Revenge porn: The price of trust in an online world

After the high-profile suicides of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, Canadians on both coasts have learned the hard way that cyber bullying is a virulent issue that, at its worst, can end lives.

In both Todd and Parsons’ cases, explicit pictures of the girls were posted online, which led to bullying at school and through social media.

This despair is something that Hollie Toups knows all too well. Toups, a 33-year-old from Orange, Texas, is a victim of “revenge porn”.

Hollie Toups, victim of revenge porn, is leading a lawsuit against revenge porn site TeXXXan.com and its owners.

Hollie Toups, victim of revenge porn, is leading a lawsuit against revenge porn site TeXXXan.com and its owners.

Toups describes revenge porn as a mix of cyber bullying and virtual rape. In some cases, a jilted ex-boyfriend or someone with an axe to grind posts naked pictures of a female victim on revenge porn sites, such as TeXXXan.com. The pictures become available online, for consumption by anyone with access to Google.

Though the intimate photos that end up on sites such as TeXXXan are usually taken during a relationship, they are publicized after the affair ends. In other cases, pictures are lifted from hacked hard drives. The photos are posted to publicly shame the female victim – and it is effective in achieving that goal.

Toups recounts being shocked, panicked, and utterly distraught when a friend informed her that naked images of her were plastered all over TeXXXan.

“I essentially felt my life was over. My dreams were to become a U.S. Marshal or work for the government. After discovering my photos on a revenge porn site, which then in turn had my nude photos showing up in a Google search of my name … I knew those dreams were over,” she said.

TeXXXan, hosted by Internet domain registrar GoDaddy, allowed users to post pertinent information such as name, address, and phone number along with the explicit pictures, making victims easily identifiable and accessible.

Now, TeXXXan has “gone dark” according to reports, and its 24-year-old owners Hunter Taylor and Austin Ponthieu are embroiled in a class-action lawsuit.

As one of over 20 plaintiffs with claims against the site and its owners, Toups was astounded to find that Taylor and Ponthieu live close to her.

“It is a small town. The fact that there are 20 of us that are victims – it’s totally affected the town in a huge way. The guys who ran the website are also from here. … The website owners have said, ‘It’s just a job, [we’re] just giving people an outlet.’ But it’s almost become, I guess, like a form of abuse,” Toups explained.

Her investigator says that one of the most frightening aspects of revenge porn is that anyone – including pedophiles and sex addicts – can use the photos for self-gratification.

“In some cases, girls have been stalked by these men, while others have lost their jobs, and a couple of have even attempted or thought about suicide,” Caroline Klein Gear, of Klein Investigations and Consulting in Nederland, Texas, told The Link.

Perhaps what makes revenge porn such a challenge for victims is that once the pictures go viral, they can be saved to personal hard drives. A Google search years from now may turn up photos, making finding and erasing them a perpetual task. Victims feel as though there is no way to stop the pictures from circulating.

In addition to feeling humiliated by the photos, Toups has had to cope with an influx of online propositions from strangers using the posted information to contact her. Within her community, she is the subject of gossip and derogatory slurs.

“I felt like I was walking around in everyday life naked and exposed. Many people were very judgmental and harsh about it. I stopped going out in public,” she said, after explaining that some in her town were quick to assign blame.

Since launching the lawsuit, Toups says her investigator knows the pictures were obtained through her computer and phone. It is unclear if they were posted by an ex-boyfriend, or if her hard drive was ransacked. But Toups has learned a valuable lesson about the perils of social media.

“It’s changed the way I communicate with people. If I have something private to say, I don’t text it,” she said.

Toups also says that the issue has divided the community: “There are a lot of people who victim-blame, and who do think it’s our fault.”

After going through bouts of depression, Toups began reaching out to women who had been victimized by TeXXXan. Since coming forward with her story, Toups says that she has found support by sharing her experience with others coping with the fallout of revenge porn.

What is clear is that technology has enabled an immediacy of communication, but also unprecedented privacy risks. Unfortunately, despite a swell in cyber issues like revenge porn and online bullying that have real-life consequences, there are few laws in the United States and Canada to adequately punish those who misuse virtual communication venues.

By acknowledging a humiliating situation, Toups is bravely putting a face to what is so far uncharted legal territory. She is also presenting her experience with revenge porn as a lesson for others who may mistakenly trust the security of social media platforms, text messages, and email.

Perhaps because of Hollie Toups, other women and young girls will think more seriously about the potential consequences of hitting send.