"Revenge porn" may be a larger problem than a proposed state law can solve | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

"Revenge porn" may be a larger problem than a proposed state law can solve

"If people understood how much damage this can do to someone's life, I think we'd be able to get much stronger protections."

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But Hoover says that "without the intent language, this bill would have serious First Amendment issues and would likely go down in court, and no one wants that."

"What about my rights not to be harassed?" counters Jennifer. "I'm 33 years old. I have intimate relationships like a lot of adults do. But because I took the pictures, or if a woman allows the pictures to be taken, there is a tendency to blame the victim for allowing any of this to happen."

That comes as no news to Sherry, of Allentown, Pa.

Her daughter was 14 when she took nude photos of herself and sent them to her high school boyfriend. The pictures were passed around by cell phone; Sherry says her daughter endured two years of bullying as a result. But she never told her mother about it until the photos were posted on the Internet after she turned 18.

When her parents went to the authorities, "It was made abundantly clear to us that our daughter could be prosecuted for the initial dissemination of the photos," Sherry says. "That is how we addressed sexting at the time — by threatening to prosecute a child for sending child porn."

No charges were filed against Sherry's daughter ... or anyone else. Though Sherry says her daughter was just 14 at the time they were taken, they are still visible on the Internet. Police have investigated, she says, but came up empty. More than five years after her daughter first took the photos, Sherry continues to call investigators about the case, but doubts anything will come of it.

"I understand that with the laws the way they were written, that the police and D.A. had their hands tied," Sherry says. "But there is just this automatic response to tell these victims that they brought it upon themselves." Especially for teens whose "hormones have fully developed and their frontal lobes have not," Sherry says, "There's a difference between the initial action of sharing these intimate photos and then the posting of these images on the Internet. They are two distinct actions, and unfortunately they get collapsed into one."

Katie Kressler, another Lehigh Valley native, knows that all too well. Four years ago, when she was 17, she sent nude photos to a boyfriend. The two later had an ugly break-up — Kressler would eventually obtain a three-year protection-from-abuse order against him — and the photos surfaced last June. Kressler went to state police. Because her protection order was still in effect, and she was underage when the photos were taken, she figured having the photos removed would be a straightforward process.

Instead, she says, "I was interrogated by state police and asked to recount all of the intimate details of my relationship." And when state police forwarded her complaint to the office of Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, Kressler got back a letter saying no charges would be filed.

There was "no police involvement to substantiate allegations" the letter said, adding that "a parent is required to file a private criminal complaint on behalf of a minor."

"It makes no sense," Kressler says. "I'm 21 years old."

When contacted by City Paper, Martin says that while he signed the letter, the review was done by a deputy D.A. And he says his office's investigation should have been more thorough.

"I've asked a child-abuse investigator to reach out to her," Martin says. "That definitely should have been done. I can't guarantee that the case will be prosecuted, but it will be investigated."

Still, Martin says, these cases are tough to prosecute. Martin says that the photos have to be sexually explicit to warrant prosecution: "If it's just a photograph of breasts, it probably won't be prosecuted at all."

"I'm not saying that she deserved to have the pictures posted on the Internet, but to an extent, she brought this about herself," he adds. "We have a sexting program where we go into the schools and tell [girls] the ramifications of their conduct are that they may have to live with boys being boys."

And since Kressler originally sent the photos, he says, "This girl herself could be subject to prosecution."

When it comes to sexting, at least, the ACLU's free-speech position aligns with that of revenge-porn foes: Neither supports prosecuting kids who take or send pictures of themselves. The ACLU has, in fact, fought attempts by legislators and local law-enforcement to criminalize children's behavior in such cases.

But anti-revenge-porn activists say that a larger cultural shift is needed.

"I was told many times, ‘Well, you shared the pictures, maybe you shouldn't be taking pictures like this,'" says Holly Jacobs, of End Revenge Porn. "It really opened my eyes to the victim-blaming mentality that exists out there. And in addition to fighting for legislation, we're definitely trying to bring attention to the way we are treating victims.

"If people understood how much damage this can do to someone's life — the personal damage, professional damage and the damage to someone's psychological stability — I think we'd be able to get much stronger protections."

In fact, Franks says, there are already stronger protections on the books. Demanding payment to remove photos amounts to extortion, she says, and some photos on revenge-porn sites constitute child pornography.

Sometimes, revenge-porn operators are charged under those laws. In California, Kevin Bollaert has been indicted for allegedly operating both a revenue site and a site that promised to remove photos for a fee — usually several hundred dollars. But Franks says those cases are comparatively rare.

"I think we'd hear a different response if these sites featured extremely young girls, but the fact that many of the girls are 15 to 17 years old seems to provoke little outrage or concern," she says. "Our society, including law enforcement, has a very high tolerance for sex-related misconduct. ... [T]he fact that offering up female bodies for entertainment is so routine, and so lucrative, makes it easy to ignore the darker issues of how such material is produced or created."

On top of that, she says, "People tend to act like something that happens online is less real and less damaging. But it's not."

Kressler, for one, checks almost every day to see if her photos have been removed. She says she informed the website that she was underage when the photos were taken, because the site claims that child pornography will not be tolerated. But as of this printing, she says the photos are still posted online — where they've received about 14,000 page views. She hopes that speaking out about what happened to her will help someone else. That's why she insisted on using her real name in this story.

"I don't deserve to have child pornography of me up on the Internet," Kressler says. "Nobody deserves to be up there like that. But I'm not going to hide because of it.

"I hope the pictures come down, and I hope the person that posted them can be punished. But the way things are looking right now, I'm shit out of luck."

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