In 2020, Aaron Coleman challenged seven-term incumbent Stan Frownfelter for his seat in the Kansas State House. Coleman was a 20-year-old dishwasher and community college freshman who supported universal healthcare, defunding the police, and legalizing marijuana. He also told a 13-year-old girl (when he was also 13) that he would share a nude photo he had of her if she didn’t send him more. When she refused, he followed through on the threat.1 When asked about these accusations, Coleman said simply, “They’re accurate.” Coleman went on to win his primary and now serves in the State House.2
Coleman’s story is emblematic of the lack of consequences perpetrators of nonconsensual pornography often face. Nonconsensual pornography – or “revenge porn” as it’s colloquially known – is when “a sexually graphic image of [someone] is shared without [their] consent.” Nonconsensual pornography can include images or videos taken without the victims’ consent or knowledge, or when the victim took the pictures/videos of themselves and willingly sent them to the person who then distributed them without their consent.3
Sharing nude photos is a common and normal part of building trust and intimacy in a romantic relationship. There’s nothing wrong with sharing nude photos of yourself to whomever you choose, so long as it’s consensual. Indeed, in a 2015 survey, more than 4 out of 5 adults said they send or receive explicit texts and photos.4 This rise in the sharing of nude photos has led to a corresponding rise in nonconsensual pornography, however. In 2016, 10 million people, or a little less than 4% of Americans, reported being victims of nonconsensual pornography.5 A larger 2019 study suggests the problem has only grown, showing a 400% increase in the number of victims from 2016.6 Experts note that nonconsensual pornography should be viewed through the lens of larger trends of sexual and domestic violence. According to Annie Seifulluh, an attorney who serves victims of sexual violence, “modern domestic violence almost always involves a form of tech abuse.”7
Like most forms of domestic violence, women are disproportionately likely to be victims of nonconsensual pornography. Data from the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative shows 90% of nonconsensual pornography victims are women; studies also show queer women are even more likely to be impacted. Furthermore, several studies indicate victims of nonconsensual pornography experience similar trauma to sexual assault victims.8 Besides psychological consequences, victims’ full names and links to their social media profiles, emails, and phone numbers have been posted with their naked photos on revenge pornography websites.9 As a result, victims report being threatened with violence, stalked, or harassed by people who have viewed their nonconsensual pornography online. They also report being fired from their job, expelled from school, or being forced to change their names.10
The pandemic has caused even more challenges for victims of nonconsensual pornography. Experts report that, even though quarantine early in the pandemic was helpful for victims because it gave them the chance to break away from their abusers, quarantine also gave abusers more time on their hands to torment their victims. Abusers would threaten to send victims’ nude photos to their jobs and if that wasn’t successful, they would impersonate their victims on dating apps and sites, sharing the photos that way. Lots of court delays also meant (and continue to mean) that nonconsensual pornography cases were often put on the back burner, giving abusers more time to continue harming their victims.11
Even though advancements have been made in protecting victims online, stopping the spread of nonconsensual pornography is still a challenge. Multiple sources and victims have shared that a unique symptom of nonconsensual pornography is, even if the pictures are erased from the internet (which is incredibly challenging already) there’s no way to know that they’re actually gone or who has them because they’re easily downloadable or copied and pasted. The good news is that 42 states and the District of Columbia have laws specifically outlawing nonconsensual pornography. While each state has different laws, most generally define the crime of nonconsensual pornography as involving any person, with the intent to harass or annoy another who publishes or distributes electronic or printed photographs, pictures, or films that; show the genitals, anus, or female breast of the other person; or depicts that person engaged in a sexual act. The punishment ranges from small fines to jail time, depending on the state.12 The bad news is that victims and experts report that law enforcement is often ill-equipped to help victims and often resort to victim-blaming instead.13 Also, much like other cases of sexual violence, it’s incredibly hard to charge anyone with this crime, and even harder to get a conviction.14
Ultimately, we must reframe nonconsensual pornography from being an unfortunate consequence or rite of passage for women on the internet to being a modern form of sexual violence. Nonconsensual pornography isn’t a punishment for women daring to be sexual in a technologically advanced world. It’s an egregious violation of trust and bodily autonomy and must be treated as such. We also must expect better from our elected officials and law enforcement to help victims seek justice, as well as support from members of our community. We must hold each other accountable to behave better and engage in safe sex that goes beyond using protection. It’s unacceptable that anyone who shares nude images of someone without their consent can – as in Coleman’s case – admit to doing so and face no repercussions. A better world – a world without fear of transgressions like these – is possible, but it requires a commitment from all of us to demand more from those with the power to hold abusers accountable.
Authored by NOW PAC Intern, Olivia Murray