Alicia* called her boyfriend to tell him she wanted out of their relationship. After all, she was a married mother of three and had only taken a lover to get revenge on her husband, who had cheated on her years prior. Her logic in starting an affair was shaky, but Alicia, 44, had been thinking with her broken heart, not her head. Three months into her side relationship, with a high school classmate she had reconnected with during a chance encounter, Alicia started to send him full nude images, and the pair recorded bedroom romps on video. ”I thought we were having fun and everything would be fine,” she says.
It wasn’t. After a year, the relationship went from sweet to sour. When Alicia called to break things off, he joked about sending the photos and videos of her to her social circle. And her job. And her husband. “I knew him well enough to know there was truth behind the threat,” she says. She was right to be nervous: One in ten former partners threatens to expose risqué photos of an ex online, according to endrevenge porn.org. And 60 percent follow through.
So Alicia pretended the talk of breaking up was a joke too. She spent the next two months pretending to be happy with her boyfriend on the side and feeling held hostage by the evidence of her bad decision. Alicia slowly phased out communication and has made peace with the fact the pictures may still be shared. “This is the situation I’ve put myself in—I used this man for payback against my husband,” Alicia shares. “I allowed it to happen and there’s nothing I can do. If I had it to do over again, I definitely would not have created photos and videos.”
Usually when sexting and sex tapes are discussed, the conversation is prompted by the latest celebrity “accidentally” baring all across the Internet. There have been several instances: Love & Hip Hop Atlanta star Mimi Faust and boyfriend Nikko Smith found themselves at the center of a media storm this year when their (slickly produced) sex tape was allegedly stolen and sold to porn distributor Vivid Entertainment. Instagram star and rapper wife Amber Rose saw the intimate pics she took splashed all over the Internet, as did Rihanna when the private racy shots she took for ex-beau Chris Brown hit the Web. All the women claimed their pictures or video had been stolen. And all put on a brave face through the barrage of publicity.
But that may not be the reaction of the average woman who finds herself on the receiving end of what’s being called “revenge porn,” a form of sexual assault and harassment that involves the distribution of nude or sexually explicit photos and/or videos of an individual without her consent. “The name revenge porn is a complete misnomer,” says Holly Jacobs, Ph.D., who launched endrevengeporn.org after someone posted nude photos of her online. “The name catches people’s attention. What it is, is a new form of intimate partner violence and sexual abuse.” And there are many potential victims. A February 2014 report by security software company McAfee titled Love, Relationships & Technology found that 54 percent of U.S. adults use their mobile devices to send or receive sexual content through videos, photos, e mails or texts. Forty-five percent of those adults save the content.
None of that was a thought for Monique* when she met a guy on Craigslist in 2008. Two weeks later, she texted him topless photos of herself. The pair went out a few times, but things just didn’t click as Monique, 32, had hoped. They drifted apart with no hard feelings—at least not on her end.
Almost a year later, Monique received a call from the human resources department at her office, where she worked as an engineer. “I had found a new job and was relocating,” she recalls. “I thought they were calling for an exit interview.” Instead, the director asked Monique if someone had a vendetta against her since the entire chain of command at the company had received an e-mail containing topless photos of her. “I immediately started crying,” Monique says. “My job assured me they would investigate and that even if I wasn’t leaving the company, they wouldn’t have fired me. I cried most of the day. My managers had seen me topless and it was hard to look my boss in the eye.”
Luckily, Monique only had a week left at the company. She soon moved across the country for a new position, and figured the whole incident was behind her. And for a while, it was. But a year later, she was at a wedding when she received a call from a frantic friend. “He told me, ‘I got this weird message on Facebook,’ ” she says. The message contained two topless photos of Monique, the same ones that had been sent to her previous job. Someone had created a fake Facebook page with her name on it, uploaded the photos and invited all her friends to visit. “I reported the account and Facebook pulled it down quickly,” she says. “It took me a while to go back on social media.”
Monique knows the guy from Craigslist was the original recipient of the pictures, but she doesn’t believe he is directly behind the e-mails and postings. “It didn’t seem like the type of thing he would do, especially a man who hadn’t been hurt by me,” she says. She believes his girlfriend or someone else received the photos and posted them. “I still don’t know who did this or why they targeted me,” she adds. “I can’t imagine what I could have done to them to deserve this. Trying to get me fired was evil.”
Lauren* never had to guess who put her naughty pics online in April: her boyfriend’s estranged wife. He had been legally separated from her for 18 months when Lauren, 33, reentered his life. They were friends 13 years before and drifted apart. In December, he found her on Glide, a video texting app, and the two quickly became reacquainted. Five months and many recorded sexcapades later, Lauren went with her separated boyfriend to pick up his children from their mother’s house. As they were driving off, he realized he had left his phone in the house. He immediately went back to retrieve it, but his wife wouldn’t answer the door for more than 30 minutes.
Two days later, Lauren discovered what had caused the wait: Her boyfriend’s wife had e-mailed the racy pictures Lauren sent to him and the sexy videos they recorded to herself. She then posted the items on Facebook. “It was every picture I had ever sent him and every video of adult fun we had ever done,” she says. “The captions included, ‘The b---- that wishes she were me’ or ‘Find your own husband’s d--- to suck, ho.’ Let’s just say 2014 needs to be over, like, yesterday.”
Unfortunately, for women like Alicia, Monique and Lauren, there isn’t much legal recourse available. Just 13 states, including California, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, have criminalized revenge porn, and in many states this act—which can cause women great embarrassment, shake their sense of security and endanger their livelihood—is considered a misdemeanor, not a serious offense.
If you discover you are a victim, Jacobs suggests you first document the image with a screen shot, then check to see if there is a law against revenge porn in your state. If so, head to the local precinct with documentation and take a supportive friend. “Being the victim of revenge porn is completely exhausting emotionally, mentally and physically,” says Jacobs, who legally changed her name to distance herself from the images her ex posted online. “It can be difficult to sit down and tell a policeman, ‘This is happening.’” Jacobs also suggests hiring a lawyer who can send a cease-and-desist letter to the perpetrator, and using a photo take-down service like dmcadefender.com. Even if you don’t have the financial resources, it’s worthwhile to contact the webmaster of the site where the pictures have been posted and ask to have your private photos removed from a public place.
“These pictures were sent in trust and confidence. I never, ever thought something like this could happen,” Monique says. “You just don’t think about consequences. There are horrible people out there and they will use things against you.”
*Subjects' names have been changed.
This article was originally published in the October issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.