There's a vast amount of research on the harmful effects of pornography, and it's important that this information is accessible to the public. Weekly, we highlight a research study that sheds light on the expanding field of academic resources that showcase porn's harms. These studies cover a wide range of topics, from the sociological implications of pornography to the neurological effects of porn-consumption.

The full study can be accessed here.

Revenge porn and mental health: A qualitative analysis of the mental health effects of revenge porn on female survivors

Authors: Samantha Bates
Published: June 20, 2016

Peer-Reviewed Journal: Feminist Criminology 2017, Vol. 12(1) 22–42

Background

Nonconsensual pornography is a relatively new phenomenon that has grown substantially in the past few years and involves uploading nude or semi-nude images/videos of a person online without their consent. Some nonconsensual pornography website administrators use computer hacking to obtain nude photos from women, and then extort them by pressuring them to pay a fee to have their photos removed (Laird, 2013). The public and the media have commonly referred to nonconsensual pornography as “revenge porn.” Revenge porn occurs when a person uploads nude/semi-nude photos of someone online, often as revenge after a relationship has ended. Hence, revenge porn is included under the umbrella of nonconsensual pornography, but nonconsensual pornography does not always include revenge porn.

Several nonconsensual pornography websites encourage users to submit nude photos of their ex-partner(s) for revenge. These websites often include forums that allow others to leave derogatory or salacious comments about the women in the photos. The first revenge porn website—isanyoneup.com—was created in 2010 by Hunter Moore (Stroud, 2014). In a 3-month period in 2011, the website received 10,000 photo submissions. Moore gained a significant profit from advertising on the website, sometimes bringing in US $13,000 per month in revenue. The website was eventually shut down after Moore sold the website to an anti-bullying organization for an undisclosed amount, citing “legal hassles” and underage pornography submissions as reasons for selling the website (Visser, 2012). However, several other nonconsensual pornography websites have since been created and have gained a large following (Stroud, 2014).

The impact of nonconsensual pornography includes public shame and humiliation, an inability to find new romantic partners, mental health effects such as depression and anxiety, job loss or problems securing new employment, and offline harassment and stalking (Citron & Franks, 2014). Citron and Franks (2014) reported on a nonrandom sample of 1,244 nonconsensual pornography survivors, and found that more than 50% of survivors’ full names and links to social media profiles accompanied the naked photos, and that 20% of survivors’ email addresses and phone numbers were posted with their photos. Once a photo is posted online, it is challenging to completely remove from the internet, which means the harm is continuous and long-lasting (Cecil, 2014). In an attempt to reduce the emotional impacts of nonconsensual pornography, some women delete their online social media accounts. Removing all social media profiles often separates women from positive social connections with friends and family, as social media is a commonplace, contemporary way to stay connected with loved ones. Apart from the internet, in “real life,” some women completely alter their lives and routines to minimize the impact of nonconsensual pornography (Cecil, 2014).

Nonconsensual pornography did not exist on such a broad scale even 5 years ago. Smartphones, digital cameras, and computers have revolutionized photography – individuals frequently use smartphones for photography, and upload photos online in the privacy of their own homes. A richer discussion of nonconsensual pornography has been present in the media recently, particularly through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media has contributed to a vocal feminist backlash against female oppression, as social media allows thoughts to be broadcasted to large audiences (Rentschler, 2014). Even more recently, a widespread “celebrity photo leak” involving naked photos of many A-list celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, sparked an even deeper discussion in the media regarding nonconsensual pornography, female oppression, and consent. A Google search of “celebrity photo leak 2014” provides more than 2 million results with many online news articles, and even an entire Wikipedia page concerning how a long list of female celebrities experienced non-consensual pornography on a single day, August 31, 2014.

Despite recent media attention to nonconsensual pornography, relatively few academic studies focus on the topic. The few published academic articles regarding nonconsensual pornography concentrate mainly on its legal aspects and legal theories about these cases. As of April 2016, no published peer-reviewed studies focus exclusively on the experiences of nonconsensual pornography survivors, the toll it takes on their mental health, and how this type of victimization is strikingly similar to sexual assault. The present study is designed to address this gap in the literature by providing a detailed analysis of the mental health issues and coping mechanisms of revenge porn survivors, and the similarities between revenge porn and other forms of sexual victimization.

