What to Do if You're a Victim of Revenge Porn

  • Practice

Clinical social worker and sexual trauma specialist Jessica Klein offers advice for victims of revenge porn, from getting unauthorized images removed from social media to attending to your mental health needs.

The phenomenon of nonconsensual image sharing (NCIS), colloquially referred to as “revenge porn,” is a growing problem that often has profound psychological effects on its victims. Today approximately four percent of Americans report having a nude or nearly nude image of themselves posted online without their consent, and one in 10 young women has received threats that their explicit images will be shared, according to the Data and Society Research Institute.

In the face of these increasing rates of NCIS, we spoke with Jessica Klein, clinical social worker and lecturer in the Department of Adult Health and Wellness at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, whose specialization is in the treatment of sexual trauma. Because victims of NCIS frequently experience symptoms similar to those of sexual assault survivors, Klein offers advice not only on what to do in the direct aftermath of the event, but also on long-term recovery strategies for victims.

How to get explicit content removed

Klein points out that while reporting the image and having it removed can be challenging due to both state laws and guidelines of individual platforms, “most major social media platforms forbid harassment and nonconsensual image sharing.” She recommends consulting the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative removal guidelines, which specify the image reporting process for each major social media platform.

In addition, Klein urges victims to document as much as they can. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative stresses: “Capture screen shots of everything and save them to a folder on your computer—website pages, results from a Google search of your name, and any messages, friend requests or emails you received as a result of the posting. Then print everything. This will serve as your evidence [should you choose to file legal charges].”

Processing your trauma step-by-step

Many survivors of NCIS experience shock and feel overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the event. In the longer term, victims often exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, abnormally high suicidality and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) —effects also common among survivors of physical sexual assault. In fact, 93 percent of victims of NCIS report suffering “significant emotional distress.”

For these reasons, strategies commonly used to process sexual trauma can help victims cope with NCIS as well. Klein recommends the following steps:

  1. Establish safety: Immediately after the NCIS has occurred, you may feel overwhelmed, in shock and even dissociated from reality, struggling with the feeling that you have been violated or lost a sense of bodily integrity. What’s more, some 49 percent of victims report being harassed or stalked by people online after the incident. Seek out comfort and safety through any tactics you have used in the past to deal with stress. This may include going to a friend’s house or asking a trusted family member to come to your home. Establish physical safety and work with supportive friends or family to get the image removed, or call a crisis hotline such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
  2. Mentally process the trauma: Process the experience fully, whether by confiding in a friend or attending one-on-one or group therapy with a professional clinician. Importantly, while many victims of NCIS feel that the non-physical nature of their experience disqualifies them from seeking the counsel of a sexual assault specialist, this is not true. Seeking out an expert who specializes in sexual trauma may be a very productive option for healing from this experience. Find specialists in your area. Regardless of whether you choose to seek professional treatment, learn to develop effective coping strategies that do not rely on avoidance, but rather provide you with an opportunity to mediate and understand your trauma. This may include something as simple as journaling or practicing yoga. Continue to practice self-evaluation and reach out to a trusted friend or family member when you are feeling especially anxious or depressed.
  3. Reconnect to yourself: After you have established healthy coping strategies and have begun to process your trauma, it’s important to reconnect to your life. When you are ready, rejoin your broader community through social events and participation in pastimes that bring meaning and value to your life.

Consider your legal options

Once you’ve established your own sense of safety and security, you may choose to report the incident to the police or file charges against the perpetrator. Klein acknowledges that, like sexual assault, NCIS is most often committed by a person that the victim knows—which may make victims especially reluctant to report it.

While each victim ultimately must make their own choice about whether they want to report the incident, Klein emphasizes the importance of knowing your legal options. Because nonconsensual image sharing is a relatively new phenomenon that has emerged in an increasingly digital world, there are currently no federal laws regulating it. However, 38 states do have legislation in place regarding NCIS, and in the absence of state legislation, it may be possible to file cyber security or privacy-related charges.

Klein stresses that the most important thing for victims is to continually work through their trauma and prioritize their healing: “Whether or not you choose to report the crime, remain attuned to your emotional and psychological needs. Over time, with continual support from friends, family or a therapist, you can regain a sense of empowerment over your life—and this is the most important thing.”

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