Is revenge porn the new normal in dating?

Sep 9, 2019

"Charlotte" had nude photographs of herself shared without her knowledge twice. Both times, it was as a senior in high school while dating boyfriends she trusted.

"This is kind of the culture that I'm growing up in," she told WBFO. "It's become a normal part of relationships to share photos with your partner."

In the first case, the mother of Charlotte's boyfriend found the nude photos on her son's cell phone, then shared them with Charlotte's mom.

"I had shared naked photos of myself. Nothing with my face in it. I was following all the rules that they tell you if you're gonna send photos," Charlotte said.

Charlotte said she had an open relationship with her mother, with whom she could talk about sex, but her mother and father were not happy to see their daughter in the buff.

"We sat down and had a long discussion about everything," Charlotte said. "My dad was pretty much quiet. He was kind of just along for the ride. But my mom did have a lot to say about [the photos] and how that reflects on myself - which it really hurt to know, that someone who otherwise had been there for me and had been very supportive. And I was grounded for a month."

It didn't change her relationship with mom, but her relationship with her father became harder.

"There was more of that not mad, but disappointed kind of anger," Charlotte said. "It was just kind of awkward. We didn't really talk for a little while. So just being in the same room in silence was kind of tough."

Charlotte said she understands her parents' reaction. If she were a parent, she wouldn't be thrilled about the photos either. But she said there was more shaming of her than her boyfriend; she was hoping mom and dad would be more on her side.

"I think that in a lot of cases women are moreso shamed for being sexual, just because there's more a negative connotation around female sexuality then around men's," Charlotte said. "So yeah, I definitely think it is a double standard."

In the second instance, a male who Charlotte considered a best friend "with benefits" shared intimate photos they had taken after their friendship "went south." 

"I had shared photos with him over Snapchat, naked photos. Obviously, no face in them, nothing," Charlotte said. "And on Snapchat you can tell when someone saves your photo. You get a notification of it, but he had an app so that he could save the photos privately without me knowing."

Charlotte said the boyfriend ended up showing all of her photos to the majority of her high school class, about 100 people who all knew her.

"Knowing that someone who I had trusted and I thought had a level of respect for me just could throw that all away, just to show his friends - I guess, his prize of what he had - that was disappointing. It was definitely disappointing."

Her best friend's boyfriend let Charlotte know all of the photos had been shared and that she was identified as the female in the photos.

"So I texted him in one of my classes and I said, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I never did that.' And still to this day, he'll say, 'I never showed anyone your photos,' but I have 100 other people who say, 'Well, I've seen them,'" she said.

Charlotte said she never considered legal action against the former boyfriend.

"This time, my mom didn't find out and I kind of wanted to keep it that way, so I just swept it under the rug and said, 'You know, I'm graduating soon. I'm gonna leave. It'll be over.'"

But she is always fearful the photos may turn up again.

"God forbid something goes south, because you never really know where they'll end up. If I could go back, I would definitely do some things differently. It's terrible and it's disgusting," she said, "but I'm also in a very healthy relationship now and we do share photos. We're two adults and we're kind of in this for the long haul, so it's a bit of a different situation. So, no, I wouldn't stop in the situation that I'm in now."

A joint legislative press event in March, preceding passage of anti-revenge porn legislation in both houses of New York's State Legislature. Bill sponsor Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwod) is at the podium.
Credit New York State Senate

After her two experiences, what advice would she give others? She said "safe sex" encompasses more than just the act and there always will be people looking to take advantage of others.

"Just be careful. There's really nothing more you can do. I mean, it's your body and you have the right to show it or to not show it to whoever you choose," Charlotte said. "With anything you do sexually, there's going to be a risk involved. You just have to weigh that with the benefits."

Today, if she found out her photos were online or were otherwise shared against her wishes, Charlotte said she would take legal action. Although others may not, she would feel comfortable going to police.

"I'm not going to be shameful of the photos or of the fact that I took them, because the shame is on the person who shared them. They're the person doing wrong in that situation," she said. "The more people who come forward and say, 'I am a victim of revenge porn and I did take legal action,' that is going to open the doors for a whole new set of people who aren't [comfortable taking their case to police]. Don't feel like you're alone in this situation, because you're not, because this happens to people all over of all ages." 

As for New York's new law criminalizing revenge porn, Charlotte said it may not be enough.

"If your face isn't in the photos, how are you going to prove this is me? Even with rape victims, they have trouble proving that they are a victim," she said. "So I think it's going to go through the same murky waters as any other sexual crime, but I think it's a start. I think it's a start to say, 'The law has your back if your photos are shared and you want to take legal action. We're gonna start to offer you these kinds of protections.'"

Chelsea Miller, communications director for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Credit Twitter / NYSCASA

"From what we've heard from survivors, previously they would not have had criminal or civil recourse available to them," said Chelsea Miller, Communications Director for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "What's particularly unique about this law, compared to similar bills in other states, is that it also includes the possibility of civil recourse in addition to criminal legal penalties. So victims of revenge porn will be able to sue their perpetrator or demand that a website take down their unlawfully shared images, which is something that is very difficult for a lot of survivors to accomplish."

Miller said, in the past, unposting an image would often depend on the website or the person distributing the image.

"Google and Facebook have certain policies that may or may not be followed and enforced, and so survivors have historically had trouble having their videos or images taken down," Miller said. "When you have any kind of legislation criminalizing an act, part of the problem will be enforcement. How will this be enforced and will these companies take it seriously?"

Miller said companies like Google and Facebook could be held liable in a civil lawsuit for refusing to take down an unlawful post, although Miller believes that is unlikely. Overall, Miller said the new law "is a really important tool" that hopefully will prevent revenge porn in the future and take away at least some of the stigma of reporting the crime.

Mary Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center of Erie County, agreed and said as many tools as possible are needed, but the key is also prevention education, as early as possible.

"I was at a local school district several weeks ago and they told us, they are in crisis. Middle school and high school students are sharing naked pictures of themselves and then the partner threatening to expose the pictures, share the pictures, go viral with the pictures," said Murphy. "The devastation and the emotional toll that it takes on people is unspeakable."

Mary Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center (at podium).
Credit File Photo / WBFO News

Murphy agreed that sharing initimate photos has become the new normal in dating, especially in the last few years, but she said the consequences are also showing up more today than ever before, consequences as serious as attempted suicides.

"This is about power and control. That's how we define an unhealthy relationship. One person trying to control every aspect of another person's life," she said, "and one of the most effective tools in the toolbox of a controller is the ability to say, 'I've got these pictures. If you don't do what I tell you to do, if you don't succumb to the control, they're going viral.'" 

During her talks at area elementary, middle and high schools, Murphy urges students not to feel pressured to share intimate pictures with a partner if it makes them uncomfortable.

"It's extremely risky, risky," she said. "Social media has added a dimension that wasn't present even 10 years ago when I took over the Justice Center and it's horrific when it's used as a means for power and control. We are seeing it across all segments of society, absolutely."

Murphy said there is no need to be afraid to seek a relationship, to have sex or enjoy love. Just be able to recognize "the big red flags" when a relationship has become unhealthy.

"The minute somebody feels controlled, that should be an eye-opening moment, where they need to step back and assess," she said. "Control is not love and, if something makes them uncomfortable, they need to push back or even get out."

Find more information and resources about abusive teen relationships at reachout.