By David Michael Newstead.
Revenge Porn and other forms of harassment online illustrate the disturbing gap between our laws and an increasingly digital world. And while people sometimes shift the blame to victims of Revenge Porn themselves, this obscures the fact that anyone can become a target via photo-shopped pictures, a hijacked webcam, or a romantic relationship gone wrong. Recently, I spoke with a woman whose abusive ex-husband continued his attacks on her years after their relationship ended through Revenge Porn. In the aftermath, she was forced to navigate an outdated legal system that seemed poorly equipped to protect either her privacy or her safety online. My conversation with “Gladys” is below.
David Newstead: How did you first learn about these posts?
Gladys: I got a random email from an anonymous account that had the title ‘you know these are out there right’ and the body of the email was the link. I also got an email from a prior business client saying someone sent them the same link. I was completely embarrassed.
David Newstead: What did you do next? Like what were the initial steps you took?
Gladys: I was in complete shock. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I called up one of my friends was visiting me and told her the situation. I called up a couple of other close friends and I really just was clueless. No one had any advice for me. They just felt bad for me.
I was really hurting. I spent most of the day in bed, crying. I was afraid to leave my house. I was even feeling suicidal. Men were finding me all over the world to message me about my photos: showing interest, giving warning, just ‘wanting to chat.’ They found me on Skype, my business website, Facebook, email, you name it. Along with the photos, it even says the town you live in. So, this was no longer just embarrassing. It was dangerous. I had no idea where these photos could end up or what sicko might take this information to his next level.
David Newstead: Do you know who was responsible?
Gladys: The person who put up the photos was somebody I knew. It was my ex-husband from eight years prior. He was extremely abusive. The marriage only lasted ten months because of the intense amount of abuse. I had folders of photos, police records, restraining orders. He even went to jail. I did everything I could legally. And that day, eight years later, it felt like the abuse was never going to end and I couldn’t fathom putting up with his abuse for the rest of my life. It was terrifying.
Up until that year, I had made myself invisible. I changed my number several times. I change my address several times. And no information could be found on me online at all. What changed that year was I started a business. I had to get myself online and visible to grow my business. I thought eight years later he had moved on with his life. I figured I was safe. But he had proven once more, it wasn’t.
David Newstead: What happened next?
Gladys: I cried for about a day. Then I decided it was time to face this. I couldn’t hide forever. This is when I started the research. I googled everything I could about this. This is the first time I had ever heard about Revenge Porn. I couldn’t believe it was legal, of all things.
The website will allow you to ‘buy your photo back’ for $800. But they cannot guarantee that they won’t put it back up once I’ve done this. Blackmail was all I could think of. Followed up with a ‘fuck you, you won’t get my money.’
After more online research, I found a legal team that specifically deals with this situation. I can’t remember the lady’s name, but she literally saved my life. They could take my case for $600. We traced the person that sent the link by finding a fake Facebook account. She said ‘copy and paste this link and don’t say a word’ the link was to an address or something. It was supposed to scare him. She said that will shut him up. I sent it and it worked. He deleted his fake profile and I never heard from him again. I didn’t ask questions. I was just relieved!
Next, she said she would get the photo down within 24 hours. She also said not to read the comments section under the photo. People can be mean. I confided in her I felt suicidal over all of this. She replied ‘People kill themselves over this. This is why our firm exists. We will stop them, but you have to be strong okay?’ I felt empowered. For the first time.
She also explained how the legal structure currently works we have no rights to take any actions against my ex-husband. But what I can do is talk to my local government about passing a law as it was coming up for vote in my state. I had a lobbyist friend who connected me to all the most powerful people. I posted a petition on Facebook. I wrote all the people I could, the ones who wouldn’t take my calls. I didn’t have to share my story publicly, no one took me up on that offer. At the time, I felt relief. Now, I think I have a different view. These stories need to be acknowledged.
A few months later, the bill was passed. Revenge Porn is now illegal in that state. But remember it’s state-to-state. It should be illegal everywhere.
David Newstead: Were the people you spoke to sympathetic? And did they understand the extent of the problem?
Gladys: The one guy who spoke to me was. The rest, I left messages with their secretaries.
