Communities need to step up our responses to nonconsensual photo leaks

Revenge porn and other nonconsensual nude photo sharing has been making headlines. This issue has received a lot of coverage in the past years, as hackers have taken to releasing the nude photos of celebrities like Gabrielle Union, Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, and Jill Scott among others. California has taken steps to criminalize revenge porn sites by passing a law that went into effect in 2013. Kevin Bollaert, who ran a revenge porn site in San Diego, was recently been convicted and could face up to 20 years in prison. And another California man has been convicted for posting pictures of his ex-girlfriend on her employer’s Facebook page under an alias. On the heels of proposed federal legislation, popular site Reddit has taken steps to prevent non-consensual nude images and videos from being released on their site.

But even as the law progresses, we as communities seem stuck in vicious responses that blame the victim rather than holding their online abusers accountable.

I am a member of Black Twitter. With the exception of feminist Twitter and, occasionally, sex worker Twitter (from a separate account), Black Twitter is really the only part of Twitter that I dare venture into. But it certainly isn’t always — and most of the time isn’t — a liberating or safe space. Not unlike the rest of the Twitterverse, it’s is a mixed bag. You never know what you’re going to get on any given day.

And there is nothing that brings out the worst of Black Twitter like the leaking of a woman’s nude pictures. A break up between a couple in rural Iowa can make its way to the timelines of folks in New York and California within four hours if it’s coupled with the release of nudies thanks to the Black Twitter grapevine. It’s amazingly fast and even more unsettling to watch these spectacles play out online.

In a recent example: two men (I won’t share any specific details to respect the privacy of the woman involved. So I’ll call them Guy #1, Guy #2, and Girlfriend) were having an argument. Guy #1 managed to insult Guy #2 by suggested that Guy #2 didn’t have any “hoes.” In other words, Guy #1 thinks that Guy #2 so uncool that he doesn’t have any women to sleep with.  Guy #2 decides that the ultimate comeback is to Twitpic a sexual photo of Guy #1’s girlfriend that she had sent to Guy #2 several years before, to prove that women are in fact interested in him. As if this situation isn’t tragic enough on it’s own: the equation of masculinity and coolness with the amount/number of women they are able to sleep with is trivial and an example of pretty shitty masculinity, the leaking of Girlfriend’s picture was unnecessary and harmful.

I don’t think I need to explain why it is wrong for someone to share private photos that were sent in trust and in an effort to show love, connection, lust, attraction, etc. It is an extreme violation of someone’s privacy and a cruel way to humiliate them. I would like to also make it very clear that I understand this act to be a sexual violation. Whether it is out of spite, vengence, heartbreak, or the center of a sick joke, using sexually charged content as a tool is violent and a violation of basic human rights.

But, in addition to the actual act of leaking pictures that weren’t meant for the public to see, it’s also disturbing to see the rhetoric that flows out of these events. Like most instances of sexual assault, victims/survivors are usually women, these acts of violence are usually enacted by men, and onlookers victim-blame rather than hold perpetrators accountable. While I certainly don’t believe that this only happens on Black Twitter (revenge porn sites like Is Anyone Up, are example of this), it is my point of reference for witnessing this and interpreting responses to it.

Spectator responses to Guy #1, Guy #2, and Girlfriend’s situation were a bleak reminder of just how deep sexism runs. Luckily for me, most of my followers were extremely supportive of Girlfriend and took Guy #2 to task for violating her in that way. They immediately called out his griminess and held him accountable for his insolence. I didn’t see a single person who supported the actions of Guy #2 or thought it was cool. However, I did see some folks’ responses that showed apathy towards Girlfriend’s plight. People who felt that she should have never sent the picture in the first place either because no one should trust their partner not to publicly humiliate them, or simply because it was sexually deviant and made her a “hoe.” And then there were others who felt that Girlfriend was completely within her rights to send the picture, but that Guy #1 should break up with her because it was the only way his male ego could survive the blow that had been dealt to him. This was the debate that overshadowed the harm done to the woman by a man she trusted: Should Guy #1 support his partner, or should he find another one whose sexuality was less threatening?

The fact that this is a common occurrence on my timeline (it happens at least once every couple of months) reveals the layers of misogyny that can haunt women in digital spaces.  It reminds us that many people (of varying genders) are very much invested in the idea that women’s bodies are never quite their own. People use these debacles as opportunities to police people’s gender performance (women should be sexually pure and pious), relationship habits (women have to maintain an image of piety within their relationships, and if anything is revealed to suggest otherwise, it’s their fault), bodies (you don’t want to know what kinds of things happen when the woman is fat or isn’t considered attractive), and sexualities (again, women should be sexually pure and pious). Punishing women in an attempt to maintain these tropes by leaking naked images of them to be criticized and ridiculed takes a special kind of chauvinist bravado; and will be the reason I hesitate to ever send out another nude again.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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