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Revenge porn: A pernicious form of cyber gender harassment [Commentary]

Being a woman, especially a woman of color, raises one's risk of cyber harassment — the intentional infliction of severe emotional distress through persistent online speech.

The University of Maryland studied online attacks occurring on an Internet chat medium and found that users with female names received, on average, 100 "malicious private messages" — defined as those with "sexually explicit or threatening" language — for every four received by male users. User gender had a "significant impact" on the number of malicious private messages sent and "no significant impact" on other kinds of attacks, such as attempts to send files with viruses to users, the study said. It noted that males "specifically" targeted females.

The U.S. National Violence Against Women Survey also reports that 60 percent of cyber stalking victims are women.

A separate study by a university in the Midwest involving 992 undergraduate students found that non-white females faced cyber harassment more than any other group, with 53 percent reporting having been harassed online. Next were white females at 45 percent. The group least likely to have been harassed was white males. Only 31 percent reported having faced cyber harassment.

The nature of the attacks reveals bigotry's presence. Cyber harassment demeans individuals and groups, treating them as inhuman "others" who have no shared humanity to consider.

The latest form of this online abuse is known as "revenge porn"— the non-consensual publication of individuals' nude images, often disclosed in breach of their trust. Revenge porn is a form of cyber gender harassment, which Del. Jon Cardin, a Democrat who is running for attorney general, has argued should be criminalized. As an attorney and expert in cyber hate crimes, I am helping Mr. Cardin craft a bill that would do just that.

Perpetrators of revenge porn humiliate their former lovers on so-called "slut shaming" and revenge sites. They post their exes' home addresses and nude photos that were supposed to be for their eyes only. Some harassers impersonate victims, using their images and contact information to suggest that the women are available for sex.

Victims are labeled as sexual deviants and equated with their sexual organs, and often described as diseased — i.e. "she has herpes." Once victims are exposed in this way, they're virtually attacked by people who post explicit and threatening messages, describing violent acts: "first I'll rape you, then I'll kill you."

Anyone who has ever made a sex tape or permitted someone to take their sexually explicit photo could find their images exposed online. Nonetheless, revenge porn more often features women. According to a recent study by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, over 80 percent of revenge porn victims are female. The gender disparity may be due to the fact that men are more likely to insist that women share their nude images with them. Countless women have told me that their male ex-lovers pressured them into sharing, or permitting them to take, their naked photos. Coercing naked photos is often part of domestic abuse.

Gender stereotypes explain why women more often experience revenge porn. Harassers know that women are often shamed by sexual activity whereas men's sexual activity is taken as a point of pride. Harassers post women's nude images because they know it will make them unemployable, un-dateable and at risk for sexual assault.

Criminalizing revenge porn is a part of my "cyber civil rights agenda." The goal is to protect the equality of opportunity in the information age. Our civil rights tradition protects individuals' right to pursue life's crucial endeavors — the ability to make a living, to engage in civic activities, and to express oneself — free from unjust discrimination.

Danielle Keats Citron is Lois K. Macht research professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and author of the forthcoming book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace" from Harvard University Press. Her email is DCitron@law.umaryland.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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