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Domestic Abuse

Dealing with Revenge Porn and “Sextortion”

Being the target of revenge pornography and online abuse can leave you feeling violated and powerless. But there are ways to cope with the effects of online harassment, report cybercrime, and practice safe sexting.

What is revenge porn?

Revenge porn involves the unwanted distribution of intimate images, videos, or even sext messages—sexually explicit text messages. The term “revenge porn” can be misleading because it implies that, as the target, you’ve done something to deserve this treatment or that the perpetrator has a vengeful motive. In most cases, “nonconsensual pornography” or “image-based sexual abuse” are more accurate terms.

Revenge porn or nonconsensual pornography can take on various forms. You may have shared personal photos with a partner, only to later find those images anonymously posted on an online forum. When you confront your ex-partner, they likely deny responsibility or claim that the images were stolen from them. In other situations, an ex-partner will post your intimate text messages and contact information on social media.

Of course, partners and ex-partners aren’t the only people who can get their hands on your private content. Hackers and thieves may steal personal photos and videos and distribute them on online forums, where they’re then spread by other anonymous users. In some cases, the content is accompanied by personal information such as your phone number, email address, or social media profiles. It’s even possible for perpetrators to digitally alter nonsexual images or videos to create fake porn. Stolen pictures and videos can also be sold or traded in anonymous online communities.

Image-based sexual abuse is sometimes motivated by the desire to maintain control. The perpetrator may be trying to force you to stay in a relationship by threatening to share images. Or perhaps they’re seeking to “punish” you for leaving a relationship or some other perceived wrongdoing. Cases where someone threatens to release private images or videos of you unless you meet their demands is known as sexual extortion or “sextortion.” This is a serious cybercrime where the perpetrator tries to blackmail you for money or sexual favors.

How widespread is revenge porn?

Because many victims are afraid to come forward, it can be hard to get an accurate view of how widespread the problem is. However, one survey of 3,044 Americans found that about one in 12 participants reported being a victim of nonconsensual pornography. Women, especially those in their teens and early 20s, were more likely to be victims, with their male ex-partners the most likely to be perpetrators.

Being the target of revenge porn is a form of sexual abuse. You’re left feeling violated, with no sense of control over the situation. The sudden loss of privacy can make you feel exposed, ashamed, and terrified to go out in public. Feelings of guilt can even prevent you from reaching out to loved ones for support, leading to social isolation and impacting your day-to-day health.

Even if the pictures are removed from online spaces, you may still fear that they could reemerge at any time. Despite this, it's important to know that it is possible to move past this traumatic experience and begin to heal. You can also learn from the experience, find ways to protect yourself in the future, and move forward with your life.

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Why am I being targeted?

There are many reasons why you may be targeted by revenge porn or image-based sexual abuse. But it’s important to remember that it’s never your fault. The blame lies entirely on the other person and their inadequacies and unhealthy views of relationships.

Some motives include:

Vindictiveness. A perpetrator might feel hurt over a recent or past break-up. Rather than try to cope in a healthy way, they decide to use nonconsensual porn to inflict emotional pain and tear you down.

Jealousy. A past partner might be driven by a sense of possessiveness and target you with the intent to make your future relationships more difficult.

Sexual inadequacy. They may want to draw attention away from their own shortcomings by trying to humiliate you instead.

Fear. Your partner may be afraid of losing the relationship and use the threat of revenge porn to exert control over you and force you into staying. In this way, nonconsensual pornography can be part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse.

[Read: Domestic Violence and Abuse]

Misogyny. Since most victims of revenge porn are female and the perpetrators male, an ingrained prejudice against women can also be a motive.

Whatever their motives, your ex-partner feels entitled to share your private content with others, be they friends or strangers. In doing so, they're violating your privacy and taking advantage of your trust.

Effects of revenge porn

The effects of nonconsensual porn and online abuse can be severe and long-lasting. In your social life, you might develop trust issues as you seek out new romantic partners or friends. You may feel ostracized by those who know about the content, or feel ashamed that your reputation has been damaged at work, school, or in the community. If the pictures included your personal information, you may live in fear of stalkers or experience harassment from people who recognize you.

Research has shown that victims of nonconsensual porn are at risk of developing a variety of mental health and other issues, including:

Anxiety. The fear of deleted pictures resurfacing may constantly weigh on you. Or perhaps you wonder if friends, coworkers, or family know about the images and are judging you. The anxiety can present as physical issues like muscle tension, fatigue, or increased heart rate.

Depression. Feeling like you've lost control of your sexual agency or body can add to feelings of stress and despair. The helplessness of the situation may even trigger suicidal thoughts.

[Read: Are You Feeling Suicidal?]

