Why and How Congress Should Outlaw Revenge Porn

Congress should combat nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit images—commonly referred to as “revenge porn”—by criminalizing the practice and empowering victims to obtain justice.

The distribution of sexually explicit images without the subject’s consent, commonly referred to as “revenge porn,” currently exists in a legal gray area throughout much of the United States, where victims have few options for recourse and perpetrators go unpunished. Revenge porn can have dramatic consequences for victims—from harming their careers and reputations to intimidating them into silence or putting them directly in harm’s way. While a number of states and private businesses have taken up the cause to reduce this form of online harassment, it is not enough. Congress should take action to address the nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit images.

Revenge porn is a particularly pernicious form of online harassment in which a perpetrator distributes sexually graphic images of a person without his or her consent. In some cases, a victim may have shared these images with a trusted partner who then violated that trust and disseminated the pictures online. For example, Holly Jacobs, the founder of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, describes how her ex-boyfriend posted explicit images of her online alongside identifying information, such as her name, email address, and job title, in an attempt to discredit, embarrass, and harass her. In other cases, hackers steal images. For example, in 2014 a hacker stole a trove of nude images from over 600 online storage accounts linked to different female celebrities, uploading those images to the Internet without their owners’ consent.

People who distribute these images often do so with the intent to harm the subject of the images and with the knowledge that the subject has not consented to their distribution. These photos or videos are placed on websites, including those devoted to nonconsensual images, exchanged on chat rooms, sent to loved-ones or employers in an attempt to shame the victim, or posted on fake online advertisements that list the victims’ contact information and falsely solicit strangers for sex. Most online harassment, including nonconsensual pornography, is disproportionally targeted toward women.

Despite the seriousness of the problem, victims have inadequate means available to fight back. Most victims cannot easily stop the spread of the images or take action against the perpetrator. Indeed, many of these images remain online forever. U.S. federal legislation is needed to reverse this trend and protect the victims of revenge porn. To that end, ITIF recommends that Congress:

 
  • Pass legislation to criminalize the nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit images. 
  • Create a special unit in the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to provide immediate assistance to victims of nonconsensual pornography. 
  • Direct the Department of Justice to work with the private sector on developing best practices for online services to quickly remove nonconsensual pornography.