Snap JudgmentIn Between Revenge Porn and Sex Work

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The usual definition of “revenge porn” is accompanied by an archetypal story: Girl meets boy, girl dates boy, girl consents to give nude photo to boy. A little while later, after girl breaks up with boy, boy turns out to be a monster who posts her photo on the Internet.

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There are stories that match up with this arc, but they’re not a majority of cases. “Revenge” connotes personal retaliation for an original offense—but not only have revenge-porn victims done nothing to deserve such retaliation, the punishment can be senselessly impersonal. When anti–revenge-porn vigilante Charlotte Laws informally surveyed IsAnyoneUp.com, a photo-sharing site created by Hunter Moore that’s become synonymous with revenge porn, she found that many of the pictures had originated from computer hacking. (Indeed, California Attorney General Kamala Harris would later bring down Moore on computer hacking, among other charges).

“Porn” isn’t quite right either, since revenge porn isn’t about lust or titillation. It’s about humiliation, or taking an uppity woman down a peg—or so some revenge-porn aficionados have told me, in between calling for my own nudes to be leaked.

So where did “revenge porn” as a term even come from? There was at least one notable incident in 2000, in which a notorious spammer was hacked and her files posted on the Internet in order to shame her and her dodgy business practices. But the term “revenge porn” wasn’t in use at that time. (I’ve heard of other incidents prior to that, but have yet to verify them.) Even the so-called kings of revenge-porn sites have often shied away from using the term. Moore, for one, has bragged on Twitter that he “created” revenge porn, but it was well after use of the term had pierced the mainstream.

The phrase picked up steam around 2012, as advocacy groups and initiatives like End Revenge Porn were founded, right about the same time that Google Trends shows a spike in interest in the term. But the term had been around since at least 2007, when “revenge porn” was added to the crowdsourced slang site Urban Dictionary, with an entry describing the archetypal revenge-porn story above. Near-simultaneously, in other places, “revenge porn” was applied both to instances of ex-partners engaging in harassment and to a pornographic genre where paid actors pretend to be ex-partners engaging in harassment.

Revenge porn as a crime came first; the distasteful porn parody, later—or so it makes sense to think. But the Urban Dictionary definition was submitted a week after the domain revengeporn.net was first registered for a website dedicated to genre porn. Even at the birth of revenge porn as a notion, commercial pornography trails behind it (or in front of it?) as an uncanny doppelganger. 

Very few people want to talk about the intersections of revenge porn and sex work. “Revenge porn isn’t porn” is the easy, pat answer. Indeed, in many of the states that have passed revenge-porn laws, revenge porn cannot, by definition, be porn—commercial photography is excluded from the statute. The language of the laws criminalizing revenge porn and its distrubution can range from the invocation of an “expectation of privacy” to the more bemusing stipulation that the person depicted must be a family or household member or romantic partner of the perpetrator to the explicit exclusion of “voluntary exposure in a public or commercial setting.”

The pornography industry might not be the nicest industry, but it’s still an industry, one that requires paperwork, documentation, model releases, and consent. Without consent, pornography is but evidence of a crime. Porn and revenge porn live worlds apart from each other.

Still, revenge porn is named for sex work, and the outrage against it exists in the shadow of sex work. It’s not merely an invasion of trust or a terrible shattering of privacy. The harm of revenge porn comes from the illusory conscription of a nice lady into sex work.

The kind of shock and dismay invoked by revenge porn cannot be found when other private correspondences—text, audio, data—are published. Text conversations can be just as reputation damaging as pictures, but are rarely discussed with the same level of alarm. And anti–revenge-porn advocates aren’t asking to criminalize the airing of all private correspondences—even if they are sexy ones.

The law does not allow for the possibility of the complete and utter control of one’s reputation, and for good reason: Corruption and wrongdoing are almost always exposed without someone’s consent. So the movement against revenge porn stakes out its position with a supposed bright line: nudity.

Thus the naked body—and, because of the dramatic skew toward female victims, the naked female body, in particular—is given an exceptional status elevated above another kind of data breach. Each nude becomes a bomb, a poison pill, a potential prosecution for everyone who touches it. Legislation against revenge porn bills itself as being about privacy, but hinges entirely on private parts.

Sex workers themselves are erased from anti–revenge-porn rhetoric. Proposed remedies for revenge porn—criminalization of disclosures and liability for third-party websites—fail to address the sex-work stigma that creates repercussions for victims of revenge porn. When a woman has her Google results bombed with nude photos and fake sex ads, she won’t pass a screening when she tries to get a job—because she’ll be mistaken for a sex worker. The solution, we conclude, is to remove all possibility of that mistake—rather than to remove what bars a sex worker from getting that job.

We speak of privacy, consent, and economic and reputational harm to women, and yet we never mention what it means to out an actual sex worker. We propose new criminal statutes and partner with the police, even as the police threaten to post photos of sex workers during “busts” on social media accounts. These are women who are being locked out of jobs because of nude photos of them on the Internet. These are women who are being publicly disgraced as sex workers—because they are sex workers.

They don’t quite fit the archetypal myth of revenge porn, but neither does every victim of revenge porn. Sex workers are left out of the story because the existence of sex work raises awkward questions about how to define revenge porn, how to understand its harms, and how to most appropriately redress its victims.

It is tempting to deny any connection between revenge porn and sex work. And certainly, revenge porn is not sex work. But why does revenge porn shock the conscience so? Why has the label “revenge porn” stuck, despite its inaccuracy?

Virulent sex-work stigma sits at the root of it all. It is wrong to post someone else’s private photos. It is wrong to make fake sex ads for her. It is wrong to name her as a sex worker against her will—regardless of whether she is or she isn’t. But what’s all the more wrong is how even the implication of sex work can paint a target on a woman’s back.

Tackling that problem head on can address a host of misogynies beyond just revenge porn. But ignoring it means that revenge porn stays exclusively a crime against nice ladies, while the not-so-nice one remain erased.  

This article was published in Nerds Issue #69 | Winter 2016
by Sarah Jeong
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Sarah Jeong is a journalist who was trained as a lawyer. She is a contributing editor at Vice Motherboard who writes about technology, policy, and law. She is the author of The Internet of Garbage, and has bylines at The VergeForbesThe GuardianSlate, and WIRED.

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