Love & Sex

My Ex Posted “Revenge Porn” Photos Of Me

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"Next to the stills was a screenshot of my Facebook page, with my name, location, and profile picture…"

"Time heals." "Forgive and forget." "Move on." Those are the breakup rules, right? But it might be time to come up with some new advice — advice that addresses more permanent damage. I couldn't tell myself any of those things when I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, because I once made a mistake when I was drunk. And that mistake ended up on the internet.

This is how it happened: I started dating Rob toward the end of high school. He was five years my senior. He added me on Myspace, and we talked online occasionally. Then, after hanging out in real life only a handful of times, he insisted that we become a couple. To me, we barely knew each other, but his explanation was that he didn't want to be hooking up with me (that is, kissing — I was a virgin when we started dating) if I was going to be "slutting it up" with other guys. Rob liked to say things like that. Later, I would berate him for his language, and he would tell me he was kidding and to stop being such an "uptight feminist." But at seventeen, I didn't read into it — I liked him. He played guitar in a punk band and was a gifted graphic designer. He was quiet and cynical, but sweet to me.

I knew a thing or two about sadness and I took comfort in being able to comfort him.

Fast-forward three years, after the initial sweetness diluted considerably, and what was left was a controlling, territorial, sardonic, and deeply troubled man who I knew I had to leave, but who by then was like an extension of me. We both struggled with psychological disorders: I was diagnosed with major depression when I was nineteen, and he would have such severe depressive episodes that he couldn't get out of bed to go to work many days. Or he'd stay awake for two weeks straight because of his recurring nightmares about being abducted by aliens. Once, believing me to be an alien, he lay in my bed sobbing uncontrollably. Later, I looked up alien-abduction dreams and found that many studies pointed to childhood sexual abuse as a cause; after we broke up, he told me that he had in fact been molested as a child.

To the rest of the world, though, Rob's stoicism was his defining quality. He was born in Peru and moved to the States when he was nine, and his culture discouraged exposing one's feelings. He claimed to loathe melodrama, and his facial expressions were as varied as a turtle's. Rob almost never cried, but when he did, it was in front of me. His sobs disturbed me; they sounded as though he were being tortured. But I knew a thing or two about sadness and I took comfort in being able to comfort him.

By the time I was twenty, though, I'd grown tired of being his therapist, his mother, his résumé builder, his best friend, and his girlfriend. The day I broke up with him, he cut himself with a kitchen knife while on the phone with me. I hung up and called an ambulance, and he was admitted into the psych ward at the Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, New Jersey. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I maintained my distance from him after that. My instinct was to tend to him, but my family, friends, and therapist advised me that doing so would only make things worse.

I found out later that he'd cheated on me — was in full-fledged relationships — with no fewer than four women while we were together. While it was upsetting, I wasn't entirely surprised, as Rob constantly accused me of cheating on him. If I went out with my friends, he would call me drunk in the middle of the night, demanding to know "who I was fucking." He always apologized the next day, but the expectation of those calls weighed on me. I'd opt to stay home on Friday nights if we hadn't made plans, because just the anticipation of the fight we'd have if I went out made me feel sick. But his paranoia was always hovering. He'd taken my virginity, and so he felt that he had some ownership over my body.

 

A few months before I ended our relationship, Rob filmed us having sex on his MacBook. I didn't want him to do this. He pleaded with me for months.

"What's the big deal? Don't you want to keep our sex life exciting?"

"We've been together so long. I don't want to get bored."

"Why not? You don't trust me?"

I tried to trust him, even though he never trusted me, because I thought that was how healthy relationships worked. This logic makes little sense to me now as I write this, but when you're committed to someone, you convince yourself. People have fantasies, and this wasn't a particularly weird one; I just didn't want to do it. I worried about how much time Rob spent on 4chan, the website where users can upload pictures anonymously, and where some of the most popular internet memes originated. The 4chan community is notorious for speaking in a language of inside jokes, and for their particular brand of schadenfreude. Many users post items for no other reason than to humiliate — in 4chan lingo, "for the lulz," a phrase Rob liked to use.

Plus, I could hear my mother's voice in my head: "Don't ever let anyone take dirty pictures of you! The internet is a scary place!" My mom obsessively recorded segments of the news that focused on teen sexting, child pornography, abduction after meeting people online, and stolen identities. Like many baby-boomer parents, she never trusted the internet; meanwhile, my generation often confided in it more than in our closest friends. We'd grown up with this confessional space where we could offer intimate parts of ourselves that would be too presumptuous or narcissistic or weird to share in real life. But if your pictures did end up on the internet, it wasn't for want of fair warnings.