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Months after your private content is shared, you may continue to suffer from nightmares and severe anxiety. The symptoms of PTSD can disrupt your daily life in various ways, such as limiting your ability to concentrate or sleep. Emotional symptoms like numbness and hopelessness may persist even after the images are removed.

Job loss or loss of reputation. You might experience workplace bullying or even job loss if coworkers or supervisors find the images. Or you might be afraid to apply to new jobs or positions out of fear that your reputation has been damaged.

Intense shame and guilt. You might blame yourself for the incident, especially if you willingly shared the content with an ex-partner. Perhaps you start to struggle with low self-esteem and question your worth and value to others, wondering if you’ve failed as a mother, for example, or can no longer be a desirable romantic partner.

Isolation. Whether you hide away due to shame or feel pushed away from loved ones, the experience can lead to intense loneliness and isolation. You might be afraid to leave your home or have any sort of online presence.

If you’re a victim of nonconsensual porn, you may worry that your life will never be the same. However, there are ways you can regain a sense of control, bolster your mental health, and even stop or slow the circulation of your private content.

Dealing with revenge porn tip 1: Take action to minimize damage

Start by updating your privacy settings on your social media accounts. Most platforms allow you to restrict who can see your content. This could help ward off potential stalkers and minimize harassment. If you were hacked, be sure to change your passwords. Then, take the following steps:

Save evidence. You might feel an urge to quickly delete all the related data from your devices. But, you’ll need to retain evidence if you plan to report it as a crime. Evidence can include screenshots of threats from an ex-partner, sites on which the images were posted, and a timeline of events.

Request the removal of images. Each platform has different community guidelines and terms of service, and the process of reporting a stolen image or video will vary. Depending on where you live, there are organizations and helplines that can assist in requesting the removal of personal images from online platforms, including Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit. (See the “Get more help” section below).

Research local laws concerning nonconsensual pornography. Laws can differ greatly depending on where you're located. Some jurisdictions classify nonconsensual pornography as a privacy violation, cyber harassment, or another offense. Depending on the jurisdiction, the act could be considered a misdemeanor or a felony. Reaching out to law enforcement or an attorney is a useful way to learn more about local laws and how to proceed with pressing charges.

The role of copyright laws

If you were the one who took the image or video⁠—as in the case of “selfies”⁠—you may have ownership of the content due to copyright laws. So, when the image is reposted without your permission, it can constitute a case of copyright infringement. Reporting the post as a violation of copyright law may encourage a platform or forum to remove the images.

Tip 2: Cope with guilt and shame

Even if you recognize that you were the one who was wronged, it can be hard to see past your own shame and guilt. Ruminating on your actions can impact your self-esteem and tempt you to self-isolate. But practicing self-compassion and seeking support from those closest to you can help you get through this difficult time.

Don’t blame yourself. You may feel you were naïve to trust another person with your intimate content or even wrong to take the pictures in the first place. Even if you willingly sent the images to a partner, the blame rests entirely on them for breaking your trust and sharing the content. If the images are spread by someone you didn’t know, they’re at fault for invading your privacy and stealing from you.

Focus on your positive qualities. Everyone makes mistakes. Instead of beating yourself up for your missteps, shift your focus to your best qualities. Write a list of things you’re good at or ways in which you’ve improved the lives of other people. Doing so can help you acknowledge that your identity isn’t simply tied to this negative experience.

Cultivate self-compassion. Your inner voice may be telling you that you deserve to be miserable or that your loved ones will abandon you. Acknowledge that these thoughts aren’t necessarily reflective of reality. Challenge your negative inner voice by extending the same kindness to yourself as you would a close friend. Try listening to an audio meditation that focuses on improving self-talk: Being Kind to Yourself.

Confide in someone. You might choose to talk to a friend, family member, counselor, or any person you trust. Let them know what you’re going through, and how the experience has shaped your view of the world and your emotional state. While they may not be able to solve the problem, opening up and being heard can be a healing experience. The person may also be able to offer support in other ways, such as helping you research legal options.

Tip 3: Manage stress and trauma

The violation of your privacy can make you feel as if the world is an unsafe place. Threats seem to be lurking everywhere, and you may feel a sense of unease in social encounters. Maybe you’ve become hypervigilant, which puts your mind and body in a constant state of stress. But there are positive ways to manage that stress.

Get active. Exercise is good for the body as well as the mind, since it reduces stress hormones. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, whether that includes brisk walking, biking, swimming, or dancing.

Try out mindfulness practices. Mindfulness involves centering yourself in the present moment and approaching your experiences in a nonjudgmental way. Doing so can decrease rumination, anxiety, and overall distress.

