Meet The Women Waging War On Revenge Porn

And winning, one step at a time.

It was 2009 when 18-year-old Chrissy Chambers ended her relationship with her British boyfriend. He didn't take it well, but nevertheless suggested that they spend "one last fun night together." An evening of heavy drinking ensued, and Chambers assumed that the night, and the relationship, ended with her blacking out. 

In 2013, after years of struggling with her sexuality, it seemed like Chambers was finally in a good place. She was a newly out lesbian, one-half of the successful YouTube singing/acting duo BriaAndChrissy that she conceived with her girlfriend Bria Kam. They created inspirational LGBT videos, at once earnest, playful, and campy. Their number of subscribers climbed to the hundreds of thousands. Things were going well.

Then someone started posting comments on their channel. Chambers was a slut and a whore, they said, and a bad role model for making porn videos. She Googled herself in a panic and discovered videos that she says her ex-boyfriend had recorded while sexually assaulting her as she lay unconscious that night, after they broke up. The seven videos had been online for two years by the time she found out, viewed tens of thousands of times and downloaded just as many. 

According to Chambers, it took four years her to find out that not only had she been sexually assaulted, that night, she also became a victim of a dawning online trend: revenge porn.  

Although advocates prefer to use the more accurate label of "non-consensual pornography" (NCP) — since not all distribution of other people's photos are done in retribution — the term "revenge porn" first entered the mainstream conversation when the website IsAnyoneUp.com was launched in 2010. It was one of the first and likely most infamous of user-submitted pornography websites at the time, allowing scorned lovers to share compromising images of their exes for all the world to see, along with their full names, professions, locations, and social media profiles. Its founder Hunter Moore became as widely reviled by most of the American public as he was adored by those who applauded his smug, devil-may-care persona. He was dubbed the "most hated man on the internet," a label he seemed to wear as a badge of honor. 

IsAnyoneUp.com ceased operation in 2012, but revenge porn lives on on various websites and online forums. And as any victim of revenge porn will tell you, it is a devastating, deeply life-altering experience — one exacerbated by the technological and legal challenges in their pursuit of justice.

"My life changed immediately, permanently," Chambers said. Between finding out she was a victim of revenge porn and realizing her life was never going to be the same, Chambers described the moment as "a crashing freight train that just sort of exploded into me." 

She spiraled down into a wave of PTSD and depression, and became an alcoholic at 22. "I almost lost my life from that just trying to cope with things, and then almost lost my relationship," she said. "There's not one aspect of my life it didn't affect."

But even as she struggled with her psychological state, Chambers said she knew she wanted to take legal action. Her ex-boyfriend had posted the videos after returning to England, she said, and the country's revenge porn laws were introduced before the incident happened so the statute of limitations prevented her from pursuing criminal charges. Her only option was a civil lawsuit that, while all too common in the U.S., represented a landmark legal case in the U.K. 



For victims of revenge porn in the U.S., their ability to press criminal charges largely depends on which state they're in. 34 states and the district of Washington currently have non-consensual pornography laws, but before 2012, less than a handful had legislation that was applicable to these cases. Much of that progress can be credited to the efforts of Holly Jacobs and Professor Mary Anne Franks. 

They first met when Jacobs, then a Ph.D. student, approached Franks after she discovered photos she had sent her ex-boyfriend were plastered on the internet. "Holly came into my office with binders full of evidence and documentation about what had happened to her," Franks said. As a law professor at the University of Miami who had a particular focus on how technology's rapid progress shaped the means of abuse toward women and minorities, Franks realized that Jacobs' case essentially encapsulated all the areas of her work. She wasn't sure how she could help — she was a legal academic who wrote articles, not a prosecutor — but Jacobs was after bigger fish. "What Holly said to me was, 'I want you to help me change the law,'" Franks recalled. 

Like Chambers, Jacobs first discovered that her nude photos were on the internet after someone else alerted her to it. In this case, it was a stranger who sent an email telling her that she had compromising photos on a doxing website, and Jacobs went looking. 

"I think you can only imagine what it feels like to go and find some of your most intimate moments up online for everyone to see," she said. Her photos were accompanied by a profile with her name and email address. In the comments section, people picked her apart, describing what they liked about her body and what they didn't. Armed with her name, some went looking for more information about her on the internet and posted more personal information about her: her home address, phone number, workplace — even where she had attended to high school.

Jacobs, who lived in Miami at the time and was pursuing a doctorate in institutional organizational psychology, had heard about similar incidents happening to celebrities, but this was something else.

"It was terrifying. I had heard of sex tapes released but this was just another level — not just humiliating and exposing somebody's most private life and most private moments, but also stalking them," she said. "In the days thereafter, I started to get emails from complete strangers. Some people claimed to be trying to help me, telling me how to get things removed from Google or from the website. Others that were trying to meet me. At this point, my material had started to spread. Within 3 days I was up on over 200 websites."

