It’s been a while since I’ve written about porn, but some news happened the other day that I just couldn’t pass up. The government of Florida is in the process of passing a law that will prohibit “revenge porn.” It’s not a sub-genre I was familiar with, although it turns out the concept is probably readily understood by anyone who has spent time online.
Revenge porn happens when someone, usually a male, posts nude or sexual pictures or videos of an ex- on the net without that person’s permission. The sentiment is fairly easy to understand, although that doesn’t make it excusable – one party to a relationship is angry at another, so they seek to hurt, shame or sometimes even extort that person by publicly sharing what is otherwise private imagery.
A bunch of sites have sprung up to cater to such people, including IsAnyoneDown.com, Texxxas.com and Ugotposted.com (the first two look to be down and that last one is definitely not safe for work), with some getting hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. Some of them make good advertising money, while others supplement their revenue stream by charging victims a fee to remove their photos. Some also go a step further by including personal information about the people in the photos, such as their email addresses or links to their Facebook profiles.
It’s about as slimy as the internet gets. While the knee-jerk reaction for free speech, anonymity and general internet proponents is to bristle against the sorts of laws that Florida is proposing, this is the sort of thing that just doesn’t seem defensible.
One of the emergent revenge porn kingpins is Hunter Moore, who Rolling Stone called “the most hated man on the internet” in a feature last year. The story depicted Moore – who started and then sold IsAnyoneUp.com, ironically to an anti-bullying website – as an amoral entrepreneur looking to make a buck in any way possible, at best, to a sociopath who doesn’t give a second thought about who he hurts, at worst. When confronted by an angry mother on the Dr. Drew show, for example, he callously said, “I’m sorry that your daughter was ‘cyber-raped,’ but, I mean, now she’s educated on technology.”
Moore is understandably despised. He’s been banned by Facebook and PayPal and even the vigilantes of Anonymous have tried to hack him. He’s obviously one of the baddest of bad actors on the internet.
As despicable as his attitude and revenge porn in general is, there is a smidgen of truth to the defense that Moore and others typically use when they are confronted about what they do, which is why they’ve attracted some free speech supporters. These revenge porn purveyors, after all, aren’t the ones taking the photos, they’re just capitalizing on them.
There are obviously many cases where such photos and videos are taken without the subject’s knowledge or permission, but there are also many situations in which they are fully aware of what’s going on, even if they haven’t thought through how such imagery might be used. To some degree, they do have to own up to their mistakes, although the cost of doing so in this case is often very high.
In the bigger scheme of things, it’s no so much that the bad actors are proclaiming safe harbour innocence that’s important, but more that the supply side of the content exists for one reason or another. The reason that some people do take these photos, I think, says a lot about our societal values.
When I was a kid in grade school, I quickly learned the value of keeping quiet. If I had a secret, surely the best way to get it widely disseminated was to tell someone, even a trusted someone. It was a lesson that had to be learned the hard way, after being the victim of several betrayals.
There is, unfortunately, something very human about the need or desire to share that which we are not supposed to, which is why secrets tend to have a way of becoming known.
Nude photos and videos are the natural evolution of this, and they’re subject to the same rules. Many people create them and share them precisely because they sort of know they’re not supposed to. That makes preventing the likes of revenge porn very difficult, despite the best efforts of laws and education from parents and other authorities. Governments such as Florida’s will inevitably make it harder to disseminate such materials, but they won’t make it go away because they’re not addressing that underlying part of human nature – or societal nature, at the very least.
Practically speaking, the only real way to be sure that nude photos of yourself never make it onto the internet is to never take them in the first place. That’s going to be the case until society evolves into not caring about such things, if it ever does, at which point everyone will have nudes of themselves circulating online. Maybe we’d all be better off in such a world?