Methods

The purpose of this qualitative, interview-based study was to understand the experiences of revenge porn survivors and how revenge porn affected their mental health. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 18 female revenge porn survivors. Inclusion criteria for this study had two components: (a) Participants had to be 19 years of age or older, and (b) participants had to self-identify as victims or survivors of revenge porn. Some participants referred to themselves solely as “survivors,” some referred to themselves solely as “victims,” and some participants referred to themselves as both “survivors” and “victims” at different points throughout the interviews. For the purposes of this article, participants will be referred to as “survivors” of revenge porn, which implies a more empowering label rather than giving “victim” labels that imply less agency. Allowing self-identification for inclusion criteria resulted in a broad range of revenge porn cases, ranging from survivors who experienced a widespread web release of naked photos, to photos being shared on a smaller scale (such as with a social circle), and to being threatened or blackmailed with naked photos. Although there was a broad range of revenge porn cases among participants, common themes and patterns were found.

Results

The findings of this study were organized under two main themes: (a) Mental Health and (b) Coping Mechanisms. Under Mental Health, there are three sub-themes that focus on participants’ mental health issues after victimization: (a) trust issues after revenge porn; (b) PTSD, anxiety, and depression; and (c) self-esteem, confidence, and loss of control. Nearly all participants discussed a general loss of trust in others after being victimized by revenge porn. Many went from being very trusting to rarely trusting anyone after they were betrayed by someone they loved and cared about. Along with the loss of trust, many participants experienced more severe and disruptive mental health effects, often being given official medical diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Many participants also noticed a change in their self-esteem and confidence after they were victimized. Part of the reason that revenge porn had such a negative effect on participants’ self-esteem and confidence was the loss of control they experienced. The loss of control over one’s body was a particularly violating aspect of revenge porn, similar to sexual assault. Frazier (2003) found that when sexual assault survivors perceived a loss of control, they experienced more distress and trauma. Overall, participants experienced many disruptive mental health issues after victimization that affected their daily lives.

Under Coping Mechanisms, there are two sub-themes that focus on participants’ coping mechanisms to their victimization: (a) negative coping mechanisms and (b) positive coping mechanisms. Participants generally engaged in negative coping mechanisms, such as denial and self-medicating, closer to when they were victimized, and turned to positive coping mechanisms, such as seeking counseling, as time passed. Negative coping mechanisms ranged in behaviors, such as avoidance, denial, excessive drinking of alcohol, and obsessing, over one’s victimization. In terms of avoidance/denial, participants attempted to avoid thinking about revenge porn and pretended they had not been victimized. Participants also engaged in various positive coping mechanisms to deal with their emotions. The most common were seeing a counselor or therapist, speaking out and helping others, relying on support systems such as family or friends, and focusing on moving on. Counseling was helpful for most participants. Support systems played a huge role in participants’ lives and helped them feel safe after they were victimized. Participants expressed gratitude for their friends and family being there to support and help them in a time of need.

Every woman in this study experienced a horrendous invasion of sexual privacy and personal space, and in most cases at the hands of someone they loved and trusted. This study provided an analysis of the experiences of these survivors and how revenge porn forever changed and affected them. The negative mental health consequences of revenge porn for female survivors are similar in nature to the negative mental health outcomes that rape survivors experience. Rape survivors frequently experience PTSD, anxiety, and depression, all of which participants in this study experienced. In terms of coping mechanisms, participants engaged in avoidance/denial and self-medication in attempt to avoid feelings of despair and distress regarding their victimization. These coping mechanisms are commonly found among rape survivors as well (Boeschen et al., 2001; Campbell, 2008). The characteristics of revenge porn are similar to other sexual crimes (Bloom, 2014). As mentioned above, participants in the present study experienced a variety of negative mental health effects that sexual assault survivors also experience (Boeschen et al., 2001; Campbell, 2008; Littleton & Henderson, 2009; Monroe et al., 2005). Furthermore, sexual assault survivors report that the loss of control over their bodies and their own sexual agency contributes to their feelings of stress, anxiety, and distress (Frazier, 2003). The loss of control participants in the present study experienced contributed to feelings of anxiety and despair, and was a major facet of why revenge porn was so violating.

Overall, findings of this study reveal striking similarities between the mental health effects of sexual assault and revenge porn for survivors, suggesting that revenge porn should indeed be classified as a sexual offense as Bloom (2014) recommended. Therefore, the two primary conclusions to take away from this study include the following: (a) The mental health effects of revenge porn and sexual victimization are similar among victims; and (b) because of these striking similarities, revenge porn should be classified as a sexual offense, treatment strategies for survivors of revenge porn should be similar to effective treatment strategies used for survivors of other forms of sexual victimization, and legislators should consider the similarities between revenge porn and sexual crimes when making legal changes to the status of revenge porn and drafting legislation.

The full study can be accessed here.

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