Commentary

Why victims of revenge porn stay silent and how to help

Greater awareness will lead to better outcomes for victims

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“Revenge porn” exists not only on the fringes of society. It is disturbingly commonplace. Just last week it was reported that a Colorado lawyer had pleaded guilty to “posting a private image for harassment.” Yet, despite its prevalence, victims often live in the shadows, silenced by a host of factors. And despite the strides many jurisdictions, including Colorado, have taken by passing legislation criminalizing revenge porn, there is more work to be done.

To effectively combat these cyber abuses, we need to understand not only the forces that keep victims silent but to also increase awareness about how to respond to these crimes.

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Revenge porn, also called nonconsensual pornography, is a form of digital abuse that occurs when someone disseminates a sexually explicit image of a person without their consent. (“Revenge porn” is an imperfect term to describe these crimes. The word “revenge” suggests the victim did something wrong to incite the digital abuse. Moreover, creating and sharing videos or images while in an intimate relationship with an expectation of privacy should not be considered creating pornography.) In October 2020, the Washington Post reported, “Even before covid-19, nonconsensual pornography (NCP) was remarkably commonplace: One in 25 Americans has been a victim of threats or posts of nearly nude or nude images without their permission.” The article went on to posit that the pandemic made the situation worse.

Indeed, last week it was reported that a former Colorado public defender is facing attorney misconduct allegations after he was convicted and sentenced in a revenge porn case. In that case, the lawyer took still and video images of a woman with whom he was engaged in an intimate relationship, while she was naked, sometimes without her knowledge. He later threatened to share them with her husband, and he ultimately sent a topless photo and video of her performing a sex act to her husband.

For those victims who do come forward, law enforcement doesn’t necessarily have the tools or resources to investigate these cases.

In response to the revenge porn problem, over the past decade a spate of states have passed laws prohibiting and criminalizing revenge porn. Today, 48 states have revenge porn laws on their books. In 2014, Colorado passed House Bill 14-1378, which criminalizes revenge porn. Four years later, Colorado addressed some exceptions to the law with the passage of House Bill 18-1264. For instance, the bill removed the requirement that the posting of an image must have caused the victim serious emotional distress.

While the legislation is certainly helpful and makes clear that this type of behavior is wrong, many victims remain silent, and abusers are emboldened to keep engaging in this conduct. Why does this happen?

For one, many victims don’t know that revenge porn is a crime. It’s not widely discussed, and information on which behaviors rise to the level of a crime are not readily available. Moreover, many victims do not know what their legal options are or where to turn to find out. Others are frozen by shame, and that shame is exacerbated by our society’s tendency to blame victims. Anonymity cannot be guaranteed, so victims risk publicizing the circumstances surrounding the abuse if they come forward. In the Christopher Melichar case reported by Newsline, for example, the victim’s name was excluded from the news story, but details about which images and videos were captured were reported.

For those victims who do come forward, law enforcement doesn’t necessarily have the tools or resources to investigate these cases. Postings are frequently made anonymously, making it difficult for police to gather evidence that would connect a perpetrator to the crime. And these cases, like other sexual assault cases, can be difficult to prove in court. When victims don’t have confidence that they will find justice in our legal system, they will be discouraged from reporting revenge porn.

In light of these challenges, what can be done?

To start, victims should know what they can and should do to preserve their options: They should save evidence, including messages or posts. After the evidence is securely preserved with time stamps, content removal from social media platforms and websites can begin. They can also go to the police and work with a lawyer to navigate the criminal justice system. They can also obtain an order of protection (either in a criminal or civil proceeding). And they can file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator and seek monetary damages or injunctive relief.

Members of law enforcement should also consult with experts regarding the nature of these crimes and undergo specialized training to learn how to effectively respond to reports of revenge porn.

Revenge porn is a problem, but it does not have to be a lasting one. We have already taken steps to criminalize the conduct and recognize that civil remedies are appropriate. Now we need to educate society, normalize these conversations, get the message out there that there is help for victims of revenge porn, and make sure law enforcement is equipped and ready to address it.

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Allison Mahoney
Allison Mahoney

Allison Mahoney is the founder of ALM Law, a Colorado boutique victims’ rights and civil rights law firm. She has over a decade’s worth of experience litigating on behalf of survivors of civil rights violations, intimate partner violence, child abuse/neglect, and sexual abuse. Mahoney was the Interim Deputy Director at A Better Childhood, where she investigated child welfare systems and filed class action lawsuits on behalf of children. Prior to ABC, Mahoney worked at Lawyers for Children and represented children in foster care in New York City. Mahoney is on the board of directors at Response, a nonprofit organization that works with survivors of domestic and sexual abuse in the Roaring Fork Valley.

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Lindsay Lieberman
Lindsay Lieberman

Lindsay Lieberman is the Founder of Lindsay Lieberman LLC, a legal services and risk management consulting firm specializing in sexual misconduct, sex crimes, and cyber sexual abuse issues. Lieberman was a sex crimes prosecutor in Brooklyn and worked in private practice at a leading sexual privacy law firm in New York City. Lieberman is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and has published articles on sexual abuse and gender-based violence.

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