Screenshot provided by Holly Jacobs
Screenshot provided by Holly Jacobs

Jacobs' first thought was that the circulation of her nude photos and personal information without her consent had to be illegal. But, as she soon found out, not only was this not a crime, the system didn't quite know how to deal with it. Jacobs went back and forth between the Miami police, the FBI, and a lawyer who helped her write a cease-and-desist letter for $2,000. In the meantime, she took matters into her own hands. Jacobs tried to get the images — and eventually, she found out, a video — removed from the internet by filing takedown notices and Google search results removal requests, but each time she succeeded in taking one down, they reappeared. 

"It was a game of Whack-A-Mole," she said. "You take one down, and even just minutes later, it's up on five more websites."

It had started to affect her life offline, too. Her photos were forwarded to her colleagues at her workplace, where she held an assistantship as a statistical consultant. Someone called her university, tipping them off to the material, and Jacobs said she had to defend herself from accusations that she was a sexual predator on campus. 

"Everything was starting to fall apart at that point," she said. Her family, whom she had told what happened, was getting calls from anonymous people. Someone sent her father the photos on Facebook. After discussing the situation with her parents and considering the effect this would have on her future career, Jacobs decided to legally change her name. It seemed the threats would not stop otherwise.

(To this day, Jacobs still doesn't know who was behind those threats and blackmail attempts. "It's anonymous users on message boards, porn sites, even Twitter, that just see what's happening and jump into the destruction of somebody's life," she said. Due to a settlement reached in July, Jacobs wasn't allowed to say how her materials got on the internet or who put them there.)

Screenshot provided by Holly Jacobs
Screenshot provided by Holly Jacobs
Screenshot provided by Holly Jacobs
Screenshot provided by Holly Jacobs

Changing her name helped for awhile, Jacobs said, but she realized that she essentially had to live in hiding for the rest of her days, careful not to put her old name out there with her new one. 

Embracing her new identity, Jacobs decided to take action. Initially launching the End Revenge Porn campaign to help other victims and criminalize non-consensual pornography, Jacobs later founded the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), an organization that has emerged as the vanguard of the crackdown on revenge porn. 

For Anisha Vora, CCRI was something of a lifeline. According to Vora, after she broke up with her ex-boyfriend, whom she had known since childhood, he posted nude photos she sent him when they were in a long-distance relationship on the internet, as well as other pictures he surreptitiously took of her while she was asleep. It went from three links on Flickr and Tumblr to more than 4,000 over a few years. Vora made a report to the New Jersey police and they arrested him. She even slapped a restraining order on her ex, after he confessed.

But Vora says he kept up with it, going so far as to give out her phone number and home address, and telling people that Vora had a rape fantasy, so if she said no, they shouldn't be deterred. 

"I was living in fear," she said. "People started showing up at my house, they were messaging me and sending me nude pictures of them on my Facebook and stuff. It was crazy. It was out of control."

Backed by strong support from her family and friends, Vora decided to fight to regain control of her life. She reached out to CCRI after her sister saw Jacobs on The Katie Couric Show, and the organization helped her navigate the legal, technological, and emotional ordeal.

"CCRI helped me get through everything," Vora said, but more important was the comfort she found in talking to other survivors. "Just having peers who've gone through something like that...my friends were very supportive, but it's nothing like having someone who's gone through the same thing," she said.

And that was what Jacobs set out to do with CCRI. But besides providing victim support and increasing public education and awareness about the issue, CCRI seeks to defeat revenge porn through legislation and technology.



Since its establishment in 2013, CCRI has made significant headway in the fight against non-consensual pornography. Early on, Professor Franks, who sits on CCRI's board as legislative and tech policy director, crafted a model version of a law that would criminalize revenge porn. Her focus was to protect the privacy rights of individuals without undermining free speech rights. (Attorney Carrie Goldberg, a star in the emerging field of sexual privacy, is also a CCRI board member.)

Franks believes that the existence of an organization dedicated to fighting NCP, coupled with CCRI's model statute for the federal bill, which she says is "very strong," sets the tone for states to adopt revenge porn legislation. 

The laws that exist in 34 states and D.C. are a good start, but they're not perfect. By the time a bill is ready to be signed into law, it's often watered down by political compromises and inconsistency. 

"What we really need in order to get a handle on this problem is for the federal government to step into action and make this a federal crime," Franks said. "We really want people to understand how serious this is. The goal that all of us have is that non-consensual pornography doesn't happen."

Franks pointed to Sen. Kamala Harris as a powerful ally in the fight against revenge porn. As Attorney General of California, Harris was tough on cyber exploitation, convening a task force with leaders from different industries, including CCRI, to combat the issue. Cyber exploitation is a categorization under which NCP falls, but it also includes issues such as sextortion. As defined by Thorn, an organization battling human trafficking and child slavery, sextortion refers to threats to expose a sexual image in order to make a person do something — or, like NCP, to exact revenge and inflict humiliation. (Full disclosure: Thorn was founded by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher; the latter also founded A Plus.)

 Franks had high praise for Sen. Harris' efforts.

