When I was Attorney General for California, I worked with several women who bravely came forward to report crimes of cyber exploitation. Together, we were among the first in the nation to prosecute those who shared victims’ private images and information online without consent.
The more common description for this atrocity is “revenge porn,” but I don’t think that’s an accurate term. The word “revenge” suggests that there is a legitimate reason to lash out, and the term “porn” suggests the victim agreed to public distribution — neither of which is true.
Worse yet, it invites judgment and questions about the morals of these women, instead of recognizing them as victims.
What’s really happening here is cyber exploitation. In California and a handful of other states across the country, there are strong laws in place to protect the victims and punish the perpetrators. But as of right now, cyber exploitation is not a federal crime.
That’s why I worked with my colleagues in the Senate to introduce bipartisan legislation to address cyber exploitation on the federal level with the ENOUGH (Ending Nonconsensual Online User Graphic Harassment) Act.
What adults do in a consensual relationship is their business and only their business. But when it crosses this boundary to where it’s used as a tool to denigrate, humiliate, and degrade — that’s not something that we’re going to accept.
Part of what makes cyber exploitation so devastating is the shame — knowing that tens, if not hundreds or thousands of people, can see that image of you forever — but it’s so much more than that. Victims walk around not knowing who has seen these photographs and how they are being judged.
In California, I had a case where the perpetrator posted personal information along with the private images — sharing the victims’ names, addresses, and even linking to their Facebook profiles. Users on the website were able to comment on the pictures and often threatened the victims with rape and assault.
Under California law, we were able to put that coward away — he is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence. But this kind of justice is still so rare, and in some states, impossible. Our nation’s patchwork of state ordinances and laws on cyber exploitation leave too many loopholes to effectively protect victims.
The ENOUGH Act confronts these issues by establishing federal criminal liability for those who share private, explicit images without consent, and ensuring that the Department of Justice has an appropriate and effective tool to address these serious privacy violations.
I was honored to fight alongside some of the bravest women I’ve ever met during my time working on these cases. In the face of unthinkable pain and trauma, they bravely stepped forward to share their stories so that we might hold these perpetrators accountable.
A promising graduate student applied for jobs but didn’t receive offers, later learning it was because the prospective employer had gone online and seen the private images. A daycare teacher worried for the safety of her students as well as herself, after her resume was posted online with intimate pictures. A 17-year-old was wrongly blamed for being a victim of this horrific crime by her family. Her mother beat her and kicked her out of the family home.
I remain inspired by these women and so many others, including quite a few of you reading this now. If you are a victim of cyber exploitation, I want you to know that as isolating as these experiences may feel, you aren’t ever alone in this. We’re with you in this fight, and we won’t give up until we achieve justice.
I’ll keep you updated on our next steps in this fight. Thank you for everything.
U.S. Senator, California