Over the weekend, dozens of celebrities fell victim to a massive hack that exposed hundreds of their nude photos, which were published online without their permission on sites like Reddit and 4Chan. The breach of privacy has sparked a larger discussion about explicit photos, consent, and online abuse of women — an issue that Congress is poised to wade into on a national scale.
Although the photos’ emergence has been covered as a celebrity “scandal,” and it’s still unclear exactly who leaked them, this issue isn’t necessarily limited to Hollywood. Women who aren’t public figures are increasingly discovering their explicit photos leaked online, something that’s been dubbed “revenge porn.” The advocates working to combat revenge porn describe it as “a new form of victim blaming” in the internet age.
This type of online harassment is typically perpetrated by an angry ex who decides to punish their former partner by publicizing her nude photos without her permission. A recent survey found that 50 percent of respondents had exchanged intimate photos with a romantic partner, and one in ten of them had been threatened by an ex who said they would expose those photos on the internet. The issue is also gendered; while about the same number of men and women share explicit photos, women’s photos are much more likely to be forwarded on to other people without their consent.
Revenge porn first became popularized in 2010, when an infamous site called Is Anyone Up? started collecting photos from spurned ex-boyfriends who still had explicit images of their former girlfriends. Although that website was eventually shut down, there are still several revenge porn sites that remain up and running. And the practice remains legal in most states in the country, since most states’ existing harassment laws aren’t necessarily broad enough to include revenge porn — leaving victims with little legal recourse if they want to address the images of them being shared online.
But there’s some gradual progress being made in this area. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states enacted specific “revenge porn” bans this year. These measures clarify that it is illegal for people to distribute nude photos online without the consent of the people depicted in the photos. Just a few weeks ago, the California legislature passed a bill stipulating that “selfies” — many of the types of photos included in the recent celebrity leak — should be covered under the state’s revenge porn ban. Before that, only photos taken by other people fell under the state’s law, which doesn’t reflect the reality of how partners typically sext.
“As technology evolves, it is important that government act to protect our citizens from new types of crime, such as revenge porn,” state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R), the bill’s sponsor, explained in a statement.
One member of Congress is also currently working on potential national legislation on the issue. This past spring, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) announced her intention to introduce a revenge porn ban in the House of Representatives. She’s indicated that she hopes federal legislation will help encourage law enforcement to take revenge porn more seriously. However, it’s unclear what the timeline for that effort will be. Speier’s office did not respond to a ThinkProgress request about when that measure may be officially introduced, and deferred on a similar request from the National Journal earlier this summer.
Even with strengthened state and federal laws, legal challenges against revenge porn often face an uphill battle thanks to the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a federal law that courts have interpreted to mean that websites aren’t liable for users’ content. This measure protects sites from being required to remove content — even if it potentially violates someone’s privacy — unless there’s a copyright infraction, which can be difficult to claim in practice. Lawmakers in the United Kingdom have suggested that websites need to prevent users from being able to post anonymously in order to effectively crack down on the issue.
The current celebrity leak is bringing up an age-old conversation about victim blaming disguised as a cautionary tale about new technology. Just as PSAs about sexting typically focus on dissuading girls from snapping explicit photos of themselves, some observers have suggested that it’s celebrities’ responsibility to simply avoid taking nude selfies.
But there’s nothing illegal or even immoral about exchanging images with a romantic partner under the assumption that it’s part of a private relationship; as feminist critic Van Badham recently argued in the Guardian, the real issue at hand is the act of disseminating those private photos, which could be considered to be “an act of sexual violation.” Similarly, actress Lena Dunham called the hacker responsible for posting the celebrity photos “a sex offender.” In that context, the real solution to these types of online violations may be to improve sexual education requirements and teach people how to better respect each other’s consent.