Last week, the fight against revenge porn had several major victories, as Vermont, Oregon and Texas all passed laws criminalizing revenge porn. Google also announced that it would allow victims of revenge porn to request that their images be removed from its search results. Revenge porn is the practice of publicly sharing nude or sexual photos and videos taken in the context of an intimate relationship in order to seek revenge on a former partner. These photos can be uploaded to a website with a global audience within minutes, but the repercussions for the victim can last a lifetime. In 59% of cases, these images are posted alongside private information such as full names, links to social media profiles, phone numbers and home addresses, leaving the subject open to a wide range of harassment, discrimination, stalking and violence.
Revenge porn victims suffer from severe consequences after having their private photos shared online. One survey found that 93% of revenge porn victims reported significant emotional distress, and many experienced psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Victims can also experience major threats to their economic security. Their photos are widely accessible online and if co-workers or employers find the images, it may put their career in jeopardy. Many victims report losing their job after their pictures were discovered and some offenders will even send the photos directly to victims’ workplaces in an attempt to get them fired. These pictures may also complicate the search for a new job, since 80% of employers conduct web searches on potential new hires before an interview. A photo posted with identifying information may come up in search results, influencing employers’ hiring decisions. Some victims must also take drastic and costly steps to protect their safety, including changing their names, leaving their jobs or schools, or moving to new residences to escape pervasive harassment.
In states without revenge porn laws, victims may face staggering financial hurdles in their efforts to have their photos removed from the internet. Many victims have to rely on civil suits to attempt to receive compensation, and must hire a lawyer for a lengthy legal battle that may draw even more attention to the photos. Others may claim that they have a copyright over nude images that they took themselves, and send takedown notices to each website hosting their images, which may also require a lawyer to draft an effective letter. The cost of these legal services may be prohibitive for many victims. Even for those who can afford an attorney, winning a single suit or having one website take their photo down is not the end of the battle. Photos can be continually shared and reposted, making legal efforts to locate and remove the photos a process that can last years. This can exhaust a victim’s resources without any guarantee that the photos and the resulting harm and stigma will be gone for good.
Fortunately, the national climate around revenge porn is changing. States are rapidly implementing revenge porn laws that give victims a greater opportunity for justice and discourage perpetration, and sharing revenge porn is now a criminal offense in 23 states. Google’s new policy may also have a powerful impact in freeing victims from the fear that their images will pop up in web searches by employers, family, friends or romantic partners, particularly if other major search engines follow Google’s example. While the costs and consequences of revenge porn can be high, these changes provide hope that soon victims across the country will have the protections they need to take back control of their lives and keep revenge porn from damaging their happiness, safety and economic security.