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The long trauma of revenge porn

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the intersection of sexual violence and technology has become an invisible tidal wave heading for the shores of our smart phones. Revenge porn – academically known as image-based abuse, non-consensual pornography, or the non-consensual sharing of intimate images – is one of a host of cyber-sexual violations clustered as technology-based sexual violence.  The most popular cases in the United States press show how wide the epidemic has spread. Celebrity scandals like the one involving Blac Chyna, Congressional hearings on its presence in the United States Military, and a recent filing with the United States Supreme Court about the dating app, Grindr, and its responsibility in the harassment of an man whose ex-boyfriend impersonated him and sent over 1,400 Grindr (as many as 23 a day over 10 months) users to his house and work for violent, and forced, sex, are just a few examples.

Beyond spiteful ex-lovers and predatory peeping toms, revenge porn includes hacking hard drives, under-skirting, and the use of deep fakes where a victim’ face is overlaid onto someone engaging in sexual acts. The seamless nature of this technology can make it hard for victims to convince observers it is not them in the video, which can have lasting consequences on victim’s lives and their mental health.

Image based sexual abuse is a form of cyber-harassment or bullying that involves publicly posting an intimate image that the victim has not consented to have shared. Scenarios include when victims consent to sharing an image or video with a single person (often an intimate partner) that is then shared by the recipient without consent, having images hacked from personal storage then posted on porn sites, or the sharing of images that were recorded without the victim’s consent at all.  Sometimes the victim’s personal information is shared along with these images, leading to ongoing harassment far beyond the public display of the image. Other times the victim is unaware of the crime for months or years until discovered on the dark web or a porn site.

Revenge porn is widespread throughout the globe. In 2017, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative shared data from a US survey that showed 1 in 8 adults are victims of non-consensual image sharing and one in 20 admit to sharing intimate images without consent. Other researchers found similar rates in a nationwide sample in Australia, citing one in 10 had been victimized online, with more than half of those reporting the incident occurring in the last year.  Women are victimized in this crime more than men, with LGBTQ communities and women of color experiencing the highest rates.

Sexual trauma in face to face violence has decades of research showing a cluster of symptoms that most survivors have in common, including confusion, changes in sleep and eating patterns, nightmares, and a heightened startle response in the short term that will prevent them from engaging socially. Longer term symptoms include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Are these symptoms the same for victims of image based sexual abuse? We don’t really know for sure.

The mental health community is just starting to understand the short and long-term outcomes of being victimized online. Most studies have shown that survivors victimized online have significantly worse “mental health outcomes” and “somatic symptoms” than those who have never been victimized online.  One researcher interviewed 18 women in Canada who were sexually victimized online and discovered PTSD, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and trust concerns. Research by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative uncovered a prevalence of suicidal thoughts while other research has found that victims of non-consensual image sharing often experience debilitating levels of shame and humiliation along with reduced self-esteem.

These reports indicate revenge porn appears to have the same post-assault symptoms as “face to face” sexual violence. However, what is drastically different in online abuse is the duration the violation. With the exception of domestic violence, kidnapping, and torture, ‘face to face’ sexual assault commonly takes place in hours of time whereas revenge porn often entails the ongoing  re-victimization as images spread across the digital landscape to new audiences and are viewed multiple time by the same audiences for months or even years. Many victims report having the image taken down off of one online platform, only to have it reappear on another one. For some survivors of revenge porn, they never succeed at removing their image and have to endure the long term effects of knowing someone is looking at their naked image at any moment in the day. The length of time that a person endures this kind of trauma has a significant effect on how mental health symptoms like PTSD will take hold, suggesting revenge porn victims might also have longer trauma recovery periods than survivors of what therapists call single incident trauma. But this is all speculative, more research needs to be done to show these effects.

A glimmer of hope is that the legal world is beginning to take note and pass legislation to protect the public. Australia now has a national office dedicated to fighting cyber-crimes, specifically revenge porn. Recently the US military has updated the Uniform Code of Military Justice to prevent revenge porn while many states have begun passing varying forms of legislation. The bad news is that more laws are not translating into more convictions. One reason is victim-blaming attitudes by police.  Another is inconsistent laws across jurisdictions, highlighted by the recent debate on a New York law, which advocates say is deeply flawed.  The outcome of cases like Herrick V. Grindr will also determine if digital and social media companies are legally accountable for crimes committed by users on their platforms.

What can we do in the meantime? One is to educate ourselves.  Talk to our friends, students, therapists, and professors about these types of crimes. Another is to support one another in efforts to prevent this nature of victimization from spreading. If someone tells you they have been victimized in this way, believe them, listen to them, and help them feel safe in whatever way that means for them (both digitally and privately in their community). Nobody has to go it aloneFF.

Together we can all push back against the tide of image based sexual abuse and digital victimization, and hopefully prevent the scurrilous mental health impacts that come with it.

Featured image via unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Bailey Smith

    This happened by me, when I was estranged from my ex. The Authority did nothing… I still have Trauma and PTSD…It was violating and the worst feeling ever…

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