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With revenge porn, 'they're trying to ruin someone's life'

When explicit photos of her were posted online, Holly Jacobs was shocked to find that the authorities could not help. Now she has launched a campaign to turn so-called 'revenge porn' into an offense in her native US.

Revenge porn, sometimes known as cyber-rape or non-consensual pornography, is a growing phenomenon in which explicit images or videos are posted online, often by an ex-lover or partner.

DW: How did you first discover that you were a victim of revenge porn?

Holly Jacobs: It all started back in January of 2009, which was a month after I had broken up with my then boyfriend of three and a half years. We dated long distance. We shared intimate photos and had explicit webcam interactions with one another, just to keep the passion of our relationship alive. In January of 2009 I got a call from a friend letting me know that my Facebook profile picture had been changed to a nude photo of me. I immediately suspected my ex.

Six months later I was googling my name, as I had gotten into the habit of doing, because I was worried that these pictures would one day pop up somewhere else. I was at work, it was the end of the day, I googled my name and found it associated with a porn site. There was an entire profile under my full name, first, middle and last, and there were 12 nude photos up there of me, ones that I had shared with my ex. I could just feel myself go completely white. I felt like my heart stopped, and I couldn't think of anything except I just needed to get out of there and figure out some way to handle this.

What steps did you take to protect yourself and try to regain control of your own body?

I called the police in Miami, thinking that they would immediately take up my case, that there was something that they would do - go after my ex, arrest him. But to my dismay, the police told me that what he was doing wasn't illegal. I was over 18 when the photos were taken, I had given them to him, so technically they were his property and he could do whatever he wanted with them. The pictures would pop up every six months or so on a new site, and I had learned how to contact webmasters and just beg that they be taken down.

A white computer keyboard with a blue 'porn' button

In most US states, distributing explicit material without the individual's consent is legal

How did all this impact you? How did it change you as a person in your dealings with other people?

It affected every aspect of my life. I had to leave the job that I was working at, because that information was posted along with the photos and I was fearful of being physically stalked or hurt. I eventually ended up changing my legal name. My friends and my family, luckily, all stood beside me.

So you had support from friends and family, but I imagine you also came across people who blamed you for what happened, because nobody forced you to take these pictures. How did you respond to that sort of comment?

Well, it's funny, because those people would never really say that to my face. I've certainly had a lot of trolls, and people on the Internet e-mail me now and tweet to me and say, "You shouldn't have taken the pictures in the first place." It's the same thing as asking a rape victim why they were wearing such a short skirt, or why they had so much to drink.

But by sharing photos with somebody that you love and you trust, you are not asking for this. People need to start shifting the blame from the victims to the perpetrators, who are not just posting this material for the world to see, but posting it under somebody's full name, along with their e-mail address, sometimes their phone number, sometimes their home address and information about where they work and who they work for. They're posting this with the intent to ruin someone's life.

In August 2012, you started a website and campaign to end revenge porn. This seems like a very bold move because by going public with this, you were actually drawing further attention to the pictures that were circulating. Why didn't you simply lie low and hope that things would just blow over?

Because they weren't blowing over. Despite the fact that I had changed my legal name, this was still affecting me. I couldn't imagine hiding for the rest of my life. And another reason was that I saw how many other victims of this there were out there. I wanted to save myself and I wanted to also find a way to help those other people that were going through the same thing.

What kinds of people have contacted you via your website and what sort of personal stories have struck you?

I've had thousands of victims reach out to me ever since I started the website, not just from the US but from all over the world. There are some victims who have not only had to quit their jobs but have been forced onto food stamps to be able to feed themselves. There are others that have now developed some serious psychological issues because of this, anxiety, depression. Most have had suicidal thoughts. Some have had strangers come knocking at their door, telling them that they saw an ad about them online. Every time I read these stories, I cannot believe what I'm reading, and I can't believe that there are people out there that really think that this is okay to do.

Holly Jacobs was a victim of revenge porn as a PhD student in Florida for three and a half years, during which US authorities continuously refused to file criminal charges against her ex-partner on the grounds that there were technically no laws to stop him from publishing intimate pictures of her. The legal situation is ambiguous in many countries. Two US states currently have specific legislation against revenge porn, and others are considering new laws. Some European countries have privacy statues that could be applied to protect victims. With her campaign and website End Revenge Porn, she aims to raise awareness of the issue and push for criminalization of the disclosure of explicit material without consent.

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