A couple of weeks ago, a male friend sent me a message asking me what I thought about sexting, the act of sending sexually suggestive images or messages over text. I responded that the consensual sharing of desire over any medium was a wonderful thing, but reminded him to take care to ascertain his playmates were trustworthy.
Revenge porn — the sharing of these images to an unintended, often public, audience without the sender’s consent — is a real phenomenon, one that has upended enough lives to engender legislation seeking to curb the practice. In June, Anthony Cannella, a Republican senator, introduced a bill here in California to crack down on revenge porn by making it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and a month in jail. Bill 255, better known as the California revenge porn bill, passed the senate a week ago.
“People who post or text pictures that are meant to be private as a way to seek revenge are reprehensible,” Cannella said when he introduced the legislation, pointing out how little protection victims currently had. “This is a common sense bill that clamps down on those who exploit intimacy and trust for revenge or personal gain.”
(4)(A) Any person who photographs or records by any means the image of another, identifiable person with his or her consent who is in a state of full or partial undress in any area in which the person being photographed or recorded has a reasonable expectation of privacy, and subsequently distributes the image taken, with the intent to cause serious emotional distress, and the other person suffers serious emotional distress.
Earlier this year, Florida passed House Bill 787, a very similar bill, criminalizing the dissemination of sexual imagery of an individual without that person’s consent, provided identifiable information was included. The bill would have made revenge porn meeting these criteria a felony. The bill did not make it into law.
New Jersey’s criminal invasion of privacy statute criminalizes the distribution of sexually suggestive images of another person without their consent. Texas Penal Code section 21.15 may also offer some degree of protection for victims.
“A survey of legal cases demonstrates that this problem [revenge porn] is widespread and that many people have turned to the legal system for assistance, with varying degrees of success,” says Without My Consent, a non-profit dedicated to combating invasions of privacy.
The Harvard Journal of Law & Technology has an overview of the avenues available to victims of revenge porn. While incredibly thorough, the outlook is bleak for victims who don’t have the time or means to pursue serious and costly legal action — though even that offers no guarantee of redress in the current system.
Despite the enormous problems this phenomenon poses, many are reluctant to support legislation against revenge porn. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the California bill on First Amendment grounds. Houston criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett has a great post explaining the constitutional arguments against the criminalization of revenge porn. Likewise, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Nate Cardozo worried that the bill might criminalize “the victimless instances” — situations where such images are shared with consent.
Which brings us to Brooklyn, where four women are getting ready to take revenge porn to the next level, by putting it up in a gallery space as art.
It all began when one of the artists, all of whom remain anonymous to date, received an unsolicited sexual image from a hook-up she knew when she was in college. The sending of sexual imagery to recipients who have not consented to receiving such material is another huge problem related to sexting that many have rightly described as a form of sexual harassment. Her offense at being the recipient of such an image is not to be dismissed.
What’s deeply problematic is her decision to join up with three other women on a quest to amass some 300 sexually explicit images for an art show, without stopping to consider that not asking for people’s consent to publish their likeness might constitute a gross violation in its own right.
Bizarrely, in a Vice article meant to point out how upsetting it is to receive images you didn’t solicit, the author completely glossed over how the artists were getting the images, saying simply, “Most of the women have gone the straightforward route in collecting dick pics, using versions of their real OKCupid profiles and brief conversations –sometimes just going right for the jugular and straight-up asking for a dick pic, avoiding flirtation and conversation at all costs. One of the artists, however, went a step further by posing as a gay man on Grindr and wound up with 150 photos, which didn’t surprise any of the sex scientists or researchers I spoke to.”
No statement from any sex scientist or researcher is given to support that statement. It’s a few paragraphs before you get to a researcher who’s commenting on the nature of the project itself. Vice‘s Talia Beth Ralph writes:
Peter Gloor, a researcher at MIT who has spent the last 22 years studying internet communities and has devoted significant time to looking at OKCupid called the deceitful nature of the project “problematic.”
“I could never do such an experiment,” he said. “It’s against professional ethics.”
I thought I could detect a hint of envy in his voice; though maybe I was wrong.
Envious of what? People out there doing nothing for science who have no ethics? There’s one more researcher that’s never going to talk to media again, Vice. Great going. Standing ovation.
Here’s the thing: we live in a world where more and more people are communicating desire through visual imagery. Just as we see problems in the street of people who don’t understand that they’re not entitled to a person’s space or attention simply because they find that person attractive, we’re seeing a similar look-at-me sense of entitlement happening over text. It’s harassing. It’s wrong. But we’re slowly making some headway in combating it. Never before have there been so many accounts of sexual harassment shared by women — at work, in the street, online. We’re going somewhere. We’re having a conversation. That’s progress for consent.
Revenge porn is an attack on consent. We have seen a variety of cases brought on by women against sites created to exploit their intimate communications for pageviews, and sometimes for extortion money. “Turning the tables” on men who don’t seem to understand consent (and a couple hundred who only sent photos of their penises because they were asked to do so) doesn’t generate more consent. It strikes against consent for everyone.
It doesn’t matter that the artists are posting their own genitals alongside their collection of “dick pix.” The artists have consented to do that. The men who sent them images of their penises (again, a majority on request, and 150 because one of the artists employed false pretenses) did not. That makes tomorrow’s exhibit, “Show Me More: A Collection of DickPix” at Morgan Avenue Underground, an act of revenge porn. There is absolutely nothing “feminist” about it.
UPDATE: Ileana Little, a writer for Bushwick Daily, saw the exhibit. She shares her experience here. This is Future Femme‘s statement, present at the exhibit, which apparently did not include the images that were collected from Grindr, as originally reported: