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Criminology Student Conducts Study on Revenge Porn

Revenge porn researcher Morgan Mueller
Revenge porn researcher Morgan Mueller

A breakup in a relationship can turn love to nasty, and now, with the advent of such ubiquitous technology as social media and cell phone cameras, an ex-partner can easily express his or her vindictiveness by posting sexually explicit photos or video of the former lover on the internet for all the world to see.

It’s called "revenge porn," and it’s probably been around as long as there have been cameras, or maybe even talented artists, but the current ease of sharing digital images has certainly allowed it to grow exponentially in the past few years, making it a widespread problem that’s just starting to gain the attention of lawmakers. In fact, the New Hampshire legislature has recently passed a bill making revenge porn a crime, and it’s on it’s way to the governor for her certain signature.

Bedford, NH, native and Keene State criminology major Morgan Mueller is wrapping up her research on the issue, and she shared her findings at the College’s Academic Excellence Conference on April 9th. She and her professor, Dr. Angela Barlow are analyzing the data and organizing it into a paper they’ll submit to sociology journals over the summer.

The issue of revenge porn is complex. Often, the victim willingly posed for the photos, and even sent them to the partner, raising the issue of how much responsibility he or she bears for the problem. But sometimes, the victim is unaware the photos are being taken—the most egregious example is perhaps the recent incident of an 18-year-old who live streamed her 17-year-old friend’s rape. Obviously, in the rape case there’s little doubt that a serious crime was committed, and that the 17-year-old was indeed a victim—distributing sexually-explicit photos of anyone under age 18 is already illegal under child pornography laws. But people are more likely to blame legal-age victims when the shared photos or video were taken with the subject’s permission—something referred to as ‘victim blaming’—and that’s a big focus of Mueller’s study. Of her respondents, 45.2% agreed with the statement, “You are responsible if a nude you sent gets shared online.”

It’s not uncommon for young lovers to take sexually explicit photos or video of themselves and send them as a text message, or “sext,” to their partner—nearly 70% of Mueller’s respondents had done so. “Well, that’s risky behavior and you’re setting yourself up for embarrassment,” you might say. But Mueller argues that the vast majority (over 85%) of people who sext do so trusting their partner to keep the images confidential—for their eyes only.

“As one scholar, Danielle Citron, explains it, when we give a waiter our credit card to pay our bill, the consent to use the card in that instance does not mean the waiter can go ahead and use it for their personal expenses,” Mueller said. “Thus, sending a photo or video to someone you trust should not, and does not, give them permission to then distribute that content to others.”

Revenge Porn Findings

Even though Google announced last year that it would remove revenge porn from its search engine results when asked to do so, once the images are out there on the internet, it’s virtually impossible to remove them completely. Sexting is primarily practiced among young people (under 30)—as age goes up, the likelihood of sexting goes down. Even though more respondents than not believe that anyone who takes revealing photos of themselves, or allows them to be taken, is partly responsible if those photos are shared, 90% of the respondents agreed that revenge porn should be illegal.

Only 2% of Mueller’s respondents had been the victims of revenge porn, indicating that it is relatively rare, especially given the number who admitted sexting (over 70%). The vast majority of respondents trust their partners with the content they share with them (85.4%), and sexters were more likely than non-sexters to indicate they trust their partner.

Over 89% of sexters, especially the females, reported they have hidden their face/identity in their sexts, indicating that they are aware of sexting’s potential consequences and have taken precautions to protect themselves.

The Problem with Revenge Porn

Obviously, revenge porn is intended to degrade and humiliate the victim, and it does that very effectively. Mueller notes that its victims often experience depression, elevated fear and distrust, and blame themselves. Many lose their confidence and self-esteem, and many have lost their jobs or the possibility of getting a job. Their relationships with family, friends, and coworkers are affected, and they often receive threats and unwanted attention from strangers. Revenge porn victims are also at increased risk of suicide.

Mueller’s research has shown her that the problem of revenge porn is a complex one, but fortunately, society is realizing its harmfulness and passing laws to protect victims and punish perpetrators. “Though our first inclination (the easiest) is to stop the victim’s behavior,” Mueller noted, “The real problem lies in the reasons people distribute revenge porn and the social attitudes that perpetuate this harmful behavior. If we can foster an environment that respects expression of sexuality, discourages ‘slut shaming,’ and condemns humiliating ex-partners or people in general, then maybe we can prevent revenge porn."