Earlier this month, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo signed NY’s version of a Revenge Porn law. The law creates the offense of “Unlawful Dissemination of Lewd Images.” It prohibits the sale, publication or distribution of images in which a person is in a stage of full or partial undress or engaged in a sexual act without their consent. NY joins 11 other states in having criminal RP laws: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia., Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland., Pennsylvania., Utah, Virginia., California and Wisconsin also have laws on the books.
A few years ago, as part of my work in the field of digital images, I began to be contacted by victims of RP for help. I agreed to part of team of lawyers who agreed to help RP victims who went to the website EndRevengePorn.com. Together with web publisher Matthew Chan, I then became part of a site called FightRevengePorn.com that also looks to help RP victims. I have used intellectual property law and right-to-privacy statutes to help dozens of victims in states where there are no criminal or civil statutes specifically addressing RP.
What surprises me the most, is how many men seem to think that this issue is of no concern to them. To address this issue, Matthew Chan recently posted an article on FightRevengePorn.com where he challenged men to think about how they would feel if their daughter, mother, wife or sister were victimized by RP. While this approach is a good way to sensitize men to the issue, there is simply one reason why men should be concerned about Revenge Porn: Because it is wrong and deeply victimizes those whose personal private photos/videos are exposed to the world. As Matthew points out in his article some men need to be reminded they they have important relationships with women in their lives and that RP can happen to anyone. But more importantly, men should be asked how they would feel if RP had happened to THEM. How would they like it if they walked into work one day and dozens of co-workers were looking at their computer screens to ogle naked pictures of THEM that they took in trust with a loved one. I suspect the only reason some men “”don’t get it” is because it has not happened to enough men for the general male population to not see this as a “women’s issue.”
That is one of the reasons that folks who advocate in this arena are pushing for criminalization of RP. Perhaps if RP were made a crime in every state in the nation then more folks would pay attention to it and understand the great harm that comes from it and not engage in the behavior in the first place. I am normally not a fan of the addition of new crimes to the ever-growing list of penal laws. But my involvement in this area has shown me that many people – particularly men - do not see this as a big deal. It would not be a stretch to say that the most often comments heard are “What did she expect?” and “Who told her to send naked pictures of herself on her phone in the first place?” This kind of reaction reminds me of how courts and others used to treat victims of sexual assault. Questions would be asked about their prior sexual history or why they chose to wear a particular item of clothing. It took Rape Shield Laws to turn society’s focus away from blaming the victim and onto the acts of the perpetrator. There was great initial outcry about many parts of the various rape shield laws that arose from the legal community and from the media. Now we take it for granted that blaming the victim of a sexual assault is simply not acceptable and most of those questions are now impermissible at trial.
It will take some work but I believe that a fair and workable criminal statute can be drafted. It will serve as a reminder that the victims of RP did nothing wrong – they shared intimate photos with someone they trusted and felt close to and then were victimized and harmed when that person violated that trust and shared the images. And that’s why everyone should be concerned about it – because it’s wrong. Period end of story.