In 2014, hundreds of private, intimate photos of celebrities — most of them women — were posted on the online message board 4chan. From there, they spread to other online sites like Reddit, where the thread including links to the photos gained 75,000 subscribers in less than a day. The photos were stolen by hackers who broke into the Apple accounts of numerous celebrities. The “celebrity hack” exposed these women’s bodies against their will and turned their most private moments into public entertainment.
I know exactly how devastating this experience was because I was one of the women who was targeted. More than 50 of my personal photos were stolen and released to the public, sometimes in manipulated form and often accompanied by sexually explicit and degrading comments.
Complete strangers were consuming my most private moments without my permission. I faced a flood of unwanted propositions and harassing messages. The hack jeopardized my physical safety, my career, my sense of self-worth and every relationship I have had or will have.
And because nothing disappears from the internet, the torment will never end.
Watch: A Hollywood actress speaks out against “revenge porn”
Imagine someone stripping you naked in the middle of a busy street, suddenly exposing you to the leering eyes of strangers. Now imagine that this moment never ends but repeats itself endlessly and that as it does, all you can hear is the crowd shouting, “You deserved it
There’s not a lot of sympathy for celebrities, even when their privacy is violated and even when the violation is so deeply personal and so destructive. There is a widespread belief that celebrities have traded privacy in exchange for fame — and that famous people have more than enough resources to protect themselves.
Why should anyone care when celebrities’ privacy is violated?
Celebrities do live their lives under closer scrutiny than others, and wealth and privilege do ease the burden of many hardships. But people who have jobs in the public eye do not belong to the public. Denying the right of anyone, famous or not, to exercise control over who is allowed to see their naked bodies or to witness their intimate activities is to deny their humanity.
And if the celebrity hack can teach us anything, it is that wealth and fame will not protect you from becoming a victim of this kind of abuse and can never make you whole again if you do.
We should care about celebrity privacy for another reason: Today everyone is one step away from becoming famous. The power of social media makes it possible for any person to be dragged before the eyes of the world. Nonconsensual pornography in particular forces a horrible kind of fame on its victims. And the average nonconsensual pornography victim has very few resources to manage the fallout of that involuntary fame.
I am a high-profile, white woman in the entertainment industry. I am fortunate enough to have fantastic legal counsel and access to receptive law enforcement agents. I am financially secure and enjoy a tremendous amount of good will from fans. Despite all of the resources and advantages I enjoy, however, I still fell victim to this abuse. To this day, my private photos remain online and my tormentors remain unpunished.
What happens when a person with far fewer advantages is victimized?
Holly Jacobs was working on her doctoral dissertation in Miami when she discovered that her private images had been released without her consent. The photos were sent to her family, her friends, her employer, her peers. She couldn’t go to the grocery store without thinking about whether people in line had seen them. The photos were at the top of results that came up in online searches for her name; everything else about her — her work, her accomplishments, her identity — disappeared beneath a string of pornographic links.
Ms. Jacobs writes that she would work on her dissertation during the day and frantically send takedown requests to websites at night. After a month of this ritual, she thought she had finally succeeded in getting the material down, only to discover that within two weeks the pictures had been reposted to hundreds more websites. Like so many other victims of nonconsensual pornography, she writes that she experienced extreme anxiety, shame and depression. The violation of her privacy affected every aspect of her life, from her education to her career prospects to her intimate relationships. The abuse she endured forced her to change her legal name.
There are thousands of stories like Ms. Jacobs’s, many of them with tragic endings. Nonconsensual pornography disproportionately affects women, with devastating personal and professional consequences. Last month, Representative Katie Hill of California resigned from office after nude photos of her were released without her consent. Ms. Hill’s resignation highlights how nonconsensual pornography can force women out of positions of power and deter women from political participation.
These consequences of nonconsensual pornography intensify with the vulnerability of the target: Lower-income women, women of color and L.G.B.T.Q. people are at even greater risk. One study found that nearly half of the victims of nonconsensual pornography have been harassed or stalked online by people who have seen their private content. Further, 30 percent have been harassed or stalked in person or over the phone. Nearly all reported suffering significant emotional distress, and more than half experienced suicidal thoughts. Several women and girls have killed themselves in the wake of being victimized.
In an effort to fight back, Ms. Jacobs founded a nonprofit organization called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative in 2013. I learned about it when Ms. Jacobs was named a finalist for the 2018 L’Oréal Women of Worth Award, for which I served as a presenter. For six years, C.C.R.I. has been spearheading crucial efforts for technological, social and legal changes to fight nonconsensual pornography, online abuse and the pervasive assault on privacy rights that is rampant in our digital world.
Legislative reform is a major part of that effort, in addition to providing crisis support and other resources for victims around the world and working with major tech companies to develop policies to ban and remove nonconsensual pornography. The organization’s president, the law professor Mary Anne Franks, drafted the first model statute criminalizing nonconsensual pornography in 2013. When C.C.R.I. began its work, only three states had laws against nonconsensual pornography; today there are 46.
Yet a vast majority of these state laws fall short. Misguided beliefs about “free speech” and the influence of powerful tech companies and business groups has resulted in inefficient, weak laws that fail to truly protect intimate privacy.
A case in point is New York, the most recent state to enact legislation criminalizing nonconsensual pornography. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill in July, but it had been in the works since 2013. In its early drafts, the bill clearly defined the crime as a violation of privacy. Every year supporters of the bill watched as civil liberties groups and corporate lobbyists worked to weaken its provisions. A key tactic of industry lobbyists, also used in other states, was to argue that the unauthorized disclosure of sexual images is not primarily a privacy issue. Instead, these groups insisted that the crime be characterized as “harassment.” By 2019, supporters of the bill felt forced to accept the compromise, unwilling to wait another year for the law to pass.
As Ms. Franks and Danielle Citron, another law professor, explained in a blog post for the Harvard Law Review, treating nonconsensual pornography as harassment instead of as a privacy violation has serious legal consequences.
Harassment laws punish perpetrators whose explicit motive was to cause harm or distress to victims. But a personal vendetta wasn’t what motivated the people behind the hacking of my photos and those of other female celebrities. It’s not what motivated the Marines who traded naked photos of their female colleagues in their closed Facebook groups, or the California Highway Patrol officers who circulated intimate photos of women they’d arrested as a “game” or the men who operate “revenge porn” sites for profit and notoriety.
This is precisely why “revenge porn,” the term often used to describe this abuse, is the wrong name: It is focused on intent rather than consent. What matters is not why the perpetrator disclosed the images; it is that the victim did not consent to the disclosure.
That is why laws against nonconsensual pornography should look like laws against other privacy violations, like the laws that prohibit the unauthorized disclosure of a broad range of private information, such as medical records and Social Security numbers.
Because the patchwork of state laws fails to truly protect intimate privacy, it is vital that Congress pass legislation that does. And that is why in May, I spoke at the news conference for the introduction of the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act, a bipartisan federal bill introduced by Representatives Jackie Speier of California and John Katko of New York.
Every person, from the most famous to the most obscure, from the privileged to the poor, deserves privacy.
I can tell you firsthand that acts of nonconsensual pornography are humiliating, degrading and life-altering. Nonconsensual pornography is one of the worst violations of privacy, and no amount of power or privilege can protect you from it. But those of us with power and privilege do have a particular responsibility to work toward ending it. We can all play a role, by speaking out about our experiences, supporting organizations like the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and calling lawmakers. Ending the violence of nonconsensual pornography should not be tied to fleeting cycles of outrage or cases involving celebrities, but enshrined in the law to protect the right of intimate privacy for all of us.