May 11, 2016

Revenge Porn: Is It Legal?

YouTube star Chrissy Chambers was shocked when people began posting links from a porn site with pictures and videos of her on it. The boy she dated when she was 18 posted sexually explicit images and videos of her on the internet after they broke up; they were taken and posted without her consent or knowledge. She tried to have them removed but discovered that there is no federal law in the U.S. that makes revenge porn illegal.

A recent national survey shows that 36% of Americans plan to send intimate content to their partners. Additionally, one in ten ex-partners threatened to expose racy images online and carried out the threat 60% of the time (McAfee, 2013).[1] This amounts to thousands of people unwillingly having explicit photos of themselves exposed on the Internet.

What is revenge porn?

Revenge porn, or non-consensual pornography (NCP), is the distribution of sexually explicit content of individuals without their consent. Unwilling individuals are exploited for the entertainment of others. Often times this happens when someone sends a sext to a loved one who then uses that image against them and shows the pictures to others or posts them online. In addition to the mortification and embarrassment they often feel, victims of revenge porn are also harassed, stalked, and threatened with sexual assault both by those who post the content and by others who view it. Often times the content is posted with a name and address promoting harassment of the person in the images or videos. But revenge porn is even more exploitative than that.

According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, “Nonconsensual pornography is frequently a form of domestic violence, as abusers threaten to expose intimate pictures to prevent a partner from exiting a relationship, reporting abuse, or obtaining custody of children . . . . [and may be utilized by] rapists who record images of sexual assaults to further humiliate victims and to discourage them from reporting the crime.” NCP is also a tool of both sexual predators and sex traffickers. A common tactic of sexual predators is to pressure an individual, particularly adolescents, for a racy photo in order to “sextort” additional and increasingly explicit images. Sex traffickers have also been known to use threats of NCP exposure to a victim’s family and friends as a form of leverage and control over their victims.

“[I] sent nude pics to someone I deeply cared for. I loved him but nothing ever came of it so I dated other guys. A year later, I sent him a text that I was getting married. I thought he didn’t care as he didn’t respond. The next day, I was called into the HR office. He used my pics to humiliate me, discredit my reputation, and get me fired.” This revenge porn victim’s story was posted on an anonymous forum as part of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

Similar stories are recounted over and over again by different victims on the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative site. Nude pictures were sent to someone they trusted, but when the relationship broke, so did the trust. Indecent pictures were posted online or sent by text for everyone to see and many times resulted in the individual losing his or her job.

“A year later, I’m still hurting from his actions. He can’t give me back what he took away,” says the same anonymous revenge porn victim.

What is the law?

As Chambers discovered, there are no federal laws criminalizing revenge porn. However, due to recent advocacy efforts twenty-eight states now have revenge porn laws in place.

Since stalking and harassment so often happens in conjunction with revenge porn, many people think that laws prohibiting stalking and harassment protect revenge porn victims. However, victims are typically not protected by these laws unless they can show that the nonconsensual pornography was part of pattern meant to cause them harm.

Additionally, copyright laws hold little to no protection for the victims if they were not the ones who took the photos or videos. Victims can use civil suits to pursue justice; however, these are costly and time-consuming. Plus, many social sites are protected from civil litigation through a provision of the Communications Decency Act which extends immunity to Internet service providers or webhosting companies for material posted by third-parties.

Revenge porn is a grave violation of privacy; it also likely constitutes a violation of federal obscenity law and therefore is not protected by the First Amendment. If criminal laws protect medical and financial privacy, laws should protect the private images of oneself as well. If people are not free to steal and post another’s bank statements or tax records, it’s just as important that they not be allowed to steal and publish private photos and videos.

“Posting revenge porn is a form of sexual assault and should be treated that way by the law,” says Chambers on her site.

Revenge porn is a real problem that federal lawmakers are only recently starting to realize. There are thousands of victims across the U.S. and there is still no federal law criminalizing the act. But is passing a federal law on revenge porn likely to result in perpetrators being held accountable for their actions?

In light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ongoing failure to enforce existing federal obscenity laws, there is little cause to be hopeful. The law, no matter how well written and conceived, is only as strong as the efforts to enforce it. Under existing obscenity law people posting and sharing revenge porn could already be brought to justice. However, because of DOJ’s steadfast refusal to enforce current obscenity laws, NCOSE has placed the Department of Justice on its annual Dirty Dozen List for four consecutive years! When it comes to matters of justice for the victims of obscenity and revenge porn, the U.S. is being led by the Department of Injustice.


[1] McAfee. “Lovers Beware: Scorned Exes May Share Intimate Data And Images Online.” Intel Security-McAfee-Antivirus, Encryption, Firewall, Email Security, Web Security, Network Security. February 04, 2013. Accessed May 02, 2016.

Emily Sopp


Emily Sopp is a communications intern at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She is currently studying public relations and editing at Brigham Young University and plans to graduate in December 2016. She is excited to spend the summer contributing to NCOSE’s work. In her free time, Emily enjoys reading and searching out the best food in a new area. It is her dream to travel the world and learn about new cultures.

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