Rob persisted, and I laughed him off, until one night, when we were back at his apartment after a party. I was drunk. The experience is hazy in my memory. We were having sex, and the next thing I knew, he was setting up his laptop on the bed. I slurred, "I told you I didn't want to make a video." He said, "Come on," and I was too drunk, too tired to argue.

Afterward, he promised me he'd deleted it, and I fell asleep. The next morning I searched his laptop for evidence of the video, just in case, and there was none.

We broke up six months later, and by the end of a hellish summer, I hoped that I could get back to a normal life. But that didn't happen. In October, I went on a date with Adam, whom I'd met on a dating site. Because it went so well, and because it seemed like I'd made a real connection with another man for the first time in almost four years, I felt okay bringing him back to my apartment that night.

In the morning, I left for work, and Adam stayed in bed. I was mortified when I got the text from him a few hours later: "Hey girl, did you know that there are pictures of you on the internet?"

NEXT: "Looking in the mirror, walking outside, seeing my byline on blog posts became awkward…"

The pictures were graphic — four stills from the video filmed almost a year prior, with my face, among other things, in full view. Rob's face, of course, was cut off. Next to the stills was a screenshot of my Facebook page, with my name, location, and profile picture. Adam had found it simply by Googling my name; it was on the second page of search results, featured on a website that I would come to know as one of many "revenge porn" sites.

I was in my last year at NYU. I was considering graduate school, preparing to search for a serious job. Even the most well adjusted twenty-somethings I knew were overcome with existential trepidation. My response to discovering the pictures was self-loathing. I'd grown accustomed to feeling betrayed, as Rob had betrayed me in a number of ways already, but this was new. Being humiliated publicly, sexually, on the internet, I felt a deeper despair, both in my mind and my body. Looking in the mirror, walking outside, seeing my byline on blog posts became awkward. I felt as though everything I did was a statement, a defense. At first, I started dressing puritanically; my own body disgusted me. I couldn't get out of bed for days, except to shower, because I felt constantly unclean, covered in grime. Then, just as quickly, I grew obsessed with sex. I wanted to prove that Rob hadn't broken me down, that I still owned my body and I could do what I wanted with it.

I had too many drinks one night and slept with a close friend, an act I'd end up seriously regretting.

I had too many drinks one night and slept with a close friend, an act I'd end up seriously regretting. I started sexting — a thing I once made fun of — and I sexted Adam, whom I hardly knew at that point, morning, noon, and night. I surprised myself with the colorful sexual vocabulary I didn't know I had. Then, finding that thoughts about sex had become a dull light bulb in my brain — dim but always humming — I realized how much I was overcompensating. I felt like the slut Rob tried to convince me I was. I'd look up the pictures again and stare at that drunk slut giving a blowjob, getting fucked from behind, gape-mouthed, eyes open. She stared back at me, taunting me.

I thought about telling my parents, my friends. I thought about not being able to get a job after all the hard work I'd done and the money my parents spent on college. I thought about the future relationships that this could prevent or ruin. I'd never felt so unworthy of my life.

 

The pictures were all I could think about — even when I wasn't thinking about them, I was thinking about not thinking about them. It was imperative that I get them down. For two months, I emailed the site, I contacted Google, I filled out forms, and I looked for computer programmers who would know how to hack into the site — all to no avail. I researched the companies that politicians and celebrities and CEOs use to get defamatory information off the internet, and found that that it would cost me no less than $10,000 just to have the search result moved to page three of Google.

When I confronted Rob, he denied any responsibility. But he admitted that he had not deleted the video until a few weeks prior. I asked him who else could have done it besides him. "I don't know," Rob answered, pathetically. "They were on my laptop. People have used my laptop." He feigned sympathy for me. He had the nerve to say, "I'm in those pictures too. We're in this together."

I finally told my mom around Christmas. I invited her out to dinner and we were driving through Manhattan, picking out a place, when she raised the subject of my love life.

"How's Adam doing?"

"He's great," I told her. "He's really good to me."

"I hope so," she sighed. Then she asked, with a mock-stern face, "You don't ever let him take any pictures of you, do you? You know, nude pictures."

