It’s hardly news adult movie star Stormy Daniels claims to have pictures of President Trump acquired during the relationship she says took place in 2006. But recently, a (disputed) rumor swept the internet suggesting she had pictures of body parts more exposed in her films than in your average R-rated Hollywood movie.
In her interview for 60 Minutes, Daniels declined to talk about whether she turned over all “video images, still images, email messages, and text messages” she may have had. Assume for argument’s sake that some images Daniels might have of Trump are sexually explicit. If confidentiality agreements were not an issue, should she publish the photos against Trump’s stated wishes?
Given the polarized feelings about Trump, this might seem like a trick question. But it’s not. Political beliefs and positions should not complicate a very simple answer: No.
Chances are good that at least some teenagers you know have exchanged sensitive photos of themselves with a friend or partner: Recent results from a report published in Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics analyzed 39 studies including approximately 110,000 young people and found that an average of 14.8 percent sent sexts and 27.4 percent received sexts. An average of 12 percent of those young people forwarded a sext they received to others without getting permission, and 8.4 percent had a sext of them forwarded without permission.
Nonconsensual pornography is the term for “the distribution of private, sexually explicit images of individuals without their consent.” It’s also often called “revenge porn” because it can include a person publishing private photos as an act of revenge after a relationship (real or imagined) ends. But revenge isn’t the only, or even primary reason people share private images without permission. A study published in 2017 by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting online abuse, found that those who share sexually explicit images without consent did so to be funny, to get attention, to feel proud, to feel aroused, because they were upset or because they simply wanted to share with their friends. Sometimes, the person sharing the photos was never even in a relationship with the subject, or is a hacker or voyeur.
Many (but not all) states have enacted specific laws targeting nonconsensual pornography. Search engines like Google, some social media sites like Facebook, and even pornography sites like Pornhub, have enacted policies to make it easier to report abuses. But many current laws and policies, and popular attitudes, aren’t making enough of a difference. Laws often classify nonconsensual pornography as a misdemeanor, at least the first offense, and not every law enforcement agency is eager to find and charge “low-level” offenders—assuming a victim is able to find and identify the perpetrator at all. Google allows users to request removal of explicit images from search engine results, but removal is not guaranteed, and the process can be complicated.
News of a celebrity hacking incident broke in 2014 after hackers stole sensitive photos from high profile actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence, and published them online. A common reaction was what a senior online editor at Forbes called “the ‘sext abstinence education’ approach to scandalous selfies.” If you don’t take sexually explicit photos, or allow them to be taken, then they can’t be published. That kind of logic can take the form of direct blame (“that’s what you get”) or the assumption of risk approach (“you should have known this would happen”)—both sentiments steeped in victim-blaming. A similar sentiment pervades commentary on the rumored disclosure of compromising photos of the president.
While it’s often, but not always, true that what does not exist likely cannot be used against you, it also misses the point that no one should steal your naked selfies or redistribute photos you shared only with them in the first place. Acts of nonconsensual pornography have become more widespread as our access to and interactions with technology increase—and the “shame and blame” approach, while not effective, is all too common.
A school teacher I know learned a student had been sexting. In response, the teacher bemoaned the student’s lack of self-respect and told her she had committed a felony for creating and distributing child pornography. Police were called to talk to her as part of an “educational moment.” After her experience, how likely is that student to report if the person she sexted redistributes the photos without her permission?
We can do better. We should consider what the CCRI describes as “immediate, devastating, and in many cases irreversible harm” a single act of revenge porn can cause. Many targets live with humiliation, fear, anxiety, and depression. Some have received death threats and threats of sexual violence when images have gained public attention or when they fought back. Some have lost or been afraid of losing their jobs. A student I represented was expelled for unprofessional conduct when photos, altered to look sexual, were distributed by another student. The sender initially faced no consequences. Some victims were just kids when photos were taken of them. Some never gave permission at all or even knew photos or videos were taken of them.
Non-consensual pornography should be a criminal offense in every state. A federal law should address behavior that crosses state lines. Whether state or federal, the laws, as the CCRI states, “must be clear, specific, and narrowly drawn to protect both the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression.” Violations should be treated seriously.
Jennifer Lawrence identified consent as the difference between her choice to do a nude scene in her upcoming film Red Sparrow, and the 2014 hacking incident. “I realized there’s a difference between consent and not,” she said. “It’s my body and it’s my art and it’s my choice.”
While complicated in some circumstances, the consent rule is straightforward here. You don’t get to share sexually explicit images of anyone without their permission. Ever. And that should include Stormy Daniels.