How have other people used the legal system to deal with the experience of having their intimate images published?
A survey of legal cases demonstrates that this problem is widespread and that many people have turned to the legal system for assistance, with varying degrees of success. There are many recorded cases where the victim turned to the criminal justice system after being threatened with the online publication of intimate images. For example, there are several cases where the perpetrator demanded money or sex in exchange for not posting images online. Other victims have used civil laws to sue the perpetrator for money damages. Victims have used many different causes of action, or civil laws, including Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Negligence, Stalking, and Invasion of Privacy claims. Other victims have obtained civil restraining orders to keep the victim from posting the images online.
How Can I Get Help for How I'm Feeling?
There are a number of national psychological resources to help you find a licensed mental health professional in your community who can help you. It may be wise to seek a clinician who has experience working with trauma, harassment, or abuse. But what is most important is that you are able to find someone with whom you feel safe enough to you for you to be able to talk about what has happened.
Will I feel better? When?
The distress from experiencing an invasion of privacy or stalking very often gets better, especially if you take active steps to cope. You won’t forget what has happened, but it will affect you less and less. If you find yourself “stuck” in feeling upset, or feeling even more distressed as time has passed since the invasion has ended, then seeing a professional therapist experienced in working with people who have been hurt or traumatized may be a good idea. This may also be a good idea if the situation is ongoing. But there definitely is hope, and people do indeed find a way to recover from this kind of experience.
What can I do about how I'm feeling?
Taking active, practical steps to address the problem can help. Consulting with an attorney or law enforcement officers is important if someone has threatened you. It’s also important to see what practical and legal steps you can take to combat the invasion of your privacy. Although a formal complaint process may increase your feelings of stress while it is ongoing, this kind of active coping with the situation helps some people feel better more quickly. Addressing your feelings is important, too. Talking to people who care about you can help, as can talking to a counselor or therapist. Joining a support group may also comfort you and allow you to feel safer. Keeping a journal where you put your feelings into words also works for some people. Doing things every day—especially small things—that make you feel good (for example, physician-approved exercise, experiencing natural beauty, gardening), are important, as is finding a way to relax. Many people also find religious or spiritual practices help them cope with these kinds of painful experiences. Try not to rely on drugs, alcohol, or caffeine, as these substances can make things worse.
What are some of the emotional reactions someone whose privacy was violated might have?
Emotional reactions might range from mild to very strong, depending upon what has happened. Some of the reactions a person who has had their privacy invaded may have include the following (please note that a person may experience none, some or many of these feelings).
- Anxiety and fear
- Feeling a lack of safety
- Intrusive, upsetting thoughts or memories
- Loss of memory (such as having difficulty remembering exact details)
- Feeling detached or estranged from people
- Feelings of intense distress
- Physical reactions (pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
- Sleep difficulties
- Difficulty concentrating
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Feelings of mistrust or betrayal
- Depression and hopelessness
- Feeling alienated or alone
- Embarrassment and feelings of exposure
- Avoidance of people, events, or situations
What can I do to protect my physical safety?
If you have reason to fear that the person who has posted or has threatened to post your intimate images online poses a threat to your physical safety, then you can seek to obtain a restraining order on that person or a civil harassment protection order. In California, if the person threatening you is your current or former lover, you can request a domestic violence restraining order. If you do not have a current or former romantic relationship with the person, however, then you should seek a civil harassment protection order. These orders may prohibit the person threatening you from coming within a certain distance of your person, home, and/or work place. Depending on the specific rules of the restraining order, the police may be able to arrest the person if he or she violates the order.
What are the possible harms of posting intimate images without the consent of the parties depicted in those images?
Posting intimate images online is not a joke. Gender-based harassment online interferes with the professional lives of targeted individuals, increases their vulnerability to sexual violence, causes emotional harm, and sends the message that the targeted individuals are inferior, sexual objects.1 Examples of this harm are abundant: A California professional who worked at the Federal Aviation Administration lost her job after a coworker circulated nude pictures of her;2 Another woman who had an online business selling luxury handbags lost business after pornographic pictures were posted of her online and linked with her name;3 A woman who was spied on through her bathroom wall received counseling for six months afterwards to deal with the experience;4 Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi committed suicide three days after his roommate published online a video of his sexual encounter with another young man;5 And many women have been coerced into having sex or paying money to avoid the online publication of intimate images or threatened with the online publication of intimate images if they refused to do so.6
- 1. See Danielle Keats Citron, “Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment” Michigan Law Review, Vol. 108, p. 375.
- 2. Second Amended Complaint, Lester v. Mineta.
- 3. Leser v. Penido, 879 N.Y.S.2d 107 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. 2009).
- 4. Bedolla v. Aglony, No. H032125, 2009 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 755 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2009).
- 5. Foderaro, Lisa W., “Private Moment Made Public, Then a Fatal Jump” New York Times, September 29, 2010.
- 6. See, e.g., People v. Cavazos, No. A124274, 2010 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3420 (Cal. Ct. App. May 11, 2010); People v. Power, 70 Cal. Rptr. 3d 799 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008); Serrano v. Butler, No. C 06-04433 JW, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS. 137617 (N.D. Cal., Dec. 20, 2010) ; People v. Khoa Khac Long, 117 Cal. Rptr. 3d 451 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010) ; S.B. v. Duffy, No. A-4495-07T1, 2009 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2334 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. May 12, 2009).
How can the legal system help me if the person who posted my images online has no money?
There are several non-monetary legal tools that may be available to victims of nonconsensual online publication of intimate images. In addition to money damages, courts can provide injunctive relief, or court orders, that require the defendant to do or refrain from doing something. Also, depending on the laws of your state, you may be able to obtain a civil protection order that could require the perpetrator to stop posting images, or remove the images that have already been posted.
Can I sue the website that hosted my nude images?
In almost all cases it is not possible to bring a civil action against the website that hosted the images. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects online services providers from legal liability arising from content uploaded by the services’ users.1 Some victims have still attempted to sue the website, but these victims have nearly uniformly been unsuccessful.2 In just one case, a victim’s promissory estoppel claim against Yahoo! was not barred by section 230, because a Yahoo! employee had promised the victim that the fake account the victim’s ex-boyfriend had created in her name would be taken down, but the employee did not follow through with the promise. 3
How can I bring a lawsuit without drawing even more attention to myself?
When someone posts images of the most intimate, personal, or painful moments of your life online, you may be hesitant to seek justice because doing so could bring further publicity to those images or link your true name or other personally identifiable information with those images online. Court records are publicly available documents, and many courts publish their records online, so bringing a lawsuit about such a sensitive subject may link your name with the images in the public record forever.
While there is no way to guarantee that your name and identifiable information will not be linked with the images, there are some steps that you can take to reduce the risk of that happening. One such option for striking a balance between seeking justice and maintaining privacy is to file a lawsuit under a pseudonym.