The Civil Body Part 2: Doing Digital Dirty
Part 2 in a series explicitly about sex and death. Some readers may find it offensive.
After some contesting in courts, Texas managed to pass Penal Code 21.16, the Unlawful Disclosure or Promotion of Intimate Visual Material, making what is commonly known as “Revenge Porn” a state jail felony.
Revenge Porn is a bit of a misnomer, as not every person posts these things as a vendetta; some people are just selfish perverts.
Prior to the enactment of this law, I worked for a local legal practice that was representing a man in a suit against his employer over a pension issue. The man seemed quite normal, and unfortunately, normal men often exploit women.
During his civil matter, he became subject to a criminal case, charged with “Online Impersonation," the mechanism by which to prosecute Revenge Porn prior to 21.16. The statute makes no mention of nudity or sex acts, as its scope pertains to the intent, not the subject, of the potentially humiliating online materials.
The offended party eventually decided to drop her case, so I was not afforded the opportunity to see the process truly unravel. Instead, I became fascinated with the disconnect that we had legal recourse for our pride, but not our bodies.
A law practice is nothing if not a tremendous mountain of binders. Filled with infinite sheets of motions, petitions and nearly indecipherable attorney’s notes, I poured over every detail of this case as a function of my job, and as a point of personal curiosity and self-reflection. I was recently divorced, in need of something besides my messy life to focus on.
He loved to take pictures, to film me. He coaxed it out of me, made me feel beautiful even with a history of dysmorphia and disordered eating. It was a sacred release, to be unconcerned about the self-harm scars, the dips in my hips, or the broadness of my shoulders. I would go on to pay for this fleeting freedom with a pound of flesh.
He immediately distributed these images to mutual friends without my consent or knowledge, attempting to entice my female friends into sending their own pictures. He framed it as if it was all in jest or fun, as if we were always so free with our bodies. I am unsure if it ever worked, but he did have an uncanny ability to manipulate people.
I don't remember being particularly upset at the time, just disappointed and defeated. I was deeply depressed, frazzled, and almost perpetually ill. This betrayal seemed the least of my worries. I never sought justice for the abasement of my body and trust, and now he’s dead, thereby receiving my forgiveness by default. I know nude, sexual images of me are out there, somewhere, hopefully becoming dust in the rotting memory of a retired phone. No one has told me they still have possession of my naked figure. I think I may have been spared a greater infamy.
Not so lucky is a dear friend of mine who, during a bender at a festival, agreed to pose for nude photos. I’ve never been to the folk festival; it appears filthy and unseemly to me, although my friends of a more bohemian inclination seem to treasure it. She posed, filled with the spirit of community, and with the understanding they’d be used for a specific, niche and underground publication. She did not consider, or did not have the presence of mind to care, that one of her unflattering photos would go on to be the butt of many jokes on 4Chan.
A congregation was called amongst her friends, and we decided we were morally obligated to tell her. The hurt in her voice when she heard the news - with grace, acceptance and dignity - still haunts me. Third party distributors of pornographic images are generally protected from recourse by free speech law. There’s nothing to be done.
Recently, Revenge Porn has become even less intimate than 4Chan and darkly partisan. Nude images of California Representative Katie Hill are now widespread on the internet. You can see them uncensored with minimal digging. If they hadn’t damned her career, the photos could be seen a charming, silly, and beautifully intimate.
In one image, Hill sits nude, on a comfortable looking chair, brushing her female lover’s long black hair. The lover is also nude, sitting on the ground, between Katie’s legs. In another image Katie is laughing, holding out an enormous bong, and we see a tiny tattoo on her bikini line. She is so very real.
Far right wing websites foamed at the mouth, spreading dishonest speculations about these images of their political opponent. Putting aside her questionable actions in taking on her lover, an employee, while married, the gleeful malice that accompanied the spread of these images is dark, exploitative, and downright gross.
I haven’t really asked, but I am extremely confident that most of my female friends have sent a nude to a partner or consented to have a sexually explicit picture taken. It’s culturally par-for-the-course amongst my contemporaries. It begs the question: will any millennial besides the most prudish among us ever hold on to an office? I hope the entire milieu become blasé, meaningless, and mere noise caught in the infinity of information streamed into our eyeballs.
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