Texas lawmakers aim to crack down on 'revenge porn'

AUSTIN, Texas – In the seedy underbelly of the internet, revenge is personal.

Websites promoting explicit photos posted by jilted lovers can turn a handy profit, especially when the photos are of superstar actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence. But what happens when the photos are of you?

"If you could write down every negative emotion that exists it was all at once," said Hollie Toups, who saw her photos on a now-defunct "revenge porn" site in 2012. "It's like I couldn't hear, I couldn't speak, I couldn't feel and my hands were just hovering over the computer in shock, mostly. And there were so many questions, like how, why. And that was the big question. Why?"

Toups says she was shocked to see not only her photos, but her name, city, workplace and social media contact information as well. Photos of other women were accompanied by more information – such as car make and model and license plate numbers. After contacting the website's operators, Toups says she was told the photos would be taken down for a $500 charge.

Rather than pay the fee, Toups initiated a lawsuit. In the meantime, job interviews with potential employers seemed unusually awkward and unsuccessful. After running her name through the search engine Google, her profile on the revenge porn website was the first hit.

"They 'Googled' my name and then they were like, 'Oh so she's a porn star,' but I wasn't," said Toups. Yet the fear generated by the website and its users was far worse.

"They were leaving comments about things that they wanted to do to you if they found you, and it was very easy for them to find you at this point," said Toups, who was shocked to find the site had added a map indicating where she lived after she threatened legal action. The photos were 10 years old, and Toups still isn't sure how they got there.

"They were meant to remain private," said Toups. "They were sent from a flip phone."

"This is violence against women, violence against individuals posting their pictures without consent, and so we all want to find a solution," state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, told KVUE.

Gonzalez says the overwhelming majority of revenge porn victims are women, and the images are used to coerce, humiliate and abuse them. At a press conference Wednesday, Gonzalez and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, announced House Bill 496 and companion Senate Bill 1135 to crack down on revenge porn.

"We recognize it as an act of power and control," Chris Kaiser, an attorney for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said Wednesday.

"This isn't just something that happens to the Jennifer Lawrences of the world. This happens to Hollie Toups and everyone," added Harris County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood. "Nothing is more frustrating than us talking to victims and saying I'm sorry I would love to be able to do something about this but we do not have a law or a tool for me to go after someone who has done this."

The legislation would be subject revenge porn websites to a civil penalty and those who share intimate images without the permission of the subject to a Class A misdemeanor. A hearing on Gonzalez' bill Wednesday afternoon saw witnesses express both support and concerns over the legislation.

"This statute creates an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech," testified Houston First Amendment lawyer Mark Bennett. Vice president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, Bennett warned that while noble in its aim, the ban on content would amount to a violation of free speech.

"There are possibly ways to write criminalization statutes that would not be unconstitutional," suggested Bennett. "This is not it."

Toups ultimately succeeded not only in having her photos removed, but the site that posted them was shut down amid ongoing litigation. She says some victims have been driven to depression and suicide, and speaking out is particularly difficult.

"You do get the questions like, 'Why would you even do it in the beginning?'"

Toups contends that discussing whether it's wise to take compromising photos in the first place doesn't solve the problem for those who have found themselves victims of misplaced trust or coercion.

"That is not really an appropriate answer in the aftermath," said Toups. "All these victims are suffering, and why can't we tell the criminals why don't you just not be a criminal. Why don't you just not be a horrible person that lives in your mom's basement and post photos of girls to hurt them."


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment