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Opinion

Column: Holly Jacobs on making ‘revenge porn’ a federal crime in the wake of the Katie Hill fiasco


Katie Hill’s farewell speech after less than a year as a member of Congress from California’s 25th district was apologetic, to the people she said she let down, and it was defiant, to the people she said had set her up, who practiced the “gutter politics” of a “misogynistic culture,” and who exploited and punished her with a double standard about sexual conduct whose male transgressors, she said, are found anywhere from Congress to the Oval Office.

In the ordinary course of things, the allegation that the promising young Democrat had an affair with a member of her congressional staff — something which Congress banned only last year, and something she denies — would have been investigated by the House Ethics Committee, and the outcome and consequences known.

But it was Hill’s intimate relationships during her divorce, and the publishing of naked photos of her that sprayed gasoline on the process and, in the end, burned it all down, turned a serious procedural matter into a salacious internet sensation, and lit a match to discussions about so-called revenge porn, about women’s sexual identities, and about that double standard.

Hill is just the latest and highest-profile target of this particular kind of online harassment. Years ago, after explicit images of Holly Jacobs were posted online, she decided to dedicate herself to helping other victims, and founded the Florida-based Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, an online resource advising and advocating for victims. She’s also hoping that the same Congress where Katie Hill briefly served will make “nonconsensual pornography” a federal crime.

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How you define revenge porn? And are there a lot of misunderstandings about what it is and what it isn’t?

Revenge porn is a very misleading term. We prefer the term nonconsensual pornography because it’s not always someone out to get revenge. Some people post this material, which is a sexually explicit material posted without [the subjects’] consent or shared without their consent.

And some people do this for other reasons than just trying to enact revenge on somebody. Sometimes they do it to gain notoriety. Or gain a profit. Or just share the material with the world.

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So that’s probably the biggest misunderstanding around nonconsensual pornography, that it’s only about somebody getting revenge on something.

So it can be done by someone who doesn’t even know the person whose photograph is being posted?

Correct. You may remember that back in 2013, I believe it was, 101 celebrities had their iCloud accounts hacked into. Private images of theirs were taken and then posted on the internet.

So that wasn’t necessarily because [the posters] knew the celebrities personally. First of all, it was just kind of a commodity that they could put out there in order to get more eyes on the material and get praise as the people that released the material in the first place.

When you read what had happened with Congresswoman Katie Hill, what thoughts went through your mind?

Unfortunately, it was just that this is becoming all too common. As I, having been a victim of it myself back in 2011, have seen, the number of people that this is happening to just keeps rising as technology is more integrated into our lives.

And of course, it just brought back a lot of the feelings that I had when I first became a victim of that in 2011 and just a disappointment that this is still going on. I started a nonprofit organization called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative in order to make some moves and address this issue and provide resources to them and get legislation passed against nonconsensual pornography.

That actually started in 2013. There were three states that had laws on the books and now there’s 46.

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There’s also currently a federal bill that has been introduced against nonconsensual pornography that was introduced in May by Rep. [Jackie] Speier [D-Hillsborough] and [John] Katko [R-N.Y.] called the SHIELD Act [to Protect Intimate Privacy]. I really hope that this can help to push that bill forward and get it passed, because, like I said, the patchwork of laws that we have across the country are sometimes hurting us more than helping us.

It’s so terrible, what has happened to Katie. But what I’m hoping is that this really raises more awareness about this issue, and prevent this from happening in the future.

We are still finding out, and it may take a while, exactly what happened to Congresswoman Hill. Her estranged husband, according to news reports, told his family that his account had been hacked. There were other accounts saying that these photos were deliberately shopped around.

Right. And there is certainly still an investigation to be done on the details of this personal case, but it’s exactly that: It is a personal case between an ex-husband and his wife going through a very difficult divorce proceeding.

And I guess one of the first things that I thought when this happened was, why did the photos need to be shared? There were already text messages that described the relationship or the relationships that Katie Hill and her husband were having. And the fact that photos were released, which was not necessary, was just an additional way of abusing the congresswoman.

How effective are the laws that are on the books in the states that do have them?

There are 46 laws and a law in [Washington], D.C., and they’re all worded differently. Some of them are misdemeanors, some of them are felonies. Some of them require that the perpetrator did this with the intent to harass the victim.

What would your ideal law look like?

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In a perfect world, I would definitely make this a felony because it destroys people’s lives. This happened to me when I was pursuing my PhD and it absolutely tore my world apart.

It didn’t only destroy my future, my professional future and my professional relationship, but also my relationships with friends and family. When people see these images of you and especially the way that they’re posted, it’s always in a bad light. And people see this and they judge you and they make decisions. They cut you out of their life. And they just believe what they see.

And it has a profound psychological effect on you as well, just on so many levels. Many victims of this have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and, as you can imagine, just have issues with their sexuality as well.

Sometimes it has driven people to commit suicide, and most of them do have suicidal thoughts. I know I did.

Another thing is that there should not be this [legal] stipulation that the perpetrator did it with the intent to harass or cause damage to somebody, because there have been so many cases that we’ve handled where the perpetrator didn’t necessarily have that kind of motive.

For example, there was a fraternity and they had created a secret Facebook page where they posted pictures of women naked while sleeping. They weren’t doing it to shame them or anything, they were just doing it to share the photos with the other people in the group.

And that’s the claim they used: They said I wasn’t trying to hurt her, she wouldn’t have even seen that I had posted it, but I just wanted to share with other fraternity brothers.

That’s another element of what an ideal law would look like, too. It’s an invasion of privacy rather than [solely] a form of harassment.

This isn’t, as you point out, just one-on-one or a boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife relationship thing. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that thousands of women in the Marines had their photos shared by active duty and veteran Marines on a Facebook group that got investigated by the Defense Department.

It’s not always just between ex-partners and it’s becoming more and more common, but it’s not just [that]. Using a woman’s sexuality against them is unfortunately a powerful tool these days to knock a powerful woman down. And we really see that with Congresswoman Hill’s case.

There are still comments saying, look, you’re the one who posed for the photograph. You should have known that you were making yourself vulnerable.

Honestly, this is just the same argument as, well, if you were raped, you shouldn’t have been walking out alone at night. You shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt. You were asking for it.

You should be able to do these things, especially in a private relationship, in a technological world. There is nothing wrong with taking these pictures and sharing them with someone.

The fact of the matter is, we live in a very technological age today. I mean, we’re on social media. We text all the time. We share photos. So it’s only natural that that would extend to private relationships as well, especially in long-distance relationships.

And not only that, some people just take nude photos of themselves when they’re documenting weight-loss progress.

So there is nothing wrong with taking these photos of yourself and having them. What’s wrong is somebody who uses them against you and tries to destroy your life with that material. It’s an invasion of privacy. It’s a violation of trust.

Is it a generational difference or a technological difference or both, that young woman nowadays seem much more at ease taking these pictures, sometimes of themselves, having these pictures taken, sharing them with their intimate partners or others?

I would argue that is technological. It’s not all that different — the new version of something else that we’ve had in the past. In the past there were Polaroids. And people would take nude Polaroids of themselves and share them with people.

It’s just a new version of something that we’ve always had, which is a way of exciting whoever you’re in a relationship with, or yourself, or like I said, it could be completely nonsexual and be just documentation.

The fact of the matter is it’s OK to have these pictures, OK to have nude pictures. It’s not OK to use that against somebody and try to destroy their life. I mean, how is that morally OK? Honestly?

Talk about turning this on its head, I have read that minors who have taken pictures of themselves or had pictures taken of themselves to share with intimate partners or with friends — that they’ve been threatened with prosecution themselves. Is that true?

Unfortunately, yes. Sometimes if a minor is a victim of nonconsensual pornography, they go into the police and they’re told, “Well, I could help you, but there’s also a chance that you would be charged with creation and dissemination of child pornography, because you’re under 18.” And it’s absolutely absurd.

Is there a double standard about this when it comes to women’s pictures and men’s pictures? I read a study from an Australian university that said that men and women there were equally victimized by this. Do men come to you with the same kind of problems?

We do have male victims that come to us for help, and we actually did a research study in 2017 showing that one in eight social media users have been targets of nonconsensual pornography. Women are 1.7 times more likely to be targeted than men. So men do get targeted, but not as much as women. And also the LGBTQ community is also more likely to get targeted.

This could be the elephant in the room on this: social media platforms and the question of their responsibility. If these same photographs were published in a magazine or an online magazine site, that site or that magazine would be responsible, would it not? But social media says, nope, not us.

We’ve actually worked with many of the tech companies on this, with Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Snapchat, and many of them have developed their own codes of conduct against the posting of the material and they don’t allow it on their platforms.

But those who do allow it, they hide behind what’s called Communications Decency Act [Section] 230, which protects these sites from what third parties may post to their platform.

It was written back in the time when the internet was just created and it was written to protect the platforms from having to chase after anything and everything and check on everything that anyone posted to their profile.

But they should still have some responsibility in policing it and to being able to catch it before it goes viral.

Now they’ve developed certain tools; Facebook actually has photo DNA technology that helps them to prevent the material from being posted to their site, so victims can actually reach out proactively if they suspect that this material may be posted. It’s looking much more promising than it was when I first got to this area.

As painful as the Katie Hill case is for you, for anybody who’s been victimized in this fashion, what good would you hope could come of it?

I hope that people who weren’t aware of what nonconsensual pornography was are becoming aware of it.

I hope that it raises people’s awareness of that knee-jerk reaction to blame the victim and say that they’re at fault for having pictures like this in the first place, and instead just see how it’s being used as a destructive force to ruin someone’s life.

I wish I could send a message to other victims out there, to let them know that it’s not their fault. We have so many people telling you it’s your fault, you shouldn’t have taken the pictures. You blame yourself too, when you’re going through that. You did nothing wrong and you are not alone.


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