This month Kevin Bollaert of San Diego, California, was convicted of multiple counts of extortion and identity theft and given 18 years in prison for running a “revenge porn” website on which sexual images of women were posted without their consent.

Bollaert also had another website to charge women to remove the sexual images of themselves posted by vindictive partners. The attorney general’s office reported that he earned about $30,000 from this operation.

ADVERTISEMENT
This man profited from abetting the pernicious actions of men who were angry at a former lover or spouse – actions that were deliberate, and designed to degrade and humiliate the target. And then he profited from the women’s fear and humiliation.

Sixteen states, such as Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas have passed laws intended to restrict revenge porn, and 22 others, such as Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, New York, Oregon have legislation pending. Infractions are classified as misdemeanors in some states and felonies in others.

Teens also engage in this behavior, although it is usually called “sexting” or “cyberbullying.” Several states are seeking to treat sexting among minors differently from other sex offenses.

These approaches may avoid the harsh penalties associated with sex offenses, but do not address the issue of how to help young targets heal from their experience, and how to change the thinking of the perpetrators.

For example, in Illinois, a minor found guilty of sexting can be sentenced as a child in need of supervision, rather than as a sex offender. The child in need of supervision can be required to obtain counseling or to perform community service. 

In Vermont, a minor found guilty of sexting can be placed in a diversion program that avoids criminal prosecution. If the individual is successful in the diversion program, the case is dropped.  

The impact of revenge porn or cyberbullying via sexting on a target can be overwhelming especially for younger women and minors.   

Jesse Logan, 18-years-old, sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend. When the relationship ended, he sent the photos to other girls at their high school, who then subjected Jesse to “slut shaming,” harassing her relentlessly and calling her disparaging names.  Jesse bravely told her story on a Cincinnati television interview (her image and voice were distorted), hoping to spare other young girls her fate. Two months later, on July 3, 2008, she hanged herself. 

Hope Witsell was not quite 14 years old when she hanged herself on September 12, 2009. In the last few weeks of a school year, she had been taunted at school about the topless photo she sent to a boy in her school she considered her boyfriend. A female classmate managed to get the photo and sent it to large number of students at schools in the area.  

School officials suspended Hope for the first week of the next school year. During the summer, the vulnerable teen yielded to pressure from older boys at an FFA convention to send a photo of her breasts. The school then determined that Hope would not be allowed to serve as an FFA adviser, something she was extremely excited about.  And she killed herself. 

A case in point is that of Phillip Alpert. In 2008, the young man from Florida distributed a naked photo of his girlfriend of over two years to people in her contact list after than had an argument.  Alpert had just turned 18, and his girlfriend was 16. Alpert was prosecuted in Florida for sending child pornography and was sentence to five years of probation, and was required to register as a sex offender. 

Some people have expressed concerns that in the case of youth, the laws are too harsh. Teens have always experimented with sexuality, they say, and technology has simply provided another means to do so. Of course, in the past, adolescent sexual experimentation was not disseminated to untold numbers of unknown others. 

Whether a minor or an adult, the laws need to distinguish the intent of the person who sends an explicit image.  

In the case of Kevin Bollaert, he simply profited from abetting others’ pernicious behavior and increasing the degree of humiliation the women experienced.  But the men who posted those pictures, and those who commented on them, were not prosecuted.  And the women were not offered any avenues to healing. One of the women who testified in Bollaert’s trial said “my mental state is completely broken.” Another described the downward spiral into homelessness. 

As legislators wrestle with this issue, they need to ensure that women who are harmed are provided with options to recover (such as specialized counseling), at no cost to themselves, and that perpetrators receive more than just punishment, but counseling and education to develop an way to make amends to those they have harmed.  

Bauman, Ph.D. is a professor and director of the Counseling master’s degree program at the University of Arizona, and the coordinator of the school counseling specialization.  She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project and a former school counselor.