She was clearly joking, but my entire body went warm. My mom is a compulsive Googler: she constantly searches my name, my friends' names, family members' names, her name, and will call me every time she finds something that worries her. ("There's a porn star who has the same name as me! I hope my clients don't think I'm a porn star in my free time!") I was amazed she hadn't already found the pictures. "No," I managed. "Of course not." I studied her expression: relaxed. She didn't know. It was just a painful coincidence that she'd asked.

I considered telling her right then and there, but I wanted to wait until we were sitting down because it was the worst news I'd ever had to deliver to her, and for the first time, I had no idea how she would respond. My mother and I are close, and I know her well — she would rather have heard I was pregnant, or failing all of my classes, or both. Those problems had tangible solutions. The internet was an invisible villain she didn't understand and wouldn't be able to protect me from. I considered not telling her at all.

We went to a restaurant in Little Italy with a far-too-chipper waitress who interrupted our conversation at each worst possible moment. When I finally broached the subject, I watched my mother's face fall; I waited while she went to the bathroom for fifteen minutes to collect herself, staring into the food she wouldn't eat when she got back. After she sat back down, I tried my best to explain the situation calmly. She shook her head, repeating, "Oh, Rhoda." For two hours, I recounted the lengths I'd gone to try to get the pictures removed, while she speculated how my father would react: "He's going to kill Rob. I don't know if we should tell him."

NEXT: "There is no privacy now…"

But my father — a selfless, peaceful, and decent man who is nonetheless prone to a fiery temper when a situation is deserving of it — was much more worried about me than about punishing Rob. He focused on assuring me that he wasn't disappointed in me.

Because I have parents who are deeply understanding and could (just barely) afford the cost of a lawyer, they set out to find one who practiced this new, strange sect of internet privacy law. We hired Erica Johnstone, who specializes in online reputational harm and is also the co-founder of WithoutMyConsent.org, a site dedicated to providing resources to people who have been defamed, harassed, or stalked online. Erica managed to get my photos taken down with one lawyerly email, even though my own six emails had previously been ignored.

The e-mail that removed the pictures cost my family thousands of dollars in legal fees, which most victims of revenge porn cannot possibly afford.

But I was luckier than most women (and, in some cases, men), because revenge-porn websites believe laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protect them. The former, passed in 1996, essentially ensures that websites are immune from liability in almost all cases when content is being posted by a third party. This is less clear-cut when the content has been tampered with. Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, would look up his victims' social media presences and take screenshots of their profiles to place alongside the anonymously submitted pornographic pictures.

The latter law says that websites are protected from third-party copyright violations — unless they ignore formal requests from the copyright owner to remove the material, which they often do. But these laws have yet to be tested in court, even though thousands of people have been violated in this way.

And so here we are. There is no privacy now. The e-mail that removed the pictures cost my family thousands of dollars in legal fees, which most victims of revenge porn cannot possibly afford.

 

I had Rob sign a $50K settlement stating that, while he did not admit that he'd posted the pictures, he would delete any explicit images or videos he still had of me. It also stated that he would never contact me or post any information about me again.

But a few months later, Rob began texting me. He told me he wanted to see me, "one last time." I said no, and told him not to contact me again, or I'd take legal action. He was not daunted. He doesn't have anywhere near $50,000. He continued texting me, telling me he still loved me, begging me to see him. I ignored him.

A short time later, someone I didn't know tweeted this to me: "I found naked pictures of you and another guy online. Is that you?" I direct-messaged him, and he told me that he'd contacted me only because he felt bad and figured I wasn't aware that the pictures were posted in a certain high-traffic, low-accountability crevice of the internet: 4chan.

The stranger — who typed in broken English — emailed me the file. It was indeed the same collage of stills from the sex video, plus the old screen shot of my Facebook page. The image was surely long gone from 4chan by the time I saw it; because of the volume of posts the site receives, just ten minutes after something goes up, it's impossible to find it again. And yet, more people probably saw it than found my picture on the low-traffic revenge-porn site on which it had previously been featured, and it's impossible to say how many people who viewed it decided to right-click and save it on their computers. It's also impossible to say if this was the first time it'd been posted on 4chan, or if it was posted there with some regularity. And while it's certainly not implausible that it was Rob, it's virtually impossible to prove it.

 

Decades ago, you could cut people out of your life and never have to confront them again. Now, if they want to, they can link themselves to you forever. Mistakes I made as a young adult are not only for learning from — they're for running from. Running and running. Because even if my ex stops chasing me, that shitty JPEG won't. Like sand, it'll slip through my fingers, and there's no way I can ever pick it back up.

Names have been changed.