Revenge Porn

Jilted lovers are posting sex tapes on the Web—and their exes want justice.

Jared Wolny, 24, and Tessa Komer, 21, started dating in July 2007 while attending the University of Georgia. The relationship was a whirlwind: Soon after discovering each other on Facebook and hooking up, they moved in together and, according to Wolny, bought a Great Dane and exchanged promise rings. But their union unraveled just as quickly as it had begun, and they broke up in January. Then things really went wrong.

Police say that after Komer started dating another man in the spring, Wolny hacked into her MySpace account and, posing as her, sent bogus messages to her new boyfriend. Wolny also allegedly installed spyware on Komer's computer to monitor her Web use and eavesdrop on her online conversations, and stole the IDs and passwords she used to access certain websites. But the alleged act that precipitated the situation and may turn out to be Wolny's undoing was his vengeful posting of nude photos of Komer on his Facebook page.

Wolny was arrested in May, soon after the pictures appeared online, and charged with 32 misdemeanors, including 14 counts of computer theft, 14 counts of computer invasion of privacy, and an identity-fraud charge for his alleged impersonation of Komer on MySpace. Currently free on $6,400 bond, Wolny is awaiting trial. "I don't want to go to jail just because we had a bad breakup," he told one reporter.

The first recorded use of the word revenge occurred in 1375, and porn came into common parlance in 1962, as shorthand for pornography. But the combination of the words is very much of the moment. Indeed, revenge porn popped up on Urban Dictionary as recently as October 2007, defined as "homemade porn uploaded by an ex-girlfriend or (usually) ex-boyfriend after particularly vicious breakup as a means of humiliating the ex."

While the act can lead to criminal charges, there's some debate over whether revenge porn, per se, ought to be codified as a crime. What's clear, however, is that it is part of the digital-age Zeitgeist. The ease of recording and transmitting sexually explicit images, the rise of Internet exhibitionism, and the ubiquity of a Girls Gone Wild mentality have created the contemporary version of writing "Jenny gives good head" on the bathroom wall.

The celebrity sex tape also factors into the revenge-porn equation. The release of salacious footage of two well-known figures—or even a rumor that such footage exists—qualifies not only as fodder for the weeklies but also as an acceptable form of self-promotion. The possible sex tape of The Hills castmates Lauren Conrad and Jason Wahler, which the actors deny exists, generated a huge amount of publicity for the show. Similarly, gossip sites went into a state of meltdown when it was rumored that Kevin Federline would go public with a tape of him and Britney Spears (both say there is no such recording) when the couple split. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian's videotaped romp with her former boyfriend, the rapper Ray J, burnished her image as a sexpot.

Like other forms of pornography, revenge porn falls into one of two broad categories: pro and amateur. The professionally produced type usually depicts a guy using a hidden camera to catch his significant other cheating and then exacting revenge by posting the footage online or using it to blackmail the cheater for sex. An entire website, revengeporn.net, is dedicated to the genre; another one, Shoosh Time, a sort of social-networking site heavy on adult content, has material such as a grainy, apparently homemade clip of a woman doing a striptease, with the caption "She loved getting naked for her bf before cheating on him so he decided to send this to us to post!"

Amateur revenge porn, the type that landed Jared Wolny in trouble with the law, is the spontaneous stuff that the professional kind is trying to replicate. Kurtis Potec, 25, director of operations for XTube, one of several porn versions of YouTube, says that when revenge-porn clips are posted to the site—often with the woman's name, phone number, and address—they get a lot of hits.

Potec says he receives two to three revenge-porn complaints a week from both women and men (according to Potec, revenge porn is a growing genre for gay men) who are the subjects of video clips, screen grabs, or cell-phone photos uploaded to XTube. He estimates that the average revenge-porn perpetrator is a 23-to-28-year-old man, though he's seen posts by teenagers and men as old as 50.

The site, which does not prescreen submissions, removes material immediately after a complaint is received, Potec says. "If a posting causes a problem, whether it's child pornography or revenge porn, we clean it up right away," he says.

But not all revenge porn is uploaded. David Feltmeyer, 34, of Chesterfield, Virginia, pleaded no contest in April 2007 to a misdemeanor charge stemming from his making a DVD of him and his girlfriend having sex. Feltmeyer had originally been charged, the month before, with a felony—distribution of obscene material—after he was accused of placing multiple copies of the DVD, with his ex's name and address, on car windshields in Richmond. After men started showing up on the woman's doorstep, evidently mistaking the DVD for a solicitation, Feltmeyer was contacted by the police, who searched his apartment. Soon after, Feltmeyer turned himself in. But because prosecutors were unable to prove that he'd distributed the DVD—Feltmeyer admitted only to making it and sending a copy to his ex—the felony charge didn't stick, and Feltmeyer received a suspended 90-day sentence and 30 hours of community service. "These were just made-up crimes from Bible Belt tight-asses," Feltmeyer said in a recent phone interview. "It was just a practical joke."

It's safe to say that most victims of revenge porn don't think it's funny, regardless of whether they were complicit in producing the material.

James Cory Lanier was a 20-year-old sophomore political-science major at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, when he broke up with his girlfriend last year. Lanier's ex alleges that after the split he threatened to post on the Internet a sex tape they had made unless she had sex with him again. According to her application for an emergency protective order, Lanier threatened that if his ex didn't comply, "things would be really bad" and "get ugly." The woman contacted the police, who charged Lanier with felony blackmail.

The blackmail charge was eventually dismissed; Lanier pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. He now has a restraining order against him and has agreed not to contact his ex. "You have to look at the incident in the context of their relationship," explains Lanier's lawyer, Billy Bock, of Oklahoma City. Bock says he wasn't surprised, considering the nature of the couple's relationship, that they made a sex tape. Nor was he shocked by the idea that some people might use lewd material as leverage for breakup sex. "I don't think either of them realized when they were making that recording and constantly sending and posting messages about sex just how seriously wrong things could go," he says.

Revenge porn is difficult to prosecute because there are no statutes specifically outlawing the practice. So what happens in a revenge-porn case, in effect, is that analog laws are applied to a digital offense. A prime example—in a case that has yet to be resolved—involves Alex Phillips, 17, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and his 16-year-old ex. Police say Phillips posted two images of her on his MySpace page, one a full-frontal nude, the other a close-up of genitalia. Phillips' ex-girlfriend, identified in police reports as HLK, had e-mailed him the photos when they were dating. But after she started seeing another guy, "TF," Phillips turned to the Web. "Yo tell me this bitch deserves this!!!!!!!" he allegedly wrote in a caption accompanying the full-frontal photo. "TF gets my leftover's to [sic] bad she's fucked."

Phillips was contacted by an officer from the Janesville Police Department, who warned the teenager to take down the photos. According to police reports, Phillips decided to leave them on his profile. "Fuck that," he said, according to the same reports. "I am keeping them up."

Alerted to the case, MySpace deleted Phillips' entire page, and on May 28, Phillips pleaded not guilty in La Crosse County Circuit Court to charges of child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child, and defamation. A trial date has yet to be set.

Given the rise in the number of legal cases involving the use of homemade porn to exact revenge, it seems inevitable that new laws will be passed to address the phenomenon. In the meantime, its mere existence serves as a strong cautionary beacon. "The best advice, of course, is to never, ever create sexual photos, videos, e-mails, text messages, or anything else that someone could keep and share in the future," says Michael Fertik, 30, a Harvard Law School grad and the CEO of ReputationDefender, a California-based privacy-management company. "You have to think of revenge porn almost like an STD: something that can only happen because of mixing sex with irresponsibility."

Is making home movies worth the risk? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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