David Newstead: Earlier you said it was your ex-husband. How were you able to determine that and were there literally any repercussions for him at all?
Gladys: I knew, because that photo was a photo I sent him while we were still married. Also, where the photo was taken and the fact that I dyed my hair blonde and kept it short back then.
To your second question: Nothing. We legally could do nothing. Since he was in one state and I was in a different state, that fact alone. But also, it’s completely legal to take any photo you want that someone gave you and use it in any way you please. There is no expiration date nor are there restrictions. It boggles my mind.
When I first saw the photo online, I didn’t even recognize myself. It was that old. I recall saying ‘That’s not me, but damn that’s embarrassing.’ And slowly it all came back to me. The conversation I had had with him right before, the room I was staying in, who I was back then. Everything.
It’s a state-to-state law. So, anything done by someone else in another state is untouchable. Because it was still legal in the state he lived in, at least when I checked four years ago during research. Also, nothing can be done to the company that hosts the photos. Because they have an IP address in China and it’s hosted overseas or somewhere else. Also, the company isn’t putting up the content, so they aren’t liable. The site is called ‘myex.com’. They can shut it down, which I believe they did, and someone will start a new one.
David Newstead: So for more substantial legal responses in the future, the Feds basically have to get involved and figure out what to do?
Gladys: Yup. It has to become federal law, not state-to-state. And there isn’t enough concern.
David Newstead: What do you mean?
Gladys: This is why it happens to celebrities too. Because it’s legal. The federal government doesn’t care enough to pursue it.
David Newstead: So, you don’t think the Feds view this as a priority or as a problem?
Gladys: I don’t think they even bother one way or another. There was a case where someone’s computer was hacked into and the naked photos were collected and distributed. It’s legal. There was this one gross guy who did it to all the time to celebrities. I forgot his name. He was all over the news. This guy!! I think this was him. I haven’t done any research or given it any thought in four years. I think I wanted to put it all behind me. I’m feeling accomplished that I helped at least one state.
David Newstead: Without many legal options, how do you think someone can safeguard against this? Or is it even possible to safeguard against this kind of thing?
Gladys: I’m not sure what the new info is on it. There has to be a federal law. That’s about it, because at this rate you can take my public photos off Facebook and use them for whatever you want.
David Newstead: Or hypothetically hack someone’s camera or just superimpose their faces onto other photos. I’m confused why peeping tom laws and things like that wouldn’t be applicable. Did you ever talk to police about this?
Gladys: They can’t do anything. I didn’t even try. I can’t imagine calling them up and say ‘Hey for personal safety of a threat that may or may not come to fruition of an online threat made by my ex-husband of eight years that lives in another state. Can you keep an eye out for me?’ Cops need hard evidence and an immediate threat.
David Newstead: How did your friends, family, and business contacts react to everything?
Gladys: I didn’t tell my family. I was too ashamed. Lots of shame in this process.
Everyone else… they just felt really bad for me. One friend went through Google to make sure my photos weren’t public and she shared the petition to end Revenge Porn. I only told four people at the time. Then, a couple of dudes who asked for nude photos in my relationships, including my now husband. I still won’t do it.
There are a lot of men and women who shame people who share nude photos. They say it serves us right. I can’t say I disagree. But I also can’t fully support that way of thought. It’s important to not judge people, until it’s you. I work on this daily.
David Newstead: Well, it could be done to anyone even those who don’t take nude photos of themselves. So, I think it’s important for people not to blame the victims.
David Newstead: Also, your ex-husband sounds like an extremely toxic person.
Gladys: Evil. Really. But I chose him! I had to do a lot of soul searching at twenty-two years old: how in the hell I got there and how to never choose that again.
David Newstead: Do you see this incident as an extension of the abuse you went through during your marriage to your ex-husband?
Gladys: Absolutely! Actually, it was kind of nice. Keeping invisible in fear of him for eight years was another form of abuse. To have my fears realized and then finding the strength to stand my ground and make a positive social impact, I think that’s when I finally began to truly heal.
David Newstead: Is there any advice you’d give to others based on your experience?
Gladys: You can take your power back! Don’t give up and let them bully you. It’s not your fault, you are not a bad person.