the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Leah Juliett

Youth and LGBTQ communities disproportionately victimized by revenge porn and cyber crimes

October 25, 2019
This article was originally published on the GLAAD blog on March 30, 2017. The article received the NLGJA – The Association of LGBTQ Journalists Excellence in Student Journalism Award in 2018.

In 2016, I founded the March Against Revenge Porn as a platform of advocacy for victims of cyber sexual assault. I was frustrated by underrepresentation in both law and society, after being victimized on a public website by a revenge porn perpetrator for over five years. Modern cyber America breeds anonymous imageboards and social media accounts dedicated to the exploitation of young people through nude photos and videos shared without consent. These acts of cyber sexual exploitation, nicknamed “revenge porn”, have become cultural phenomena - yet public discussion is rare. Perhaps even more rare is the understanding that LGBTQ communities, particularly LGBTQ youth, are disproportionately the victims of revenge porn and other cyber crimes. In order to understand the LGBTQ intricacies of these cyber crimes it is important to learn the current landscape of revenge porn in modern culture.

Poster image from the 2017 March Against Revenge Porn. Image credit: Joon Park + Leah Juliett.

Revenge porn is the nonconsensual distribution of sexual images or videos with the intent to shame or humiliate the victim. For many, this form of sexual exploitation serves as revenge. Revenge is the act of avenging a wrongdoing, yet oftentimes victims have done nothing to warrant sexual exploitation. Similarly, nude images are not inherently pornographic, but by posting the content online, perpetrators attempt to pornogrify victims. Therefore, the name of the crime itself is somewhat of a misnomer, as the content is not intrinsically pornographic. The concept of revenge porn has less to do with revenge and pornography, than it does exacting control and extortion.

Content that is placed on revenge porn websites can be obtained through multiple outlets. Oftentimes, sexual photos and videos are taken consensually, as part of intimate relationships in which both partners trust that the content would never be shared. Sometimes, however, perpetrators obtain content nonconsensually: taking photos while the victim is intoxicated, hacking personal servers, and spying via webcam to record private moments. No matter how the content is originally obtained, the act of revenge porn occurs when the images and photos are then shared without the consent of the individual pictured.

The revenge porn community targets a vast pool of victims of every race, gender, and sexual orientation. Statistics from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research indicate that 17% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans have been threatened or victimized by revenge porn. This statistic, compares to the 2% of heterosexual people who are victims of this crime, and proves a statistically significant difference in discrimination regarding sexual orientation.

Further, The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative suggests 90% of victims are women, but does not specify whether this is limited to cisgender women. Studies documenting the sexual abuse of transgender people suggest, “the majority of transgender individuals are living with the aftermath of trauma and the fear of possible repeat victimization.” Because physical sexual violence mirrors cyber sexual violence, there is likely a large community of trans and non-binary victims of revenge porn, targeted because of their gender identity. Unfortunately, these factors have not studied enough in the available research to make conclusive arguments, due to various factors: underreporting, mis-gendering in reporting, and other resource and access issues faced by victims. Because of this conversations around revenge porn remain continue to center around the cisgender community, meaning that many of the most marginalized and exposed victims of revenge porn experience fundamental injustice.

Additionally, all young adults, LGB included, are more likely than older adults to have nude photos posted online without their permission (5% versus 1%). Notably, minors sampled in the study, in the 15 to 17 age range, were less likely to report the crime than those in the 18 to 29 age range. This signals that younger victims of these cyber crimes will not receive the same access to resources and support than older victims, leaving them further marginalized.

Another barrier to justice for most revenge porn victims is the sensationalizing of the crime as a celebrity issue. News of victimization often appears in news, media, and culture after a celebrity’s personal server has been hacked. In these scenarios, though, with help of paid private investigators and crisis counselors, these images are removed from the internet and the celebrity likely has access to support system to begin recovery processes. Yet, while all victims may experience emotional distress and other harmful effects, the average victim of revenge porn is less likely to have the requisite support systems and resources to combat their exposure, neither by having the support systems to heal, nor by finding justice in the criminal law system.

The exploitation of nude images and videos can lead to emotional distress, physical and mental trauma, harassment, stalking, relocation, unemployment, physical partner violence, and suicide. Victims often struggle to have their photos removed from anonymous websites, and receive little assistance from law enforcement due to lack of cyber awareness. Furthermore, with only 35 states with revenge porn legislation, victims who do come forward are not guaranteed justice. In states like Connecticut, revenge porn is a Class A Misdemeanor, which only warrants a year or less of imprisonment. For many victims, this is not adequate due process for what they endured. Moreover, because laws vary state by state, a victim living in states like New York will not have access to the same due process and path towards justice as a victim across state lines in Connecticut.

If as an activist community, we claim to care about enhancing the well-being of LGBTQ youth, we must focus on the issues that affect them most. Cyber warfare is the modern outlet for hate crimes targeted at marginalized communities based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Revenge porn is a gendered crime that occurs throughout the world on a daily basis. To combat global cyber injustice, we must speak up and start intersectional conversations destigmatizing sex, shame, and the taking of nude photographs.

While my photos may forever exist online, I have found my voice in fiercely advocating against cyber crimes.

Leah Juliett is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador alum and graduate of Western Connecticut State University with a degree in political science. They are the Founder and Executive Director of the #MarchAgainstRevengePorn. Leah was a 2018 GLAAD Rising Stars Grant recipient and served as the Youth Engagement Coordinator at GLAAD. 

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