What would you do if everything on your phone — those selfies you snap when you’re feeling yourself, group texts where you hate on your ex’s new partner, that email to your boss where you blatantly lie about being sick — was suddenly, horrifically, made public for the entire world to see? Even worse, your entire world...family, friends, acquaintances, nemeses?
These are the questions at the centre of the recently released Gen-Z slasher film Assassination Nation, when an anonymous hacker suddenly bares an entire town’s electronic secrets open for all to see. (Assassination Nation was produced by Neon in partnership with Refinery29.) The resulting chaos devolves into a terrifying, misogynistic bloodbath where a group of teenage female protagonists are pinpointed as the ones at fault. The words “whore,” “slut,” and “bitch” are hurled with such cringeworthy velocity and frequency it makes the audience feel as attacked as the characters themselves.
When the credits roll, it would be easy to step out of the theater and breathe a sigh of relief: The movie is fictional, and hyperbolically so. Your city has not been hacked, its residents are not going on a killing spree, and you can return home to continue scrolling through Instagram in peace.
But as over-the-top disturbing as many parts of the plotline are, there is some scary truth to the fictitious narratives that are portrayed, as well as the 27 trigger warnings presented at the beginning of the movie. In real life, women are the targets of nonconsensual image sharing, also known as revenge porn, image abuse, digital domestic violence, nonconsensual pornography, and cyber-sexual assault. It’s a problem that continues to worsen without the legal recourse in place to effectively fight it.
The most publicized cases are those that have involved celebrities, such as 2014’s the Fappening, when nude photos of A-listers including Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst were hacked and shared. But the issue does not just affect the Hollywood elite. According to the Data & Society Research Institute, one in 25 Americans have been on the receiving end of threats or posts of nude photos. For young women, the statistics are worse: One in 10 have been threatened with the posting of explicit images.
In these cases, photos — either ones that were shared privately, with trust, or those that are taken without someone’s knowledge or consent — are used as weapons to shame, embarrass, and attack them. They are often paired with a survivor’s full name, address, and phone number; contact details that make the invasion of privacy even more severe and dangerous. They can affect personal relationships, professional careers, and mental health. They can lead to court cases that take years to resolve. And, usually, the attacker is only faced with a misdemeanor at best, not a criminal sentencing. (Currently, 40 U.S. states, plus D.C., have some sort of law in place against revenge porn.)
The best effort to make revenge porn a federal offense came in November 2017, when Senators Kamala Harris, Richard Burr, and Amy Klobuchar introduced a bipartisan bill called the ENOUGH (Ending Nonconsensual Online User Graphic Harassment) Act. Still, the bill has a long way to go: Before it can become law in America, it needs to pass the U.S. Senate, House, and president.
As the fight continues, Refinery29 spoke with two women who have been public about their experiences with nonconsensual image sharing and their efforts to enact bills against it.
“My whole world stopped. I just felt like everything was over for me. I was in shock. When I first saw [the video], I watched it three times because I was like, No, this can’t be me.”
In late 2016, Nathaly Rodriguez was excitedly preparing to compete in the 2017 Miss New York USA Pageant. The makeup artist started a GoFundMe to raise money and posted about her journey leading up to the competition on social media. That’s when she says she started getting persistent calls and texts from an ex.
“There were times when I felt like I had to pick up the phone because he wouldn’t stop,” Rodriguez told Refinery29. “I just told him, ‘Listen, I don’t want to talk to you. Please don’t contact me.’ After that he continued to contact me, hour after hour, every day.”
Shortly before the pageant, Rodriguez says her ex threatened to post photos and videos of her online. She brushed it aside, sure he was bluffing. But after the pageant, she says she received an email with a link to a porn website and a video.
“I felt so stuck and didn’t know what to do,”Rodriguez says. “I started researching if doing that to somebody was illegal.”
In New York, it wasn’t, and Rodriguez was told as much. But when she showed up at the Bronx Family Court, not knowing who to talk to or what to do, she was fortunate enough to connect with an attorney working on a state bill to fight revenge porn. By November 2017, Rodriguez was standing on the steps of City Hall with Councilman Rory Lancman, telling her story and advocating for the bill. If passed, those convicted would face a misdemeanor charge with up to a year in prison. Currently, it is awaiting a state Senate vote in 2019.
Now, Rodriguez is working with Sanctuary for Families to help survivors of gender violence, while continuing to meet with legislators and work on getting bills passed.
“I was lucky enough to find someone who was helping me when I had no idea who to go to or what to do,” she says. “I can just imagine other girls out there who are getting bullied or exposed [who don’t have those resources]. I feel like I need to do more to help others.”
“One of the things I wanted was an acknowledgement, an apology. I finally got that towards the end of the case. But the psychological toll, the PTSD, that struggle doesn’t go away. I’ll have it for the rest of my life. The fact that it’s the internet so these things can never be wiped free. Understanding how deep that pain goes as a victim and the ramifications — it literally put my life on hold.”
In 2013, a year after starting the YouTube channel BriaAndChrissy with her then-girlfriend (and now-wife), Chrissy Chambers was contacted by a fan, who said they had seen someone posting links to videos of her on a porn site.
“My heart sank, but I was just thinking, of course it’s not me, I’ve never even consented to send a nude,” Chambers told Refinery29.
But when she Googled “Chrissy Chambers sex tape” there it was: A video, with her full name attached, that had been filmed years earlier in her old bedroom. She soon found out that it wasn’t just that one video on one site: There were seven videos, she says, that were posted to over 30 different websites and viewed more than 100,000 times.
As Chambers sought to fight the videos legally, she encountered a problem: The videos were past the slim statute of limitations in both the U.S. and the U.K., where her ex was from. Plus, in England, a law that made the nonconsensual sharing of sexual images illegal did not go into effect until 2015, after the videos were uploaded.
So Chambers pursued a civil case in England, instead. This January, she finally won the much-publicized case, setting a new precedent for revenge porn cases and getting the copyright to the videos, as well as undisclosed damages from her ex.
Now, Chambers, who says she continues to struggle with PTSD, is working to enact laws in the United States. (Chambers was also the subject of an op-ed Hillary Clinton wrote for this website in 2016, in which Clinton vowed to fight for women’s rights if elected to office.)
“I thought that our [YouTube] channel and helping with the LGBTQ community would be what our life’s purpose was,” Chambers says. “Then this happened to me, and I was like, Oh wow, this is what I was really meant to do, to try to push for change and help other people get justice.”
If you are a survivor of nonconsensual image sharing, there are a few important steps to take. First, take screenshots of every post, website, or message as evidence. If your photos were posted on social media, you can report them to get them removed. If they were posted elsewhere, as was the case for Rodriguez and Chambers, you can submit a DMCA takedown notice or hire a company (the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative recommends DMCA Defender) to handle this for you.
Finally, tell someone who you can trust, and who will support you, what has happened, Chambers advises.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).