The United States of America
The United States of America
© Enrique Alarcon

At 19, when I broke up with my ex-boyfriend of two years, he didn’t take it well at all. He started telling me things to keep me talking to him, like saying his family members were sick or dying – and none of it was true. When I tried cutting off communication, he started threatening suicide. When that didn’t work, he started threatening to share my naked photos. I had sent them throughout the relationship; they were meant to be private, and after we broke up, I had asked him to delete them in front of me, but they were backed up on his computer. He also started Tweeting about me without naming me, saying he was going to "mess up someone’s life so bad, they wished they’d never messed with him."

My parents and I went to the police in my town, and put me on the phone with a judge to get a restraining order. She granted a temporary one. Two months after the breakup, I went to family court to make it permanent, with printouts of his threatening messages. He showed up with a lawyer, who started asking questions that made me look like I was actually the obsessive one. I was very rattled, and the judge denied a final restraining order, which was devastating. Over the next month, my ex did not contact me directly, but he would show up wherever I was, like at the gym, which used to be my safe space. At their suggestion, guys who worked there walked me to my car every time my ex was there or if I left late at night.

“The shame is not mine to carry. He violated the trust. He weaponized my sexuality against me.”

One day, almost four months after the breakup, I got a text from someone saying, Hey, it’s so-and-so from Pornhub. I knew immediately this had to be related to my ex. I was on the train, and I remember feeling very hot inside and shaky, hunched over my phone looking for the page. It had been created the day before, with eight of my naked photos, my full name, phone number, home address, and notes saying, “Find me on Facebook” or soliciting people for oral sex. It had 43 subscribers.

When I got off the train, I immediately drove to my local police station. I told them I needed help getting this down. They asked if I wanted them to call my ex. Instead, we searched how to get stuff removed from Pornhub. I found a phone number, was directed to an online form, and thankfully the profile was down within 27 minutes. I felt really relieved, but I also was terrified that my ex would put the photos on social media. The officers put me on the phone again with the same judge…this time she would not grant me the restraining order. She said that we didn’t know that my ex posted the images, and that when you send photos to one person, it's like asking for it to be put on a billboard. That was the first instance of victim-blaming that I experienced.

The first time I cried was at that first visit to the precinct when an officer told me I needed to somehow find more evidence that this was my ex. I shed tears I didn’t realize I had been holding back. Then after that being turned away by the police several times felt like being knocked over and over and over again.

Desperate for someone who’d help us, my mom found a lawyer, Carrie Goldberg, who was one of the few people talking about “revenge porn” back then in 2015. New Jersey was one of the few states at the time with a law criminalizing non-consensual porn, but it wasn’t being enforced. Carrie was determined to get me justice, and eventually she put me in touch with a prosecutor who had experience with domestic violence and Internet crimes. He got the criminal investigation going. Meanwhile, I went directly to family court for an order of protection. The clerk there was shocked that I hadn’t already been granted the restraining order. I was granted the temporary order that day, and in family court a month later, I was awarded a final restraining order.

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© Janko Ferlic
"REVENGE PORN"
"REVENGE PORN"

A form of image-based abuse; a preferred term is non-consensual sharing of intimate imagery. While commonly used, “revenge porn” is objectionable as it suggests consent from and wrongdoing by the survivor to provoke retribution.

Sam Henriques for UNFPA
© Sam Henriques for UNFPA

It took months for law enforcement to receive the information from Pornhub and Tumblr, where my ex had also posted the images. I found out when my mom found the page a couple weeks after we found the Pornhub profile. It had been created the same day; thankfully nothing had been shared. But it was the first time she saw the pictures, which was horrifying for me. My family is Cuban and religious – growing up, I was taught that sex is strictly only for marriage. Ultimately, my parents were supportive and cared most about protecting me and making sure the pictures didn’t circulate.

Almost two years after the photos were posted, it was sentencing day. He got five years’ probation. Because he pled guilty to invasion of privacy, they dropped the cyberharassment charge. In court they asked him if he had anything to say. He said, “I apologize to the court, and I apologize to her.” He didn’t even say my name.

There were times I wished he had to spend time in prison, like I was in mental prison for months. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, I know my triggers – my phone is always on silent because I can't stand the vibration of the phone after getting message after message from him. But the way my story ended – I’m safe, my photos didn’t go viral, he paid some consequences and this is on his record – I’m thankful for.

I remember saying then that I didn’t think I’d ever send pictures like that again. That’s not how I feel at all today. Carrie was the first person who ever told me, “This isn’t your fault.” I’ve done a lot of therapy and writing and self-reflection. When I tell people my story, they’re either supportive or they’re supportive but also like, “I bet you learned your lesson.” I’m not ashamed. I don’t regret sending the pictures to him. The shame is not mine to carry. He violated the trust. He weaponized my sexuality against me.

We’re not safe as a society until we protect our most marginalized groups. The Internet provides marginalized groups a great opportunity to express themselves and connect with other people and resources, but it also presents opportunities for harm. We need to start holding tech platforms accountable for the harms they allow, cause, and profit off of. In my work as a survivor and advocate, I see the effects daily that last long after having been stalked or sexually violated – the paranoia that everyone around you has seen you naked, the fear of leaving the house. The line between online and offline is blurred, and to deny, ignore or minimize the consequences of digital abuse would be a huge disservice to survivors. There is hope, but we must acknowledge and fight against tech-facilitated abuse.

Ms. Buster now works at Ms. Goldberg’s law firm as a client relations manager. She is sharing her name because, “It’s empowering. For victims of these crimes, the offender is usually trying to shame them into silence. Sharing my story under my full name shows the world that I have nothing to be ashamed of, and I will not be silenced.”

28%

of girls aged 13 - 17 in the U.S. who have been asked to share a nude photo or video. The number is 14 per cent for girls aged 9 - 12.

– Thorn, anti-online child sex abuse organization.

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WHAT CAN I DO?

For everybody

do more

For technology companies

do better

For lawmakers and law enforcement

do right
Disrupt digital violence

Take Action

A virtual world free of violence is possible. UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, supports the right of all women and girls to live without fear of gender-based violence or abuse in all spaces, including online. Everyone plays a role in making this more than a hope but a reality.

WHAT CAN I DO?

For everybody:

DO more

Anyone who shares another’s intimate images without her consent – even if a sharer is not the original perpetrator – is committing violence against women. Let the disruption start with you. See people attacking, bullying or threatening someone online? Don’t join in. Post positive messages to counter the negative. Report the abuse to the technology platform. One cybermob attack survivor said she felt seen and supported by people who defended her.

For technology companies:

DO better

UNFPA joined the World Wide Web Foundation in its call to Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter to prioritize the safety of women online, holding them to the pledges made to do so during the 2021 Generation Equality Forum in Paris. But there are many more platforms. In the words of Thorn, which works to end online child sexual abuse, “We won’t achieve the goal of building an Internet that is safe until every platform with an upload button has adopted proactive detection measures.”

For lawmakers and law enforcement:

DO RIGHT

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, “In 64 of 86 countries, law enforcement agencies and courts appear to be failing to take appropriate  corrective actions to address online violence against women.” Lawmakers need to recognize the pervasive and prevalent nature of the violence and support legislative and regulatory responses that meet the needs of women and girls, including creation and resourcing of independent monitoring and regulatory bodies. For example, Australia’s Office of the E-Safety Commissioner is serving as a model for countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom in addressing online safety. Seeking justice should not have to be another traumatizing experience.