After a breakup, raw feelings can set off a desire for revenge. Some jilted lovers have taken to posting intimate pictures of a former partner on the Internet. It's a phenomenon known as "revenge porn," and on Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making it a crime.
The new law is a victory to Holly Jacobs, who was a victim of revenge porn. Jacobs went through what sounds like a typical boy-meets-girl story of falling in and out of love. The first year of the relationship, Jacobs and her partner lived in the same city, but she left to go to graduate school in Miami.
Jacobs says they tried to keep the relationship going. "We exchanged intimate photos and had webcam sessions," she says, "just to keep the passion in our relationship alive."
Unfortunately, the distance proved to be too difficult on the couple.
"We were fighting a lot and we would break up and we would get back together," she says. "Eventually it just came to the point where we realized that neither one of us were really happy and we would be better going our separate ways."
Jacobs thought that was it, but she says that about a month after the breakup, she got word that her profile picture on Facebook had been switched to one of her nude. She says it didn't stop there.
"Every six months after that, nude photos of me would pop up on porn sites," she says.
Nude photos of her also showed up on something called revenge porn websites — a growing phenomenon. Basically the sites are where a jilted lover can post nude photos and personal information about an ex.
Jacobs says her ex posted where she worked, her boss's name and email address, and information about her co-workers. Eventually Jacobs left her job because she was afraid of being physically stalked.
Jacobs says the worst part was telling her parents. She did try to get help from the police and says she went to two stations in Miami.
"Both of them turned me down on account that I was over 18 when the pictures were taken or I had given him the pictures," she says. "So technically they were his property and he could do whatever he wants with them."
Jacobs actually changed her name so that the pictures didn't pop up when someone searched for her online. Eventually she received legal help after a visit to a U.S. senator's office. In her case, her ex had been involved in so much activity targeted at her that he is being prosecuted under a cyberstalking law.
Jacobs has gone on to found an organization to help victims of revenge porn, and she's heard from thousands of women.
"Some of these perpetrators just post a picture once and that's all it takes," Jacobs says. "All the users all across the world can download that photo and share it."
Jacobs and her organization — The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative — have found sympathy among some lawmakers. This week, California became the first state to pass a law directly targeted at revenge porn.
Law Not Without Critics
The California law makes it illegal to distribute private images with the intent to harass or annoy. But First Amendment advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard, think the law could clamp down on speech the public needs to know.
Hermes points to the case of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who denied sharing more lewd pictures of himself when he ran for New York City mayor. But he was lying.
"The person who leaks information that the public needs to know about may have a malicious intent," Hermes says, "but it doesn't change the public's interest."
The California law also has critics among advocates for victims of revenge porn, such as Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
"The first problem is that the way that it's written suggests that people who take pictures of themselves would not be protected by this law, only people who have other people take pictures of them," Franks says.
For example, in the case of Jacobs, she took many of the pictures herself. Franks thinks a New Jersey law that wasn't targeted specifically at revenge porn might make a better model than California's new law. In New Jersey, it's illegal to distribute graphic images of someone without his or her consent.
Anthony Cannella, the California state senator who authored the new law, is open to improving it. "I think this is a great first step," he says. "But we need to do more."
Cannella would like to see Congress take up the issue.