[Read: Benefits of Mindfulness]

Experiment with relaxation practices. Breathing exercises, yoga, and different types of meditation are a few proven stress-relief techniques. Practice different techniques to find one that resonates with you and try to incorporate it into your daily schedule.

Address PTSD. If symptoms of traumatic stress linger for months and interfere with your daily life, you may be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can be managed with a combination of self-help measures and professional treatment, such as therapy and medication.

Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

Trauma can manifest as symptoms, behaviors, and actions that don't seem to have a root cause. Choose which pathway best describes what you’re currently facing and listen to FREE audio from Sounds True on trauma recovery.

CHOOSE NOW

Tip 4: Begin to rebuild

You may have already started to reduce your online presence out of fear of stalkers or harassment. On the other hand, your anxiety might be driving you to spend more time on the Internet than ever before, constantly searching to see if the images re-emerge.

If you’re struggling with an addiction to your smartphone or computer consider taking steps such as:

  • Turning off your phone during certain hours of the day.
  • Setting time limits on your social media use.
  • Removing social media apps from your phone.

Then, look for ways to fill that digital void. Spend more time focusing on offline activities. Meet-up with friends in person, attend local events, take classes to learn new skills. Unplug more often, and aim to fill your life with meaningful experiences.

Build your self-esteem. One way to do this is by practicing being more assertive. For example, if you’ve felt pressured to sext by past partners, you can work on saying “no.” This can help empower you and let go of any people-pleasing habits. Other ways to improve self-esteem include taking care of your body, engaging in hobbies you love, and spending time with people who love and support you.

Turn pain into purpose. In some places, there are legal gaps that make it difficult for victims of nonconsensual porn to find justice. For example, in the U.K. you must prove that the person who shared the image intended to cause you distress—a loophole that allows perpetrators to escape accountability. Activists are needed to raise awareness of these gaps and push for legislation.

There are also many people currently suffering in silence and looking for support and understanding. You could use your experience to work with a crisis hotline or organizations that focus on helping victims.

Be patient. Healing doesn't take place overnight. You may also go months feeling better, only to experience a dip in mood as old wounds reopen. Be gentle with yourself, surround yourself with supportive people, and take time to acknowledge the good in your life.

Protecting yourself when sexting

If you regularly sext, meaning you exchange sexually explicit texts, images, or videos with a significant other, you’re not alone. One international survey showed that 67% of respondents had sexted. Research from 2018 shows it’s becoming increasingly prevalent among young people, but older adults also share intimate messages.

Sexting allows people to feel close when they’re physically apart. It’s also a way to explore sexual boundaries with a partner in a way that's less intimidating than in-person. But that doesn’t mean it’s a risk-free activity. You can’t unsend your messages, so take the following precautions when sexting:

Start with a conversation about boundaries. You might only want to receive intimate texts during a certain time of day, so you don’t accidentally open them at work. Or maybe you want to stick to text messages rather than sending images and videos. You can also talk about the ways in which you and your partner will protect each other’s privacy, such as deleting messages.

Push back against pressure. If your partner is trying to coerce you into sharing more than you’re comfortable with, speak up about your unease. Never sext just because someone makes you feel obligated to do so.

Be aware of information that’s being revealed. Avoid including your name, address, or other personal details in your images and videos. Revealing features like your face, birthmarks, and tattoos can also be risky. If the messages fall into unwanted hands, a stranger can use those physical features to confirm your identity.

Be wary of duplicates. Many apps are set to automatically back up your content or sync it to other devices. Your phone, for example, may backup pictures and videos to the cloud. This can result in duplicates, so make sure you keep track of your most intimate content and delete when necessary.

Choose a secure method of sharing. Many people stick with SMS and text messaging, but it's good to learn about other options. Apps like Snapchat are automatically set to delete messages after a period of time. Services like Signal allow you to send encrypted messages. Other messaging services include Kik, Dust, Confide, and Wickr Me. Research your options to find one that feels most comfortable and secure.

Take a moment before hitting “send.” Double check to make sure no personal details are being revealed in the background. Be mindful of your feelings as well. Are you feeling comfortable? Or are you feeling hesitant? If so, consider the reasons why. You might need to further weigh the potential risks and your level of trust in the other person.

Get more help

The Law on Image-Based Sexual Abuse Worldwide – Facts sheets about image-based sexual abuse laws in different countries. (End Cyber Abuse)

Online Removal Guide – Steps to take to report nonconsensual porn on different platforms. (Cyber Civil Rights’ Initiative)

Revenge Porn Helplines

In the U.S.: Call the CCRI Crisis Helpline at 844-878-2274.

UK: Call the Revenge Porn Helpline at 0345 6000 459.

Australia: Contact eSafety Commissioner to report abuse.

In other countries: Browse the CCRI international resources for help near you.

Last updated: November 4, 2022