Declaring War on Revenge Porn

It’s something mankind has been doing for centuries—capturing or recreating images of nudity, even sexuality. From Paleolithic art, to Renaissance masterpieces, to—yes—Playboy and even Playgirl magazines. There’s something about it that’s fascinating, awe-striking and, of course, stimulating. But mix in the ease and convenience of today’s technology and we have a whole new level of titillation and temptation—and a whole new level of danger.

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Katelyn Bowden from Youngstown, Ohio knows all about it. She’s on a mission to put an end to the disturbing, destructive and vile trend of what’s called “revenge porn”—when someone else’s images, usually intimate images that were taken privately and meant to stay private, end up shared widely online. As a victim herself, the 32-year-old stay at home mom is finding a voice she never knew she had. “I get to make a difference,” she told Ms., “and that is really what has empowered me. I feel better about my own experience, but know I’m helping others with theirs, too.”

Bowden’s own story is as typical—and hellish—as it gets. “I heard from a friend I was on the internet somewhere,” she remembered. “I go to the link they followed and, lo and behold, it’s my private photos, taken for an ex-boyfriend. We had been together for three years and his phone was stolen.”

Speaking out and taking such a public stand is way out of Bowden’s comfort zone. She has known trouble—the single mom has been through some tough times—but has never known this kind of humiliation. She hesitates describing the horror of finding her nude pictures plastered all over one of a few websites designed specifically to exploit compromising photos that end up in the wrong hands. After a slight pause, she continues.

“It was sheer panic,” she tells me. “I felt betrayed. I felt paranoid. I felt alone.” That’s exactly what motivated her to take a chance and reach out, via Facebook, to anyone else who knows the feeling—forming a group she now proudly calls Battling Against Demeaning and Abusive Selfie Sharing, or B.A.D.A.S.S. (Originally, the “B” was for “Babes.”)

The response was overwhelming. In only a few months, her “army” has grown to more than 500 members, prompting her to create a website and open accounts on other social media platforms as well. Her quest becomes twofold: to offer support to other victims and to work in unity to bring down the offending websites.

“It’s astounding to me,” says Kate Venable, an attorney working with the group. “Katelyn’s mission is a first of a kind on this level.” In fact, Bowden is bringing attention to the issue like never before. Venable’s own research indicates laws regarding such violations of privacy are nowhere near keeping up with technology, and she believes that the information gathered by B.A.D.A.S.S. will help her build a federal case against the offending sites and push for better policies. “It’s time this should be looked at from a criminal stand point,” Venable declares to Ms.

As of now, the offending websites allow people to post pictures anonymously. The photographs can be categorized by state or even city of the victim. The website managers claim that anonymity absolves them of any liability—they only run the site, you see, and have no responsibility for what others post. It’s a major loophole—one Venable wants to do away with and one that added to Bowden’s own challenges. In Ohio, a victim only has legal recourse if they themselves took the pictures that are posted, or if their image is being used for commercial purposes. Even with those cases, getting the pictures removed is challenging.

Exactly how much of a dent Bowden has made is hard to measure—but the fact that she’s drawing so much attention to the problem has to count. “Now there’s talk on the websites,” Venable boasts, “that we are serious…”

It’s enough to encourage Bowden and her followers to keep at it. Their fight means hours of work every day—scouring sites to identify women, and sometimes teenagers, then notify them that they are victims and, finally, invite them to join the group for solidarity and support.

The more Bowden learns about those behind the abuse, the more she believes it’s truly going to take the “army” that’s she’s building to win this war. “It’s very scary,” she told Ms., “just going through it and seeing how huge this entire culture is—it’s terrifying.” Especially terrifying, she adds, is what this trend, and the culture at-large, might become if left untouched as her own little girls grow up in a new age.

She doesn’t know how to explain to her daughters exactly what it is she does right now. She can only hope they’ll never really have to know.

Catherine Bosley  is an award-winning television journalist and a blogger and motivational speaker focusing on online privacy and social media image. Her memoir, The Bare Facts, is forthcoming.

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