The abuse follows her everywhere, and it’s legal: One woman’s story of revenge porn

The following is a true story. However, some identifying details have been changed to ensure the safety of the story’s subject. 

Beth smiles and shakes my hand confidently when we meet. There is a reserve about her, though, a hesitation in the way she first approaches me, that I understand once she begins sharing her story.

In 2008, Beth started dating Neal. Beth had a successful consulting business and was looking for a serious relationship. Neal was kind, charming and charismatic, and they met through mutual friends. After a few months they moved in together and started building a life.

Slowly, that life began to change. Over time, Neal became verbally, emotionally, sexually and physically abusive. It all started so subtly that Beth didn’t realize it at first. But gradually, Neal took control over every aspect of Beth’s life. He was obsessed with the thought that she was cheating on him and displayed extreme jealousy when Beth interacted with any other man.

“He severely punished me for that,” Beth recalls. His desire for control escalated; he dictated what she wore, how she shaved her body hair. During sex, he’d mark her body with his teeth, declaring her as “his territory” to deter the other men he thought she was seeing.

At that point, “I still didn’t see it as abuse,” Beth says, echoing the sentiment of so many women I’ve spoken with. “I really thought he had to deck me across the face for it to be abuse.”

But then, finally, Neal did hit her. That night, Beth convinced him to leave the apartment, and then — terrified he’d return — she dragged the sofa and the bookshelf in front of the door. He returned anyway, using his key and busting through the barricade easily. She realized then that he’d do anything to make sure he could control her, and she decided she had to get out. The next day while Neal was at work, she packed her car with all the belongings she could fit, took her dog, and drove away.

She headed toward Maine. She told no one — not even her parents — where she was going. Three days of driving later, she pulled into the driveway of the old farmhouse where she’d rented a room for the summer. She breathed a sigh of relief: It was, it seemed at that moment, finally over.

Beth started life in Maine by cutting all ties to her old state. She spoke to no one from back home. She knew that in order to make a living she’d need work, but she couldn’t keep her consulting business going and retain her anonymity. She also couldn’t supply any professional references to potential new employers, although she was well respected by her large client base.

Eventually she found a seasonal kitchen job. That whole summer, she waited and planned, considering her next move. She made connections in her new community and began to hope that she’d be able to start up her business again, maybe even in the spring.

With the fall approaching and the end of her seasonal gig coming near, Beth began to again search for a job to get her through the long Maine winter. And it was then, doing what so many of us do when we are on a job search, that she Googled herself, and her real nightmare began.

When she’d come to Maine, she kept her old email address and her cell number, but blocked Neal’s number and sent his emails to her spam folder. She deleted all of her social media accounts. And yet, when she searched for herself in Google, the first hit was a Facebook page with her name.

The profile photo was clearly her, so she clicked on it. The page contained her full name, her hometown and the name of her business. As the cover photo — the large image that makes up the backdrop of a Facebook page — there was a picture of her, naked.

There were other photos, too, of her in flirtatious selfie poses that she’d taken and sent Neal when they were apart. The captions he wrote read, “I wanna be a porn star!”

There was also a link to a website with a sexually explicit title; when she clicked on it, her world fell apart. It took her to a site filled with images of her performing sexual acts with an unidentifiable man — though Beth knew him to be Neal. They were accompanied by captions such as, “Likes it rough” and “Call me for dirty sex.”

It listed her old home address, her email and her phone number. Some of the images she recognized; others had been doctored in Photoshop to depict her engaged in acts that had never happened, sometimes with people she’d never met.

Thanks to the Internet savvy of a trusted local friend Beth made, it was possible to determine that the domain of the website was registered in Neal’s name. She immediately emailed him, imploring him to take down the site, but his response was only to demand to know her location. She then contacted Facebook and the site’s web host, asking them to remove the content. After about a month, both pages were removed, but at that point it didn’t matter: Every time a site went down, another hundred popped up in its place.

Soon, a Google search of her name was dominated by pornographic links and images. Almost immediately she began receiving emails from strangers with pictures of their genitalia. One of the messages read, “I am in your hometown all the time. Are you for real? Let’s meet.”

The senders told her in graphic detail what they thought of her body, and what they wanted to do to it. The messages came in at all times of the day; Beth was unable to focus on work, unable to plan or move forward: “I was afraid to apply for jobs. Everybody Googles potential employees now.”

At the same time as she was looking for winter work, she was also looking for winter housing. Although she’d had a roommate lined up, that person suddenly backed out with no explanation. The same thing happened again, and again. For part of the fall, Beth was homeless, living with her dog in her car.

They moved from trailhead to trailhead throughout the area, never wanting to be in one place for too long, afraid of drawing the attention of local law enforcement. Finally, as winter’s first snow was falling, they found a room to rent.

