My last breakup wasn’t really a breakup, but it was bad. We were never really dating, and he definitely wasn’t (and would never be) my boyfriend. We’d been hooking up on and off for a few months, when he inexplicably stopped answering my texts, at which point I realized he’d more than likely keep the nude photos I’d sent him.
I asked him to delete them, though I’ll never have proof that he actually did, and I ended up blocking him from all my social media accounts, which he noticed almost immediately. That led to him sending me several paragraphs of angry texts, calling me a petty bitch and a slut, because I didn’t want my nudes made public. He continued to harass me over text for months after that, occasionally bringing up the photos in order to pressure me into seeing him, until I blocked his number.
I don’t suspect this guy has shared—or will ever share—my photos with anyone. I’m also really lucky. I’m not famous, I don’t work with kids, and my family already knows I’m kind of a slut, so there’s not a lot I stand to lose by texting a picture of my bare ass to the person I happen to be dating at the time, which I understand is a huge privilege.
I don’t regret sending nudes, but I do regret sending them to this particular person, who, when we were together, seemed to care far more about holding onto digital collateral than he did about me. I think he got off on the power trip of keeping me guessing, and he was angry enough to make me wonder whether he’d try to use the photos against me.
There wasn’t much I could do to stop him from doing whatever he wanted with my photos, even if he just wanted to keep them to himself forever. I couldn’t take them back, but I wanted him to know that if anyone was going to be posting my naked photos, it was going to be me, and I was going to get paid for it. So I opened Instagram, posted an announcement that I was selling my nudes, and shared a link to my PayPal account. I wanted this guy to know that having my naked photos in his phone didn’t mean he had power over me. It just meant he was lucky.
“Our modern lives are a constant mix of digital and physical, and our intimate relationships are no exception,” cybersecurity expert and specialist in Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR) Lesley Carhart told VICE. “There will always be public embarrassment or blackmail potential in any intimate relationship, digital or not. That hasn't deterred people over the history of humankind, and the rules for protecting oneself haven't changed drastically.”
Most states have laws that criminalize non consensual pornography and image sharing, yet revenge porn is a growing problem. A 2016 study published by the Data & Society Research Institute indicated that over 10 million people in the U.S. alone are either threatened with or victims of revenge porn. It can have devastating social, financial, and emotional consequences that leave a lasting impact on victims’s careers and mental health, but there’s still little recourse available to those who’ve been affected or are vulnerable to potential harassment.
Though Carhart emphasized that “there's a line between providing necessary education for all young women (and men) about sexting privacy and security concerns, and simply shaming them for being sexual, which I absolutely want to avoid,” there are a few points about images and messages sent over the internet everyone should understand. “Anything you post to the internet is very likely ‘forever,’” Carhart said. “Any image or message you create on a digital device can likely be recovered from that device with the right tools. The way the internet works causes data to be stored in multiple places and often backed up by multiple groups.”
Even “disappearing” photo message apps like Snapchat carry a risk, Carhart added. “Any app or program that says it can completely ensure images and text sent from your phone to your partner's phone are 100% private or disappearing is almost certainly misleading you. It's possible to improve connection security as messages are sent over the internet, and it's possible to better secure the receiving and sending devices to deter snooping, but as long as people have cameras a recipient can take a photo of their screen with, no software can ever provide a 100% guarantee.”
Carhart said it’s important to consider the personal and professional risk of entering into any relationship that involves sexting and nude photos, and speak up if a partner’s request or a particular situation feels uncomfortable. “If there's intense risk to your professional image, or you're part of a more conservative culture, you may find the risk of intimate messages or photos attributed to you now or in the future unacceptable," she said.
If you understand and accept the risk involved and still want to send nudes, “take the photos or video yourself,” said Elisa D’Amico, a partner at law firm K&L Gates. D’Amico is also the co-founder of the firm’s Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, which provides pro bono legal help to victims who have experienced or are currently being threatened with image-based abuse. “Maintaining copyright allows for greater control over future postings, if any,” D’Amico told VICE. She also recommended putting any discussions you have with a partner about rules or boundaries related to the photos in writing, such as an email or text.
Even if you’ve taken every precaution, “There is always the risk that information meant to be private will be shared or otherwise distributed beyond the original intended audience,” D’Amico said. “This goes for sexually explicit images and video as well as other information such as emails or text messages, and personal or otherwise private information. People need to be cognizant of how easily information sharing is accomplished and keep that in the back of their minds.”
If you discover or suspect your nude photos have been shared without your consent, or you’ve experienced any form of sexual abuse, “resist the urge to delete anything,” D’Amico advised. “Consider taking initial steps to preserve everything that could in some fashion relate to what is happening.” D’Amico also recommended taking and storing screenshots and URLs of any websites or social media pages where the material is posted to keep as evidence in order to build a case against the person who shared the photos.
If you think you know who the perpetrator is, “do not delete any material or information that relates to that person and which is in your possession,” D’Amico said. “You should also consider reporting the incident to law enforcement, and ask to speak with someone who works with special victims and/or cyber crimes as they are quite often the ones familiar with non consensual pornography. And of course, you should consider speaking with an attorney.”
For non-legal advocacy, crisis counseling, and emotional support, D’Amico recommends contacting the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s 24-hour hotline, which she said can serve as a starting point. Activist groups and non-profit organization BADASS also offers resources and support for victims of revenge porn and image abuse such as helping members remove their photos and spamming revenge porn forums in order to make the stolen images more difficult to find.
Most importantly, if you find you’ve been subject to online sexual abuse or revenge porn, know that it’s not your fault. “I do not believe in ‘victim shaming’ or in otherwise blaming someone for choosing to take and share intimate material,” D’Amico said. “When someone perpetrates nonconsensual pornography and shares intimate images and/or video without the consent of the pictured individual, it is that perpetrator who is in the wrong and who deserves the blame.”
My own foray into reclaiming ownership over my nudes was kind of a bust, to be honest. I only sold a handful of photos to a guy I turned down for a date in college. It was admittedly kind of embarrassing, but selling my photos felt like I was taking back control of my body and my image.
After months of near-constant anxiety, I finally felt like I could move on, knowing that my former hookup no longer had this power over me. Neither did anyone I’d sent nudes to in the past who felt entitled to my body and my time. I was still getting 3AM texts from some of them, even though we hadn't spoken in months, just because they still had an old naked picture of me in their phone.
I temporarily unblocked my ex to send a link to the Instagram post advertising my nudes, and he never bothered me again after that. My photos weren’t special anymore; he had the same photos other people had seen—that I'd wanted them to see—and I couldn't be shamed for that.
My chosen tactic obviously isn't right for everyone battling revenge porn, but it was just enough to reclaim autonomy over my own body from a dude who felt like he could control it. This way, the photos couldn't hurt me, and neither could he.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.