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Revenge Porn: When Modern Love Meets Social Media

By Jean Dion | Small Business

In a 2010 study, a whopping 75 percent of internet users claimed that they’d “accidentally” looked at a site containing pornography.

I know, I know.

It’s all too easy to think that most of these people ran a search for “free porn” online, and they just hoped the next screen they clicked on would be full of wowza. But in reality, it is all too easy to stumble into skin. It happened to me.

I was doing some research on a client’s name, opening up window after window of press releases, news articles and resumes. Suddenly, her vagina was all over my screen. It’s the one and only time I’ve done a spit-take while at work.

My client was the victim of so-called “revenge porn.” She’d been in an intimate relationship, and she shared photos of herself with the other half of that partnership. When she chose to move on, he chose to share her pretty bits with the world, and he used a revenge-porn site to make it happen.

Social Media Tools to Die For

Revenge porn sites are pretty basic. Most have a splash screen containing photos of smiling people who are fully clothed, running beneath a banner that contains their names, ages and physical locations. Click on a button near the bottom, and you’ll be taken to a gallery of all kinds of images that would make anyone blush.

Sites like this are a lot like car crashes, full of carnage that’s easy to spot and hard to walk away from. The former lovers use the nastiest words possible to describe the people they once loved, and the photographs have a grainy, gritty quality that reminds me a little of home movies. They seem authentic and spontaneous, without any soft lighting or airbrushing. These are real people and real parts.

It’s obvious to me that the subject lolling about in these photos doesn’t intend them for public consumption. Blemishes, wrinkles, moles and tummies abound, and many of the shots are downright gynecological in nature. They’re not the sorts of images you’d show anyone you weren’t currently sleeping with, and the text that surrounds the photos makes them somehow even more exploitive. I know I wouldn’t want to sign up for a naked photo shoot that runs alongside words like “loose” or “nasty” or “whore.” Who would?

But buried below the shock value are some serious tools that are designed to make the administrators of these sites quite wealthy. For example, the website MyEx.com (which I refuse to link to) requires posters to include the victim’s:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • City
  • State
  • Country
  • Headshot

Why all of this detail, you ask? As anyone who works online can tell you, these are the little bits that make up your social media profile. With this information, it’s easy for administrators to link your nasty photos with online searches for your name. Helpful posters who provide Twitter handles and Facebook accounts make that linking even easier. With just a few clicks, those photos are remarkably easy to find.

Show up on a site like this, and your life will never be the same. If you’re looking for a job, your interviewer has likely seen your vagina in a search for your name. If you’re about to go on a date, your paramour probably knows what your ex thinks about you. It’s embarrassing, and that’s the point. But most people who show up here would do almost anything to make those photos disappear, and that’s how the administrators make money. Removing those photos takes scratch, and if you’re online, you’re probably willing to pay. Your ex started the problem, but the creep who runs the site makes money at your expense.

Girlfriend Revenge: A Fact of Life

The vast majority of people who appear in these revenge sites are women. On the average day, clicking through the sites brings back a male/female ratio of about 1 in 10. It’s hard to know why so many men would turn to public shaming after a breakup, but an interesting study in Men’s Health might provide some clues.

Here, when men were asked what they should do after a breakup in order to make feelings of pain and loss go away, 26 percent said that dudes should get drunk with their buddies. Guzzling beer seems to provide some sort of magic cure-all that could make men feel better. Unfortunately, beer has also been known to make men do dumb things. Their inhibitions are in the toilet, and feelings of rage tend to swell. It’s a deadly combo that could lead a man right to a porn site, just to make that chick pay.

Women have these feelings too, of course. After a nasty breakup, I’ve been tempted to take my revenge with prank phone calls and angry Facebook posts. But, I’m also willing to beat myself up for the breakup. As an Oprah expert put it, men are likely to call the ex a bitch, while women are likely to name the bitch that lives within. “What did I do wrong, and how can I fix it?” This is the jilted woman’s mantra, and it’s not the type of behavior that leads to revenge porn.

It is the sort of behavior, however, that makes women double victims of these sites. They tend to pay fees to remove those photos, rather than demanding that the sites come down altogether. They also don’t tend to press charges when their exes repeatedly harass them. Instead, they take the blame.

Pause Before Action

I’d like to think that most people would call repeated, systematic shaming a horrific act that should be illegal. For example, a woman in Florida who went through a particularly nasty breakup, and then endured multiple rounds of appearances on multiple vengeance sites, likely should get some sort of compensation from the guy who systematically set out to ruin her (if, in fact, he’s behind the attack, and that’s hard to prove). Thankfully, stalking laws and harassment laws do provide women with protection from zany exes who have a little too much time on their hands.

But at this point, the law provides few protections for women who pop up on shaming sites. In most cases, the photos are the private property of the recipient, who is able to use them in any way he sees fit. If the woman is above 18, she’s free to pose. The whole act of sharing doesn’t seem to cross the legal line.

Proposed laws, like this one in California, hope to change that by making the sharing of photos taken by one party of another party illegal (selfies are excluded). There are some troubling aspects of this law, as some people seem to feel as though it provides a limit on free speech, but I think that proposed laws like this don’t go quite far enough, as they don’t go after some of the real criminals involved in these sites.

The proposed California law targets men who share photos, but the law says nothing about the site’s administrators. The company hosting those photos and making them available to the world at large seems to have no share in the blame. I think that’s crazy.

Consider this: In a moment of profoundly poor judgment, a man shares photos of his ex on a revenge site, including details about where she lives, works and spends her free time. Days later, when he feels terrible about what he’s done, he might hop online to take those photos down. Here’s the rub, though: Most sites don’t allow the poster to take those photos down. Some will do so if a man pays a fee, but others won’t remove anything, ever. If these sites aren’t included in the laws, they don’t seem helpful to me.

Can We Legislate Good Manners?

In a perfect world, couples will part with birds chirping, sun shining and flowers leading down a path that leads to a happier future. In reality, couples will always break up, and one person is bound to be angrier than another. The web makes augmenting that anger so much easier. It also allows gawkers a free pass at the carnage that follows.

We can’t write laws that make people nicer, but we can make laws that ensure that companies don’t profit on the misery of others. The sites that host these things should be forced to pay when a woman shows up online against her will. When a state writes a law like that, I’ll be the first to write a promotional piece. My client would likely do the same.

I just wonder when that will happen.

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