“Revenge porn,” it’s called, is the act of online publishing intimate photos, videos and contact information of a person without his or her consent. Usually, it’s the work of a disgruntled ex-partner or random hacker (the latter in Toups’ case).
Two weeks ago, California become the second state in the U.S. behind New Jersey to [his]. Now, New York is considering similar action.
And while it may seem like a black-and-white issue, revenge porn has opened up debates about the First Amendment and the ethics of criminalization.
Toups is one of a handful of victims fighting to make it a criminal offense. But, like most things sex-related, it’s a highly sensitive subject — and still largely a work in progress.
Hunter Moore is often referred to as the “Internet’s most-hated” person; he helped launch the revenge porn empire.
In 2010, the 27-year-old set up the now-defunct site, IsAnyoneUp?. The rules were simple: Anyone could submit naked photos of another person (almost always an ex-lover) to the site’s database. As the site’s popularity grew, so too did the trendiness of posting nude photos as a form of vengeance. It didn’t take long for copycat sites to appear. Traffic was booming, which meant prime real estate for advertisers. Moore eventually shut the site down in 2012, after he claimed receiving an abundance of underage submissions, but by that point hundreds of sites like it had already launched.
Toups was at work just a few months later when she found out her photos had been posted on a site called Texxxan.com.
“I got a phone call from a friend who had overheard this group of girls talking about this website,” she tells me. “She said there were tons of nude photos of different girls, including me. Of course, I didn’t believe it.”
Toups hung up the phone and tried to get back to work, but the thought burned in her mind.
Since she couldn’t look at the pictures at work, Toups drove home and opened Texxxan.com from her personal laptop. The site’s homepage showed a map of Texas, where visitors could click on various regions to view that area’s victims. Toups clicked on the southeast portion, where Nederland is located, and saw a picture of her next to 12 other girls from the area. When she expanded the image, her full name, a map with her home address pinpointed, a link to her [revenge porn] page and a long list of photos appeared.
Hunter Moore in a 2011 interview with Anderson Cooper. Moore voluntarily shut down IsAnyoneUp? in April 2012.
“The first picture I saw was this one I had posted to Facebook — it was me at a pool party wearing a bikini. So that wasn’t a big deal,” she says.
“But then I scrolled down. There were these topless photos I had sent to a boyfriend back when I was 24 — and I was 32 at the time I was reading this.”
It must be him, she thought — he’s the only one who had access to the pictures. And then she saw something that threw her off: The very bottom picture was a selfie she had snapped just a year or so prior. She had been working out and taking self portraits every week to track the progress. One morning, when she was stepping out of the shower, she took a photo of herself on her [his]. She didn’t send it to anyone; it was just a picture, taken in the moment, which she intended to keep for herself. So how did it get on this website?
“I knew it couldn’t have been him then — he didn’t have access to that last photo. It was eight years after we broke up, and I didn’t send it to anyone.”
Toups emailed the website and explained that she wanted the photos down. After a few days, the site sent her a message back with a link asking for her credit card information for payment — extortion for removing the photos. She considered giving in for a second, if only out of desperation, but realized it wasn’t a guarantee the pictures wouldn’t just reappear a few days later. A site that posts naked photos without permission and asks for personal banking information, after all, doesn’t exactly scream “trustworthy.”
The next week, the harassment began.
“It wasn’t bad at first. Just people — a lot of random people — sending me messages on Facebook or tweeting at me, saying they wanted to meet up and ‘have a good time,'” she says. “Then there were people who would approach me in public” — like the man in the [his] — “and laugh about seeing my pictures up online. It was so humiliating.”
Then it turned aggressive.
“One of the tweets at me said something like, ‘I get the feeling you like to sleep around, don’t be surprised if you get raped one day.’ It pissed me off more than it terrified me, but I still couldn’t help feeling unsafe.”
Toups decided to hire an investigator.