Through this all, Beth tried to understand her options. She took a new waitressing job, but the rest of her day was dominated by research. She found out that there was a term for what was being done to her — revenge porn — and that in most states, including her home state and Maine, it is not illegal. She claimed the images as her intellectual property under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and spent hours each day issuing notices to websites to remove the pictures. Some complied, but it scarcely mattered. By that point, the online engine of revenge pornography had taken over; now it was not only Neal sharing her photos but also other websites specially designed to re-post and sell this type of material.

She begged her friends in her new community — the few that hadn’t disappeared along with the roommates by this time — for money so that she could pay sites to remove images. She estimates she was extorted out of about $2,000.

“I knew it wouldn’t fix it … But I felt like, what can I do except pay this and hope it will go away?” she remembers.

Meanwhile, Neal’s email demands to know her location increased in intensity. She thought that she could help ensure the secrecy of her location by putting false information on the Web, so she created a social media account for herself, listing her location as another state.

Within days, the addresses next to the photos on the sites changed cities, and her cell phone was flooded with text messages with vulgar images and propositions from phone numbers with that state’s area codes. It was then she knew that Neal was watching, waiting for any trace of her to appear online.

Beth connected with support through her local domestic violence resource center and through the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), which specializes in addressing revenge pornography. She spent hours capturing screenshots of the different sites, hoping that they would later become evidence in a case against Neal, despite the fact she learned from the CCRI that retroactive cases are not usually possible.

She was compelled to track the posts and the websites; her friend signed her up for online alerts that let her know when new material was posted. She went to the police to give a statement, but she was told again that this activity was not actually illegal and was turned away, her subsequent calls ignored.

In the spring, the revenge porn postings abruptly stopped, but by that time the damage was done. The sites continued to replicate. To avoid the propositions from strangers, she changed her email address and her phone number, effectively cutting the last two ties she had to her previous life.

Beth is now in the process of legally changing her name and of getting a new Social Security card. It is a long process, and she’s had to fight every step of the way to maintain her confidentiality. She has had to prove, over and over again, why it is so important for her information to be kept private. Because revenge porn is not illegal under Maine state law, the police would not file a formal report, and there was no court order to back her up. One government agency even asked to see pictures of the screenshots as proof that the harassment occurred.

The emotional fallout is extensive. She has been lonely, isolated and depressed, but she is trying to heal. By going first one day, then two, then a week, and then a month, she has weaned herself off of tracking the sites, but she has to keep this digital footprint in the back of her mind at all times: “I really miss having a life where I can just go, be, meet people and not worry about consequences. I’ll never have that luxury again. People ask where I’m from, why I came to Maine. It’s not a simple question.”

As she tells me her story, Beth’s body grows cold, and she starts to shiver. She confesses to having PTSD-like symptoms as a result of the revenge porn. She can’t imagine ever trusting anyone enough to be in a relationship again, and has all but given up her dreams of marrying and having children.

“I used to love my body,” says Beth. “Now, I can’t look at myself in the mirror. What I once thought of as the beauty of my body has been re-written in graffiti. [Revenge porn] is a rewriting of the body.”

She has joined Maine’s Address Confidentiality Program and has even changed the name of her dog, as the kennel she now boards him at sometimes posts photos of the pets they work with on their website. None of this makes her feel truly safe. She is terrified that some piece of her identity will enter the public domain. There are so many ways it can happen, through a job application, or a financial transaction, or a new friend’s social media — and Neal will find her.

If he knows she is in Maine, she believes he will systematically set out to dismantle her reputation the way he did when he believed her to be in another state. And if he found out her exact location?

“He could hurt me, or kill me,” she says. “I wouldn’t put anything past him. Nine or 10 months of revenge porn is what he did because I left. I don’t know what he’d do if he found me.”

Despite the dire importance of keeping her location secret, Beth wants to help government and public service agencies be better prepared to deal with cases like hers.

She is blunt: “The way the system is set up now, it is better prepared to handle my death than it is to protect my safety. [Our information] all gets reported back. You are so traceable.” Ending revenge porn, she believes, must start with education, and with changing laws: “Our legislation is not keeping up with our technology. New technology is constantly emerging. Social media and the social Web — the ability to reach in an instant a very broad and wide audience — has a lot of implications. It’s good for a business … but it can also be very bad.”

The victim blaming she has encountered has been incredible. She describes the feeling of having coworkers reveal that they have seen her naked body online. She describes losing friends, trying to maintain the fragile support system she has built in Maine, as one by one people have drifted out of her life without explanation.

She describes other friends who, while outwardly supportive, have questioned why she ever took the photos in the first place. That question is perhaps the most frustrating one. “When you are in an intimate relationship, you trust that person implicitly. Of course I trusted him with my body. There were times in our relationship when my life was literally in his hands. It’s not natural to assume your trust will be violated.” She pauses. “It’s not about decision making. It’s about a violation of will, trust and privacy.”

Regina Rooney is the public awareness coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. MCEDV is supporting LD 679, An Act To Prohibit the Unauthorized Distribution of Certain Private Images. There will be a public hearing on the bill at 1 p.m., Wednesday, April 22 in the State House Room 436 in Augusta.

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