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Her testimony to the state senate was chilling.
“He texted me photos of his penis, my vagina, as well as a video of us having sex that I did not even know existed,” she told the senate’s law and justice committee, which was considering a bill this year to make revenge porn a criminal offense. She said the pictures were taken in the privacy of her home and alleged that her ex-husband threatened to “post these on your work Facebook wall” and that he asked, “Should I text these to your dad?”

Naked images eventually did show up on a blog named after her, court records state. But Karen’s story almost never came to the legislators’ attention.* Understandably, she almost backed out of reliving the nightmare. Twice. 

She was remarried now. And her ex was in jail, though not for posting the pictures. That was not a crime in Washington state. He was behind bars for breaking a no-contact order she had taken out against him. 

Karen’s ordeal led her to Legal Voice, a Seattle-based women’s advocacy group that was working to criminalize revenge porn, as malicious postings put up by angry exes are commonly known. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which has helped pass 11 of 16 active state revenge porn laws, reports that it’s contacted by between 20 and 30 victims a month—about 2,000 people since CCRI’s inception in 2013. And one in 10, according to a 2013 study, have been threatened with revenge porn; 60 percent of offenders make good on the threat. 

In 2014, Washington’s state legislature considered a bill that had been proposed to criminalize revenge porn. Karen had come close to testifying in favor of it, but backed out. “Being only a few months from the time I’d found [my pictures online], the embarrassment, pain, and fear were all too fresh. Besides, they didn’t need my help,” she remembers thinking. “Isn’t it common sense that posting nude photos of your ex-wife should be illegal?” 

The 2014 version didn’t pass, according to its sponsor, Republican state representative Vincent Buys, because there was a “lack of understanding of what revenge porn was; [it hadn’t] sunk in what we were really talking about here.” 

 

“It’s hard to have people speak out,” says Legal Voice attorney David Ward. “If you do speak out, you’re putting yourself at risk of being victimized further. But if you don’t speak out, the legislators don’t have a human face to put with this.” Karen would almost back out again this year when the bill came back for a second try. 

As the bill, which makes it a felony to “knowingly” disclose an intimate picture of someone else when “the depicted person did not consent to the disclosure,” made its way through the house this year, the only woman to testify—we’ll call her Abby—wasn’t actually the victim of revenge by an ex. But the bill, which prohibits nonconsensual porn—a broader category that also includes instances when random people get ahold of someone’s nude pictures and publish them online—covers the awful chain of events that upended Abby’s life. In 2011, a computer repair technician lifted the images off her hard drive and published them all over the Internet. But the tech was busted under existing laws—computer trespass and cyberstalking. Unfortunately, Abby’s story didn’t highlight the more controversial behavior women’s advocacy groups are trying to educate people about, which comes with the supposedly complicating factor of women having consented to being photographed. 

 

“Often, when someone shares an intimate photograph or video with someone else, that person is criticized for not expecting the image to be shared,” said Charlotte Lunday, a law student in the University of Washington’s Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic, who consulted on the bill with legislators and testified in the house hearing. A blame-the-victim mentality (Legal Voice’s Ward compares it to holding a victim of credit card fraud accountable for trusting a crooked retailer) is so prevalent in issues involving sex crimes that until 2013 there was a legal marital exception to rape in the state that said a spouse couldn’t be charged with rape in the third degree (which doesn’t involve a weapon), essentially codifying women as sexual objects.

Lunday, who in January 2015 found 179 Washington state victims whose pictures had been posted on the international revenge porn site myex.com (CCRI says there are 2,000 such sites worldwide), argued for criminalizing revenge porn by drawing a direct comparison to the updated rape law, which eliminated the marital exception. “If you give [consent] to somebody, it doesn’t mean you’re always consenting,” Lunday told legislators. 

 

Early in her marriage, Karen had consented to letting her husband take pictures, she says. But she adds that shouldn’t put her in jeopardy. “When a person takes photos in the privacy of her own home, with her husband, the father of her children, it is not being dumb or making bad choices.” 

With a new bill in play this year, she decided she was ready to testify. 

She told Legal Voice she’d be with them the following Monday in Olympia to tell state senators her story. She prepared for the hearing by taking a trip with her kids to her hometown, spending Thursday and Friday at her parents’ house and visiting old high school pals. But the R&R backfired. “We barbecued and just relaxed, just like old days when everything was so much easier. It made me think about how I’m so blessed, and I started to question whether or not I was doing the right thing.” On the drive back home on Friday night, with her two kids sleeping peacefully in the car, she wondered why she should do anything that might shatter the idyllic situation. She was remarried with a “wonderful loving husband.” 

When she got back to her house, she tucked her kids into bed and told her new husband she wanted to back out of testifying. “I was crying and told him I was making the wrong choice because dirty laundry shouldn’t be put out for all of the neighbors to see.” But the neighbors, he reasoned, needed to learn about dirty laundry. 

 

Her voice caught on the word google. Legal Voice’s David Ward put his hand on her knee to keep her steady as she shook and told her story. Testifying in a committee room during the bill’s second hearing, she began, “I had to relocate my children to keep us safe. My ex was continuing to make it very clear he was out for revenge. Once I had moved and began searching for employment, I was turned down for a position in a very suspicious manner. So I decided to google my name, [and] what appeared right before my eyes put me in complete shock. If anyone were to google my name at that time, there is no way they would miss my naked body plastered all over the Internet—by a man I had trusted, that I had called my husband.” 

The senate passed the legislation out of committee unanimously. The images may still be out there somewhere, though. “My oldest child is at the age where they are learning about Google and Internet usage. I can’t begin to explain how scared I am every time [my son] pulls up the Google bar. At what point will he google me?” she asked the state legislators. It’s an unnerving question, but because of her testimony, it may be one that fewer people will have to ask in the future. 

After her testimony, Karen got a hug from a random woman in the hallway outside the hearing room. “I was both fearful and proud of what I’d accomplished. I went to my parents’ house to pick up my happy kids and tell my parents all about what I had done. Then I went home to my loving husband. Most survivors don’t have that, especially when they decide to speak out. Being a survivor is a very lonely place. I am fighting to help those that don’t have the support and strength to use their voice.”
 

*Karen is not her real name

This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.

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