue to follow me,” Jefts says. ”It’s kind of like having an incurable disease.”

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