Gender and Sexuality Column

Thompson: ‘Revenge porn’ is 21st-century abuse. Here’s how New York is fighting it.

Casey Russell | Head Illustrator

A proposed bill making its way through the New York state legislature would make posting "revenge porn" a crime.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but things are only heating up when it comes to criminalizing ‘revenge porn’ in New York state.

The New York State Senate unanimously voted in favor of criminalizing the posting of sexually explicit images of an individual online without their consent earlier this summer. A version of the bill is also making its way through the assembly before it can head to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The proposed law and others like it didn’t deter our latest viral scandal: Rob Kardashian posting explicit pictures of his ex Blac Chyna all over social media in California. But the proposal shows how New York is adapting to protect and empower victims of domestic abuse, no matter what form that abuse comes in.

The Senate’s proposed bill beefs up a previous law Cuomo signed in 2014 that declared revenge porn a “charge of second-degree unlawful surveillance.” In a full-blown digital age, it’s a much-needed addition, as we’ve seen a recent onslaught of websites sharing nude images and videos of individuals’ previous sexual partners to defame them.

This legislation comes in response to these pornographic sites, especially those targeting minors and younger children, said Suzette Meléndez, a professor at Syracuse University’s College of Law who specializes in domestic violence and children’s rights.

“I would say that the legislation is a direct result of how we communicate on social media,” Meléndez said. “We’re in the 21st century and the terms of how we communicate have been completely transformed, so I think the legislation was made for the specific purpose of regulating communication that is not otherwise federally protected and may be criminal in nature as a form of harassment or abuse.”

These changing forms of communication are reflected in younger women and the forms of abuse they face. One out of every 10 young women aged 15-29 have been threatened with nonconsensual image sharing as a means of hurting or embarrassing them, according to a 2016 study conducted by the Data and Society Research Institute.

Not only does this raise issues of child pornography, but it reveals how younger generations are pushed into the cycle of sexual abuse and manipulation as photos make their way online. In these cases, victims face emotional distress and shaming as critics blame young women for taking and distributing the images in the first place. Meanwhile, society’s “boys will be boys” mentality lets men slide without accountability for the abuse they’ve committed.

Meléndez said women being targeted for revenge porn is likely a reflection of society’s view of female sexuality.

“With regards to how women are viewed in society, and as someone who has specialized in domestic violence, I see this as actually being a form of abuse,” she said. “If this were to get into a woman’s community or workplace, I think that that could be potentially devastating for her representation and status within society in a way that is perhaps different for a man.”

While men can be and are victims of revenge porn as well, a study conducted by the Civil Cyber Rights Initiative found that 90 percent of nonconsensual porn victims were women. Beyond perpetuating misogyny, Meléndez said this public display of humiliation can lead to depression and suicidal actions in young adults.

“Suicide among children and young adults is a major concern in these situations because what was meant to remain private within an intimate relationship is made public as a punishment once the relationship is over,” she said.

Cases of revenge porn aren’t just headlines we see in the tabloids. Young women face them every day with disastrous effects.

If anything, scandals like Kardashian and Chyna’s can help us see how grossly backward society is when it comes to placing blame. Women like Chyna are chastised as sexually promiscuous based on their sexual relationships, while men like Kardashian bask in hyper-masculine glory through betrayal in the form of a tweet.

Regardless of a woman’s sexual history, consensually sending an explicit photograph of oneself to another person isn’t consent to share it with the rest of the internet. A private moment shared between two individuals should never be shared after a bitter breakup to even the score.

As abuse changes with the times, it’s essential for the United States to keep advancing how it protects victims. And by pushing forward a bill to hold bitter internet users accountable for exploiting private images of another person for vengeful satisfaction, New York can do its part.

Because despite what society may suggest, female sexuality should never be a crime or a punishment.

Kelsey Thompson is a junior magazine journalism major. Her column appears biweekly. She can be reached at katho101@syr.edu.

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