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Lydia Metral
Photography Lydia Metral

The dark reality of revenge porn

When old photos of Sarah were leaked online by Hunter Moore, it took hours for her life to get torn apart – so why isn't the government doing more to stop it?

For Sarah, it was a phonecall from a friend that first alerted her to the news. “I just think it’s really wrong that all these men who used to work with you, and are supposed to be your friends, are just passing these pictures of you around,” she said, her voice soft and sympathetic. “I said, ‘You’re not even going to call her and tell her?’ They all said no.”

The pictures, taken years before, were Sarah at her most private and vulnerable: a forgotten part of an old relationship, created and shared privately. According to her friend though, they were now online – and free for all the world to see. In a stomach-churning twist, a group of old co-workers had somehow stumbled across the shots on a revenge porn site, and now every inch of Sarah’s body was being derided and dissected on an office-wide email. “It was fucking hell,” she remembers. “I spent the rest of that day dodging emails, texts, and Facebook messages from guys who had seen it and suddenly wanted to ‘reconnect’, or share their unsolicited opinions on my body.”

“I wasn't a human being anymore. If I was, they certainly didn't treat me like it. It didn't matter how hard I had worked to get to where I was, or how much experience and knowledge I had. As soon as people saw me naked without my consent, I lost all of that.”

Sarah’s case is by no means an anomaly. In a world that’s steadily becoming more and more obsessed with “isms”, power plays and public shaming, revenge porn is thriving – becoming the norm for thousands of hellbent and heartbroken exes. One quick Google of the words “revenge” and “ex” is enough to prove this; revealing nearly 60 million results in a fraction of a second.

Tragically, this figure shows no signs of declining. In the UK, where the act has been criminalised, statistics have shown a sharp rise in reported cases over the last year. In the US, where the law still turns a blind eye, getting these cases reported is almost impossible. “I did some investigating on my own and traced it back to a guy I had only gone out with a couple times almost five years prior,” Sarah recalls. “It just hadn't worked out; it didn't even end maliciously – or I didn't think it had. When I questioned him, he claimed his ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ had found them on his computer and she was the one who sent them in, but of course, I had a hard time believing that. We never spoke again.”

Sarah’s investigating ultimately led her to Hunter Moore, the founder of revenge porn mecca IsAnyoneUp.com. Known as one of the Internet’s ‘Most Hated Men’, his site would openly encourage the jilted to shame their partners by including personal details: from social media handles to addresses and phone numbers. At one stage, there was evening a “mapping” system in development, to promote free, “scary as shit” stalking. The aim was, in Moore’s own words, to stand up “for basic rights of the internet and free speech.” “It was for me and my friends to post pictures of girls we were fucking at the time,” he stated on his website, nonchalantly. “Somehow someone found it and it became what it was.”

For Sarah, and for the countless other women who were victimised on the site, these “basic rights” only led to ruined lives, relationships and careers. It also exposed a darker underbelly of the online world – a side that revels in the destruction and degradation of sexually liberated women. After all, around 90 per cent of revenge porn victims are female, which points to a fundamental difference between the way we treat each gender. Slut shaming and sexual domination still seems to be the digital weapon of choice against women – something that’s supported by the ubiquitous, rape-heavy threats that are regularly adopted by trolls. Men who feel threatened by feminism, like Roosh V’s pro-rape neomasculinists, seem to resort to this language as their final power play: because sadly, even today, consensual sex scandals just don’t seem to affect men in the same way.

“It didn't matter how hard I had worked to get to where I was... As soon as people saw me naked without my consent, I lost all of that” 

It’s a point that’s supported by the reactions of Moore’s arrest last year. Sentenced to two and a half years for hacking into private computers, he wasn’t techically imprisoned for destroying the lives of these women. Despite that, when the news broke, the backlash from his defenders was rife. “I looked online at the reaction of people who knew about him, and while women were divided between happy to see him gone and angry to see him get off so easy, many men reacted similarly,” says Sarah. “(It was) as if he ‘’ us and our 'honour' by shaming us on the most public scale.”

The scale became much more public with last year’s infamous ‘Fappening’. Featuring over 500 hacked iCloud photos and videos of Hollywood actresses, the scandal saw no arrests and very little sympathy from the majority of media outlets. Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence was one of the worst affected. “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime,” she told Vanity Fair last October. “It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting... Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”

So what is actually being done to change this? While the UK has ruled these kind of acts illegal, the US is still wavering – with only twenty six states offering specific laws against revenge porn. As a result, victims are having to resort to outside campaigns, like End Revenge Porn, to help get the justice they deserve. “When the public is able to hear from the victims themselves, and to hear their stories, and to hear that they’re not just dirty people doing crazy things, I think it’s really helping the public understand that this is a problem caused by someone else,” says Elisa D’Amico of the K&L Gates Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project. “Not these men and women who are really truly victims.”

For Sarah though, this just isn’t enough. “I don't think (the government) totally understand how quickly online harassment becomes offline harassment,” she says, with exasperation. “Nor do they get how victims of online harassment suffer in the same ways as someone being harassed offline.” She was eventually forced to take matters into her own hands, reaching Moore and ordering him to take down the images, to which he – somewhat bizarrely – obliged. However, that didn’t stop them from repeatedly reappearing years later. “When I finally wrote about my experience with Moore and posted it a few months ago, photos of me appeared on another revenge porn site less than 24 hours later,” she adds. “There’s no way prison is stopping this guy.”

Sarah has since left her job, and is looking to get a career in sex education. While she is hopeful for the future, she has her concerns  – mainly over the government’s leniency. “If Hunter commits another crime of any kind – online or offline – he should be thrown back in prison on the first offence,” she stresses. “No second chances. No more fucking kid gloves. He does not deserve it. But none of that will happen. He’ll get out in a couple months and go back to what he was doing before. Nothing will change. That scares me.”

If you'd like to see what you can do to help make Moore’s sentence longer – and stop women from having to copyright their own bodies – you can sign up to endrevengeporn.org.

All imagery by Lydia Metral. See more of her work on Instagram here.