Anna Buckley/HelloGiggles
From Our Readers
May 02, 2018 4:53 pm

Sexual Assault Awareness Month ended in April, but these conversations must continue. Here, an anonymous contributor discusses being the victim of nonconsensual porn, often referred to as “revenge porn.” Trigger Warning: This essay discusses nonconsensual recordings of sexual activities and mentions sexual assault.

I squeezed my car’s steering wheel so hard that my knuckles turned red. I don’t remember where we were going or where we had left, but I’ll never forget how utterly gutted I felt. I kept looking in the rear view mirror at my friend in the backseat, waiting for her to get some potentially devastating information. She was on the phone with another friend of ours when she gasped. I waited with bated breath as she ended the call, and I knew it wasn’t good.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Yeah, they’ve got it,” she said.

Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I was the star of a sex tape being passed around my college campus — a video I hadn’t even known existed.

My mind swirled with a million panicked thoughts: How had I not noticed I was being recorded? Were my eyes closed? How many people have seen it? Did I do something to make him do this? Was this all my fault?

***

There had been whispers of circulating nude photos and videos of female students making their way across campus since I was a freshman, but I figured it wasn’t true. I had never seen these photos or videos, and no one I knew had ever seen them either. College, in some ways, is an extension of high school, with rumors shared in a never-ending game of telephone. Besides, I never worried because I didn’t think I was at risk — wouldn’t I know if I’d been in a sex tape? I’d never agreed to something like that, and my partner had never even talked to me about recording ourselves.

But we’d never had that discussion because he never asked — not when he took the video, and not when he shared it with our peers. That realization was horrifying.

My body had been unknowingly packaged and sent out with a suffocating bow on top, the card reading SLUT in big, bright red letters. I felt dirty and completely violated. All I could imagine were people huddled around their phones, laughing as pieces of me were stripped away with each view.

***

There are a million questions I still don’t have the answers to, but one question was answered immediately. My friend, still sitting in the backseat, stated simply, “The video is in GroupMe.”

Nonconsensual porn (NCP), as defined by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), is “the distribution of private, sexually explicit images of individuals without their consent.” And in today’s expansive social media landscape, stories like mine are becoming all too common.

In a study conducted by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and the Florida International University Department of Psychology, researchers distributed a survey through Facebook inviting participants to share their experiences with “cyber abuse,” including their lifetime experience with nonconsensual pornography — both as perpetrators and victims. Florida International University PhD student Yanet Ruvalcaba, who helped construct the study, explained “in our sample of 3,044 participants (54% women), one in 12 (8%) reported having been victims of NCP at some point in their lives, while 1 in 20 (5%) reported having perpetrated NCP.”

Sensationalized by the media as “revenge porn,” this serious form of exploitation has affected women of all backgrounds and, in true social media form, some instances of it have gone viral.

Angela Renée White, known professionally as Blac Chyna, was the victim of two separate instances of “revenge porn”: In July 2017, when her ex-fiancé Rob Kardashian targeted her by posting explicit pictures of her on his Instagram account, and again in February 2018, when sexually explicit videos of her leaked onto the internet.

Although we tend to use the terms “revenge porn” and “nonconsensual porn” interchangeably, Dr. Dionne P. Stephens, an associate professor of psychology at Florida International University, told me that the all-encompassing term “revenge porn” is misleading.

“There is a difference between revenge and nonconsensual, because sometimes, it’s not [done out of] ‘revenge.’ And revenge also means that [the perpetrator] is getting back at the [victim] — which also makes it the victim’s fault. So it’s important in research, and also from a feminist perspective, to avoid using the term revenge porn because it often implicates the victim in her victimization. And it takes some of the blame off the perpetrator.”

While distinctions in the perpetrators’ motivations may differ, the resounding effects are the same.

Dr. Kristen Zaleski is a clinical associate professor of social work in the Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness at the University of Southern California. She supports the assertion that victims of nonconsensual porn experience the same effects as other victims of violence. “Are they the same symptoms? Yes,” she said. “Are there perhaps some unique variables in those symptoms that exacerbate the social consequences? Absolutely. Being seen by all your friends on a social media account, or by all of his friends on a social media account, certainly has a lot of embarrassment and shame built in.”

Some of the “unique variables” attached to instances of nonconsensual porn are embedded in the technological nature of the assault. “What makes this more concerning is that it can be ongoing. A woman could potentially get out of a relationship that is violent, but with nonconsensual [porn], these images can be around for the rest of their lives,” said Dr. Stephens. “So it really is a new form of violence against women that has sort of moved with us as we are moving into this new territory of social media. We really haven’t caught up with it in terms of research and policy.”

The first app I downloaded when I stepped onto my college campus was GroupMe, a mobile group messaging app that Microsoft launched in 2010. While an upperclassman introduced the app as a way to stay in contact with different campus clubs and organizations, I quickly learned it was the “watering hole” of campus social life. Free and easy to use, GroupMe is different from other apps because each group chat is surrounded by proverbial red tape. A person can’t join a chat until added by an existing member.

Describing themselves as “a private chat room for your small group,” GroupMe is like a microcosm of the real world tucked neatly away among people’s smartphone icons. It was within this sphere that I found privacy to be a double-edged sword.

I soon learned that there were “boys only” GroupMe chats created to share sexually explicit material of women they had been intimate with, and it was nearly impossible to gain access to their chat. Surrounded by gatekeepers and the “no snitches” mentality, the same privacy that afforded GroupMe the ability to create a personalized environment also protected these perpetrators from the harsh light of accountability. In this way, the helpful app transformed from a central communication hub to a space of humiliation, exploitation, and harassment. These men benefit not only from the technological blockades, but also from society’s perception of nonconsensual porn.

In a study by the University of Kent, researchers found that 87% of study participants expressed at least some excitement or amusement with revenge porn.

Internet memes and victim blaming have become characteristic to these kinds of cases — so much so that I didn’t know if I was correct to believe that nonconsensual porn is sexual assault.

“Oh absolutely,” Dr. Stephens confirmed, “because part of it is a sexualizing of the body… The idea is if you’re posting it on the internet, why are you posting it? You’re not just posting it just because ‘look how she looks beautiful,’ it’s a way of publicly humiliating, of shaming. So it is a form of emotional and psychological assault.

So, if we should consider nonconsensual porn to be a form of sexual assault, then why are victims continually blamed for it?

Dr. Stephens explained, “You have to think about in term of rape. For a long time, rape was still looked at as the victim’s fault, like ‘What did you do? How did you tempt him? What was your role in it?’ And only now, we’ve really shifted in the last, maybe, 10 years to ‘no means no.’ So there’s still this idea, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have taken this image in the first place, how could you be so stupid?’ Which is still the same as, ‘Well you shouldn’t have gone to this night club and walked to your car by yourself, how could you be so stupid?’”

***

As we begin to navigate the emerging world of social media, we cannot continue to exclude victims of nonconsensual porn from our discussions of sexual assault. As people of all genders continue to be victimized by nonconsensual porn, we must take the path of inclusivity — one that acknowledges all victims. 

For more information about nonconsensual porn, visit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative at www.cybercivilrights.org If you are in a crisis, you can call their helpline at 844-878-2274. Their counseling services are free of charge and available 24/7.

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