"She did an extraordinary job with prosecuting revenge porn sites owners and perpetrators in her state," Franks said. "But she didn't actually use the revenge porn laws. She used laws like computer hacking laws and others that were applicable in those cases. It's a testament to her particular vision and dedication to this issue that she found creative ways of going after perps in her state."

If Harris successfully prosecuted revenge porn cases through existing laws that don't specifically target NCP — like identity theft or computer hacking — then why the need for non-consensual pornography legislation at all? The problem, Franks said, is that the charge must fit the crime:

When you prosecute someone like that under [other] charges, you're basically saying the only thing they did wrong is hacking into a computer. What you're not saying they did wrong was to show that they distributed images without consent. If we care about criminal laws reflecting what we think is is truly the bad behavior of the perpetrator, we want it to match. We shouldn't just say it's just a hacking, because it wasn't just a hacking. It was the distribution. And for the victim, it is the distribution that is most harmful thing. The analogy we use sometimes is that it's like going after Al Capone for tax evasion — you can bring the person to justice, but it's not what he did wrong exactly. 

Although non-consensual pornography has thrived under lacking legislation, social media has made its distribution that much easier, and damaging. Abuse and harassment is rampant on social media, and, often, tech companies like Twitter are reluctant to act until there is severe public pushback. And part of Franks' role at CCRI is working with the likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to craft tech policies targeting non-consensual pornography and other forms of online abuse. 

According to Jacobs, the tech companies are by-and-large open to cooperating with them. "It's good to know that some of the platforms that are enabling this behavior do care about the issue and are trying to do everything that they can to stop it," she said. But it's a never-ending effort; the internet's gargantuan expanse means that it is likely impossible to take down every single revenge porn site. "Sometimes," Jacobs said, "it's the smallest hodunk websites that are doing the most damage to people."

"It’s like going after Al Capone for tax evasion — you can bring the person to justice, but it’s not what he did wrong exactly."

As Chrissy Chambers battled her PTSD and alcoholism in the wake of discovering her nude photos online, she knew that she wanted to share that harrowing experience with her audience.

"It never occurred to me, really, to hide it," she said. While Chambers wanted to raise awareness about revenge porn, she was also tired of being subjected to the victim blaming. "As painful as it was, I felt like there were many reasons that drove me to want to share this. I wanted this to be discussed on a much larger platform than the occasional news story. If I had seen a survivor speaking out when I first found out, it would've been so much more helpful...I want them to know they're not alone and there is help."

Although she had to keep it under wraps for two years as the case developed, when Chambers eventually came clean to her fans, she said she was inundated with love and support — perhaps a testament to society's evolving views on women and sex. 

While victim blaming is alive and well, the way in which we discuss sexual assault and rape has shifted in recent years, in large part due to survivors themselves going public and becoming their own powerful advocates. That change has affected how people view issues like revenge porn, too, which in turn affects legislation targeting NCP, albeit that tends to move more passively than advocates would prefer. 

"Every time there has been legislative reform to try to protect women from sexual assault — or anything that disproportionately affects women — legislators have been slow to act and the general public has been very slow to be supportive. Law enforcement is not always trained properly or sympathetic to these issues," Franks said. "The social attitudes, or, I would say judgment, about what women should or should not be doing, or what kinds of women deserve protection, really do come into play."

But Chambers does think that things are changing, and credits the rise of technology for the cultural shift. As much as it has enabled the widespread distribution of non-consensual pornography, technology has also empowered victims to seize control of their narratives — like Chambers has done. "Social media is pushing the issues into the spotlight in a way that we haven't seen before," she said. 

Born of a traumatizing experience, CCRI's timing was, in retrospect, serendipitous. Once Jacobs launched the organization, its cause quickly gained ground. The media started to pay attention, tech companies approached them for help, and legislators reached out for guidance. "It was really kind of...magical. I can't think of a better word for it right now. It was pretty incredible how this launched — you're doing good work and everything just falls into place and great things happen," she said.

In the years since Jacobs decided to make fighting non-consensual pornography her life's work, CCRI has pushed for eliminating revenge porn to become a priority in state legislatures and tech companies. Dozens of states now have revenge porn laws, and Facebook, Twitter, and other tech giants have put guidelines in place that specifically target cyber exploitation. And in setting up resources to help victims at almost every step of the way, CCRI intends to make sure that the experience any other victim of non-consensual pornography goes through will never have to be as difficult as Jacobs' own.

Despite the anguish she endured, Jacobs acknowledged that some good has come of her ordeal.

"I was kind of brought up in a bubble — I grew up in a good neighborhood; we were predominantly white middle-class. I thought that women were treated equally in the world. Going through this experience completely lifted that veil from over my eyes. And I unfortunately got to see just how terrible the world still is and that a lot of people still really hate women," Jacobs said. "I wish I could go back — ignorance is bliss, right? But then I wouldn't have the opportunity to do this work and to help so many people. So it's a trade-off."

Cover image via Shutterstock

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