For years, Kara Jefts lived with a terrible secret. When she met a guy, she wouldn’t reveal her last name until they had been on four or five dates. When she began a new job, she would immediately befriend the IT expert who could help her block hostile emails. When she spoke with a new boss, she would force an awkward conversation about her romantic history. Her secret was so terrible because it wasn’t a secret at all: for the past five years, nude photos of Jefts have been only one email, Facebook post, or Google search away.
Jefts is a thoughtful academic in her mid-30s, an archivist and art historian at a Chicago university who never intended for images of her naked body to circulate on the internet. But in 2011, soon after Jefts ended her long-distance relationship with a boyfriend who lived in Italy, explicit screenshots from their Skype conversations began to appear online. They were emailed to her family and friends, posted on Facebook with violent threats against her, and even appeared on websites devoted to exposing people’s sexually transmitted diseases, with false allegations about her sexual history.
There’s a name for what Jefts has experienced, a digital sex crime that has upended thousands of lives but still mostly eludes law enforcement: nonconsensual porn, more commonly known as revenge porn. The distinction is one of motive, not effect: revenge porn is often intended to harass the victim, while any image that is circulated without the agreement of the subject is nonconsensual porn. Both can result in public degradation, social isolation, and professional humiliation for the victims.
Enabled by the technological and cultural upheaval that put a camera in every pocket and created a global audience for every social media post, nonconsensual porn has become increasingly common. Practically every day brings reports of a new case: A 19-year-old woman in Texas blackmailed into having sex with three other teens after a former partner threatened to release an explicit video of her. A 20-something in Pennsylvania had strange men coming to her door after an ex-boyfriend posted her pictures and address with an invitation to “come hook up.” An Illinois school superintendent in her 50s was fired after her ex-husband allegedly sent an explicit video of her to the school board.
Some of these private photos and videos find their way to porn sites, where “revenge” is its own genre. More often, however, they’re also posted on social media, where all the victim’s friends can see them. Facebook received more than 51,000 reports of revenge porn in January 2017 alone, according to documents obtained by The Guardian, which led the site to disable more than 14,000 accounts. A 2016 survey of 3,000 internet users by the journal Data and Society found that roughly 1 in 25 Americans have either had someone post an image without permission or threaten to do so– for women under 30, that figure rose to 1 in 10. And a June Facebook survey by the anti-revenge porn advocacy group Cyber Civil Rights Initiative found that 1 in 20 social media users have posted a sexually graphic image without consent.
The problem exploded into public view earlier this year, when hundreds of active duty and veteran Marines were found to be circulating explicit images of current and former women service members. The images were posted in a secret Facebook group, passed around the way that their grandfathers might have traded copies of Playboy. Roughly two dozen service members have been investigated since the scandal broke in January, leading the Marines to formally ban nonconsensual porn in April. In May, the House unanimously voted to make nonconsensual porn a military crime subject to court marshal.
In some cases, the perpetrators are hackers who target famous women, searching for compromising photos to leak. Last year, Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones was hacked and her nude pictures were spread online. In 2014, nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities were hacked and leaked in one of the biggest nonconsensual porn cases to date. It’s a problem nearly everywhere in the world: in May, nude photos purportedly of Rwandan presidential candidate Diane Shima Rwigara appeared online days after she announced her intention to challenge the nation’s longtime leader, Paul Kagame.
This type of harassment shows how sexual violation can now be digital as well as physical. And its rapid spread has left law enforcement, tech companies and officials scrambling to catch up. When evidence lives in the cloud and many laws are stuck in the pre-smartphone era, nonconsensual porn presents a legal nightmare: it’s easy to disseminate and nearly impossible to punish.
Advocates are trying to change that, in part by pushing a Congressional bill that would make nonconsensual porn a federal crime. But there are obstacles at every corner, from the technological challenges of fully removing anything from the internet, to the attitude of law enforcement, to the very real concerns over legislation that could restrict free speech. In the meantime, victims live in fear of becoming a 21st century version of Hester Prynne. “I have to accept at this point that it’s going to continue to follow me,” Jefts says. ”It’s kind of like having an incurable disease.”