Revenge Porn and Technological Progress


Nonconsensual image sharing, also known as revenge porn, has
affected the lives of millions around the globe.  A 2016 survey of 3,000 U. S. residents showed
that one out of 25 Americans has either been a victim of revenge porn or has
had someone threaten to publicize a nude or nearly nude photo of them without
their consent.  If you’re a woman under
30, the chances you’ve been threatened this way rise to 1 in 10.  About 5% of both men and women between 18 and
29 have had this happen to them at least once. 
Consequences of revenge porn range from the trivial to the tragic, and
more than a few cases of revenge porn have been implicated in a victim’s
suicide.

This is a nasty business, and just listing all the things
wrong with it would take more space than I have.  But I would like to focus on one aspect of
the problem:  the way technological
progress, or what’s generally regarded as progress, has taken an immoral act
that once required expensive and elaborate planning and turned it into
something almost anybody can do in seconds. 

Spoiler alert:  if
you’re a fan of mid-twentieth-century hardboiled detective fiction, but you
haven’t seen the Bogart-Bacall movie “The Big Sleep,” haven’t read the novel by
Raymond Chandler on which the movie is based, or plan to read Dashiell
Hammett’s classic detective tale “The Scorched Face,” you might want to skip
this paragraph.  The reason is that both
stories involve schemes in which women were tempted to do, shall we say,
inappropriate things while inadequately draped, and the criminals used hidden
film cameras to obtain photos that were later used to blackmail the
victims.  In these fictional tales, the
victims were generally wild daughters of wealthy fathers who could afford to
hire private detectives, but that was just to move the story along.  It’s unlikely that Hammett and Chandler cooked
up these crime stories without there being some factual incidents behind them
in news reports.  My point is that even
in the dark pre-Internet ages, there were some people around who contrived to
gain an advantage—in this case, a financial one—over a victim by using
photography of intimate scenes and actions. 

But it was a lot of work. 
For one thing, you had to develop your own film.  Most consumer photos back then were developed
by local enterprises such as drug stores, and if you tried to get prints made
of naughty images, the druggist was likely to call the cops on you, or at least
refuse your business.  For another thing,
your victim had to have enough social standing and money to make it worth your
while to blackmail them.  In short, only
the most dedicated and systematic criminals could successfully mount an
indecent-photo blackmail scheme, and the crime was consequently rather rare.

Fast-forward to 2018. 
Not only can intimate pictures now be taken with a device that is as
commonly worn as underwear, but once taken, these pictures can be duplicated ad infinitum and publicized to the world
using multi-billion-dollar facilities (e. g. Facebook and Instagram) that cost
the user nothing.  And anonymity is easy
to achieve on the Internet and hard to penetrate.  Besides which, I suspect the barrier that
once existed in people’s minds between what is appropriate to photograph in an
intimate setting and what is not has changed over the years. 

In addition, both the sexual act and the act of photography
have been somewhat trivialized.  Before
the widespread use of birth-control pills (another technology, by the way),
there was always the chance of pregnancy. 
While this didn’t stop people from doing what comes naturally, it added
an existential significance to the act which it commonly lacks today.  And in the old days, taking a photo indoors
required either a bulky camera with a flashbulb—not exactly adding to the mood
of the thing—or bright photoflood lights, again not something that two people
doing intimate acts are likely to want. 

The drive toward ease of use that has steered so many
aspects of technology has become a goal in itself, and we have in many cases
ceased to ask what it is that we are trying to make easier, and whether some
things can be made too easy.  Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook
simply wants to bring people closer.  The
trouble is that closeness by itself is not always a good thing.  And when intimate relationships fall apart,
as they so often do, photos taken easily in the heat of the moment can become
time bombs that one partner can deploy against another.

There are laws against such things in many states and
countries, but the widespread nature of the crime made so easy by technology
vastly outstrips the ability of law enforcement to prosecute the
perpetrators.  Only the worst cases that
end in suicide or exploit multiple victims for money get prosecuted, and often
the criminal escapes by means of the anonymity that the Internet provides. 

Fortunately, revenge porn can be prevented, but it requires
judgment and trust:  judgment on the part
of anyone who is involved in an intimate relationship, and trust between those
involved that no one will forcibly or surreptitiously take pictures of intimate
moments.  Unfortunately, I suspect that I
don’t have a lot of readers in the under-30 group.  But if you’re in that category, please save
yourself and your friends and lovers a lot of grief.  Put away your phones before you take off your
clothes, and you won’t have to worry about any of this happening to you. 

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