How do revenge porn laws work in the US?

(This webpage provides only a thematic overview of US revenge pornography law and does not constitute legal advice.)

If you’ve been the victim of “revenge porn” – or image-based sexual abuse – in the United States, your legal protections largely depend on what state you live in. There is currently no federal revenge pornography law, although in 2019, then-Senator Kamala Harris introduced the SHIELD (Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution) Act, which would make sharing intimate images without the subject’s consent a federal offense, and President Biden has announced his commitment to introduce a federal bill to tackle online abuse. 

As of late, 48 states plus the District of Columbia have anti-revenge porn laws. These laws form a diverse patchwork, with different states offering different levels of legal protection. If you are looking for detailed information about the specific laws in your state, and possible redress, please be in touch

Most state revenge porn laws are criminal laws that outlaw the distribution of nonconsensual pornography. Their protections and punishments differ from state to state. For example, states classify nonconsensual pornography offenses differently – some, like Connecticut, classify it as a misdemeanor while others, like New Hampshire, classify it as a felony. These are important distinctions because felonies are considered more serious than misdemeanors and carry tougher penalties, such as longer prison sentences or higher fines. The police are also more likely to extradite perpetrators across state lines for felonies than misdemeanors. 

Can I bring a civil suit for revenge porn?

While most states now criminalize revenge pornography, many do not grant victims a right to bring a civil suit for money damages. A criminal case can result in the perpetrator serving time in jail or prison, but only civil cases allow victims to receive monetary damages for emotional distress, therapy costs or financial losses caused by the online abuse.   

Even if your state does not have a specific civil law for revenge porn, our team has been successful in employing existing laws prohibiting harassment, extortion, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress to get civil justice for victims of image-based sexual abuse. If you are seeking legal advice, our experienced team will consider your specific circumstances to determine what laws might apply to you.  

Many revenge porn laws, such as the law in New York, classify revenge pornography as a form of harassment and only cover instances in which images are shared with “the intent to cause harm” to the particular person depicted. That excludes many important motivations for people to engage in image-based sexual abuse: for “fun,” to show off to their friends, for profit or for sexual gratification. Regardless of the reason why someone shares intimate images without consent, the effect on the victim is the same: loss of privacy and public humiliation. We believe that the focus needs to be shifted from the perpetrator’s motivations the simpler question of whether the distribution was with the consent of the person in the image. 

Some states, including New York, also exclude images capturing voluntary exposure in a public or commercial setting. This exception potentially limits the recourse available to sex workers or those who make content on sites like OnlyFans. At McAllister Olivarius, we believe that nonconsensual image sharing is always wrong, and we have previously helped online sex workers stop their former clients from posting their images online without consent.  

Finally, many state and federal laws ban production, possession, reception, and distribution of child pornography, i.e., any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving someone under 18 years of age. This includes photos (digital or printed), videos (digital or analogue), and, under federal law, undeveloped film or videotape and other data that can be converted to show child pornography. A picture of a naked child may constitute illegal child pornography if it is sufficiently sexually suggestive. Even if the images were taken with your consent when you were under 18, they are child pornography, and remain so forever. In addition to criminal prosecution, you may be able to sue the person responsible for taking them for monetary damages.  

An interactive map showing revenge porn laws for each state can be viewed on the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.
Visit: https://cybercivilrights.org/nonconsensual-pornagraphy-laws/

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Advocating for better laws and support for victims of revenge porn

Of course, laws must be backed up with action, education and practical support for victims. Even in states where image-based sexual abuse is criminalized, investigating and prosecuting these devastating crimes is not always a priority for overwhelmed police departments and prosecutors. Some police departments, especially in rural areas, do not have the technical expertise or tools required to effectively investigate cybercrimes. We believe that anti-revenge porn laws must be backed up by additional training and resources so that law enforcement can properly investigate image-based sexual abuse and treat victims with sensitivity and respect.   

Education is also key to preventing people from perpetuating image-based sexual abuse. Sex and relationships education programs should place a greater emphasis on consent, including when it comes to sharing intimate images. With young people spending so much time on their devices, the current approach of just telling people not to sext is naïve. Helping people learn how to safely and respectfully conduct relationships online should be considered a necessary part of sex and relationships education. By emphasizing that one must always get a partner’s consent before taking, sending or sharing an intimate image with others, we can foster a culture of consent not only with in-person sexual encounters but with online interactions as well.  

Finally, our society must do more to support victims of image-based sexual abuse. Legislators, law enforcement, educators, employers and service providers must communicate loudly and clearly that victims are not to be blamed for image-based sexual abuse. Image-based sexual abuse has a devastating impact on a victim’s life, and too often perpetrators do not face significant consequences. More resources must be devoted to providing victims with counselling and other practical support. Victims of image-based sexual abuse should also not have to worry about being retaliated against or fired from their jobs when their private images are published without their consent.  

It takes a long time to change the law, but we are dedicated to doing the hard work it takes to bring about positive change. By advocating for these systemic changes in the media and in legislatures, and by fighting for justice on a case-by-case basis, we hope to push the world toward equality and justice.  

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