Revenge Porn: Laws & Penalties

Many states have criminalized revenge porn, and some allow civil remedies, as well.

By , Attorney | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

Revenge porn, also known as nonconsensual pornography (NCP), is a serious form of harassment that involves posting or distributing sexually explicit images of another without their permission. The victims are overwhelmingly female, and the damage done to their reputations and well-being can be enormous.

This article looks at laws that target revenge porn, explains the related criminal statutes that might apply, and examines civil remedies that are sometimes available.

What Is Nonconsensual Pornography or "Revenge Porn"?

Revenge porn refers to the distribution, usually online, of sexually explicit images without consent by the person depicted in the image. It doesn't matter if the person initially consented to be in the image or even took the image. The crime occurs when the defendant posts the images online or distributes them without the other's consent. In some cases, a hacker steals the image from someone's device or network and posts them on a porn website without consent.

Some defendants post or distribute these images with purposes of revenge in mind (say the disgruntled ex), but not all. As noted above, some steal the photos and post them. These hackers may hope to extort the victim and get them to pay money to take down the photos. Others do it to bully or harass a victim rather than to exact revenge.

Is Revenge Porn a Crime?

Many states have criminalized nonconsensual or revenge porn. Some created new laws that specifically address revenge porn, while others added provisions to existing crimes to cover these acts. States that enacted new laws typically refer to the crime as unlawful or nonconsensual dissemination of private, intimate, or sexual images. Existing crimes might include harassment, stalking, cyberstalking, online harassment, invasion of privacy, or voyeurism.

While all the states define and penalize revenge porn differently, most make it a crime to:

  • publish, post, or distribute a sexually explicit image of another person
  • without that person's consent, and
  • with the intent of harassing, annoying, or intimidating that person.

Most states penalize these offenses as misdemeanors, which carry the possibility of jail time and fines. Many also provide felony penalties if the defendant is a repeat offender or the crime involves making threats, posting on a porn site, or intending to profit from it.

Depending on the conduct, revenge porn could also fall under crimes such as blackmail, extortion, or cyber exploitation.

Revenge Porn Involving Minors Younger Than 18

Revenge porn prosecutions typically involve adult victims. When revenge porn involves sharing any nude or sexual images of children under the age of 18, the crime is considered child pornography. People who share such images can expect to be prosecuted, sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and ordered to register as sex offenders.

Civil Remedies for Victims of Revenge Porn

In addition to criminal penalties, several states provide civil remedies for victims. State laws vary, but a victim might be able to recover monetary damages (for reputational or emotional harm), statutory damages (a set amount for each violation), damages equal to the defendant's financial gain in posting the image, punitive damages (to penalize the defendant), and attorneys' fees and costs.

In addition, the law may authorize injunctive relief—meaning the court can order the defendant to take down the website, destroy images, and refrain from causing future harm.

Getting Help for Victims

Victims of revenge porn report being harassed and stalked by people who have seen their images online, and some women have lost their jobs or experienced depression. However, people have succeeded in getting their private images removed from websites (although this part can be challenging, given how easy it is for photos to appear on other sites). Information on how to do this and other steps to take if you are a victim of revenge porn can be found online at www.cybercivilrights.org.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you're charged with a crime tied to revenge porn, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney in your state. An attorney can tell you how your case is likely to be treated and what you can do to protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome.

If you are a victim of revenge porn, you can report the offense to the police. You may also wish to talk to a civil attorney who can help you get the photos removed from the internet and possibly take other legal action. California's Attorney General, for example, has a webpage devoted to cyber exploitation.

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