Distributing a partner’s nudes without permission could be classified as a type of domestic violence, experts say

By Vanessa Vieites

When 21-year-old Taylor sent nude images of herself to a guy she’d been chatting and flirting with over Myspace, an early social media platform, in 2009, she never expected the pictures to end up on a now-defunct revenge porn website. What’s more, she never imagined her old boss — a job reference at the time — would receive a link to the website with her unauthorized photos.

“I looked at the link, and I was completely shocked,” Taylor says. “I lost it — started to cry, had a panic attack on the phone with my friend.”

While the term “revenge porn” is more familiar to most people, nonconsensual pornography includes the distribution of sexually intimate images and videos of someone without their permission for any reason. “The motive can be for profit, for humor, for sexual gratification or to prove masculinity to other people. It’s not just for revenge,” explains Asia Eaton, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Power, Women, and Relationships Lab at Florida International University.

According to a 2017 nationwide report Eaton led, nonconsensual porn has been a growing phenomenon for the last 10 years. And while victims such as Taylor — most often women — suffer worse mental and physical health outcomes than non-victims, many are unaware of resources available to them and lack legal recourse.

The increasing prevalence of nonconsensual porn, especially among emerging adults, is likely to continue as people adopt information technologies at higher rates than before the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a massive shift to web-based communication and the use of information technologies — people are working, attending classes, running errands and maintaining social connections online,” Eaton explains, making “them vulnerable to various forms of cyber sexual abuse.”

According to her report, 8% of US adults have been a victim of nonconsensual porn, and 5% report having perpetrated it during their lifetimes. Women are almost twice as likely as men to be victimized, and men are twice as likely as women to be the perpetrators. Those who discover they’ve had sexually explicit content of themselves shared without consent experience poorer psychological and physiological wellbeing, but few avenues exist for legal restitution.

According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a non-profit dedicated to combating online abuse, 46 states have laws against nonconsensual porn, but no federal law prohibits it. “And state laws are patchy and problematic,” says Eaton, CCRI’s Head of Research.

Some laws don’t criminalize the act unless the victim’s name or social security number is revealed with their image. Others require proof the perpetrator intended to harm the victim, which is difficult to prove and not always true.

Further, the term “revenge porn” is problematic because it blames the victim, implying the perpetrator is “going after the victim who wronged him or her,” Eaton says. “That’s not always the case.” And regardless of intent, the psychological impact and social consequences to the victim are real and often debilitating.

“We need a federal law that recognizes the seriousness of image-based sexual abuse and criminalizes all forms of nonconsensual creation and distribution of intimate images,” Eaton says. After all, involuntary manslaughter is still a crime even though it does not require malicious intent.

One way to advocate for stronger laws is to clarify the theory underlying the phenomenon: Does nonconsensual porn fit into the category of intimate partner violence or is it another form of cyberbullying?

In a study published earlier this year in the journal of Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, Eaton and her coauthors examined whether nonconsensual porn perpetrated within intimate relationships contains the common features of intimate partner violence.

The researchers found that nonconsensual porn includes all eight features of power and control that characterize domestic violence, especially emotional abuse, coercion and threats, and denial, blame and minimization.

“That pretty much helps establish that nonconsensual porn in intimate relationships can be characterized as a form of intimate partner violence,” Eaton says. “Some [tactics] are more subtle; some are more frequent than others, but they all work together to intimidate and control victims.”

Victims of nonconsensual porn have more resources today than in 2009, Taylor says. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative website and 24-7 crisis helpline, for example, provide advice and information about state laws and resources, including how to de-escalate situations, get photos taken down and find local mental health resources.

“If a helpline had existed when it happened to me, that would’ve been the first thing I did,” Taylor says. “It would have helped to have someone else hear me and not be met with everybody else’s opinions on what I had done.”

Eaton hopes that reconceptualizing nonconsensual porn as a form of intimate partner violence might have an impact on policy that could help victims seek justice. Nonconsensual porn is not always domestic violence, but knowing when it is “helps us better understand the predictors, the correlates, the consequences and even efforts at rehabilitation and support for victims,” Eaton says.

Years of therapy helped Taylor heal, but the incident caused extreme psychological and physical stress. “I couldn’t sleep for weeks after it happened. I spent a lot of time berating myself — ‘Why did you take those pictures?’ ‘Why did you even send them?’ I felt embarrassed and ashamed,” she says. It even derailed her career in the music industry. “I pulled inward for a couple of months until I realized after eight months of [job-searching] that nobody was going to hire me, so I should probably just find a new course for my life.”

Taylor returned to school to earn a psychology degree and has since worked for non-profit organizations helping victims of nonconsensual porn and domestic violence. “I ended up going from being harmed and having all this trauma in my life to then helping other people who are going through similar scenarios and rewriting my story,” she says. “It was unexpected but really important for me to do.”

Vanessa Vieites is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at Florida International University and a freelance science writer. Her research focuses on spatial memory and the brain in young children.

This story was produced as part of NASW's David Perlman Summer Mentoring Program, which was launched in 2020 by our Education Committee. Vieites was mentored by Tara Haelle.

Hero image by Pexels from Pixabay.


Vanessa Vieites

Tara Haelle
Credit: Jim Coventry
Sep. 17, 2020